Do intrusive thoughts ever go away? How do you stop it?
We asked experts to help us shed light on these questions.
Inna Leiter, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Director, Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Most often, people deal with intrusive thoughts by avoiding the triggers that bring them on
For example, if someone has chronic anxiety about a specific topic, such as something bad happening to their children, they might cope with anxiety-provoking thoughts by distracting themselves with a coping tool like deep breathing or trying to stay busy doing something that will take their mind off of that topic.
However, for someone with anxiety, those same intrusive thoughts will likely just continue to pop up again and again. Distracting oneself from anxious thoughts may work to provide momentary relief but actually perpetuates those same intrusive thoughts returning long-term.
Counter-intuitively, the most effective approach is to try to have them on purpose over and over again
Imagine watching a scary movie 100 times in a row. No matter how terrifying that movie is, you are naturally going to get bored of that movie and your brain will become desensitized to it. After 100 times of watching it, you probably wouldn’t be able to feel scared of it even if you tried! That is because your brain will have habituated to it.
Anxious thoughts work the same way. If you have them on purpose, over and over and over and over and over (you get the point..), you will habituate to them just like you would to a scary movie.
Of note, this technique should only be done under the care of a licensed mental health provider who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or, more specifically, Exposure and Response Prevention for intrusive thoughts).
Brooke Nicole Smith, Ph.D.
Mindful Eating Expert, New Mindful Eating | Yoga Instructor | Life Coach
The tricky thing about intrusive thoughts is that the more we try to push them out of our minds and not think about them, the more determined they become.
It’s like riding a bike along a nice winding trail, thinking “Don’t hit that tree”. As soon as you start looking at the tree that you’re trying not to hit, you’ll start to steer toward the tree that you’re trying avoid. Intrusive thoughts are the same way.
My two recommendations (and they can be used together) are:
Notice how it feels to be in your body
If you are sitting in a chair (e.g. at a desk, in a restaurant, on the subway), notice the weight of your sit bones on the chair, the soles of your feet pressing into your shoes toward the floor. Roll your shoulders forward, up, back, down, noticing how each movement feels. Sit up tall. Start over.
Notice the physical sensations of breathing. When you inhale, your chest lifts, your diaphragm pulls out and down, and the gaps between your ribs expand. When you exhale, all those motions reverse. You don’t have to change the way you’re breathing, just notice it.
Get curious about the intrusive thought
Provided your intrusive thoughts aren’t too disturbing (in which case, get help!), start to query your thoughts. Greet the intrusive thought, welcome it back, ask yourself why the thought is here? What is the message? What is it trying to tell you?
Don’t try to resist the intrusive thoughts – this will usually make them worse.
Instead, think of the intrusive thoughts as a neighbor who you don’t know very well, but you’re curious about. You don’t particularly like or dislike this neighbor – you don’t know them well enough to have an opinion, what they do isn’t really any of your business anyway. You’re just genuinely curious. What are they doing? Why are they coming and going at these hours?
The answers may or may not help you understand where the intrusive thought is coming from. Sometimes the real value to this exercise is just getting comfortable allowing the thought to pass through your mind.
When the thought can come and go, and you don’t react to it, you can get to a point where the intrusive thought just tiptoes through your mind without derailing your day, if it even shows up at all, instead of stampeding through your mind and starting a riot.
Huge disclaimer: If you’re having intrusive thoughts related to trauma, don’t try to work through it alone, seek out the help and support you need.
Terrell L. Strayhorn, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic & Student Affairs & Professor of Urban Education, LeMoyne-Owen College |
Chief Executive Officer, Do Good Work Educational Consulting, LLC
In short, empirical evidence has shown time and time again that the mind is like a mighty machine, constantly working to acquire and process new information, recall memories, analyze problems, and store important input like names, passwords, and so on.
The mind is always on and thinking.
Experts suggest that the mind thinks anywhere between 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day — that’s about 3,000 thoughts per hour. That means most readers are managing about 50 different thoughts while reading this response!
Most thoughts are automatic and require little to no effort on our part.
Thinking is a mental habit. Our mind thinks without us thinking about it. Humans are able to function despite endless thinking, especially when those thoughts are simple, uncomplicated, or relevant to the task at hand.
But we’re all familiar with intrusive thoughts—patterns of mental wandering—that use up our bandwidth, disrupt our focus or distract us from reading a paper, writing a book, playing the piano, or sleeping at night.
Mental noise of this kind can significantly reduce productivity, hijack our abilities, compromise performance, and keep us up in bed. There are several proven techniques for silencing mental noise or stopping intrusive thoughts: concentration, meditation, (re)starting mechanism, and slowing the stream of thoughts.
It takes effort but intentionally drowning out the intrusive thoughts to concentrate more closely on the task at hand works. Meditation is another effective strategy—close your eyes, connect with your thoughts, visualize them and where they’re located in the rooms of your mind.
Now, breathe deeply, relax your muscles, and see yourself moving slowly through to close several doors that are unrelated to what’s before you. You may need a (re)starting mechanism every now and again too.
When a thought intrudes your concentration, catch it, stop it, close your eyes, and then count down from 5 (4, 3, 2, 1) releasing the thought with every number. Now, open your eyes and carry on.
Related: 17 Best Meditation Books
Acknowledge the thought and try to avoid thinking it
What happens if I tell you “Don’t think of an elephant?” You thought of an elephant, didn’t you? Or maybe you thought of the George Lakoff book of the same name. But either way, what you just learned is that telling yourself not to think of something is guaranteed to make you think of it.
The most important thing to know about intrusive thoughts is that the more you try not to think about them, the more persistent they become.
Try this: when the intrusive thought appears, consciously acknowledge it in some way, and then dismiss it. Don’t criticize yourself for having the thought, just gently acknowledge it and set it aside.
I find visualization helps. I close my eyes, imagine words floating in the air, and imagine myself gently pushing them aside. You might imagine that the intrusive thought is like a book that you found out of place, and you acknowledge and reshelve it. Or, maybe the thought appears as an object that you can pick up and put someplace else.
At first, it might feel like you have to do this a lot, but the more you do it, the more you will train your brain to set those thoughts aside.
Emergency Physician | Asst. Professor of Emergency Medicine, Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra-Northwell
Intrusive thoughts are a very common feature of anxiety and depression. They frequently become part of the ruminating process that may become, at times, become incapacitating. Going over and over the same old territory, feeling that one is unable to break the cycle and be rid of the thoughts.
One way of dealing with intrusive thoughts is to gently redirect the attention from the “negative” ones to more “positive” ones
Viewed from one perspective, all thoughts are “intrusive”. Once we think of a thing, it has come to conscious awareness and so has intruded on some baseline “peace”.
Challenge its truthfulness
Another method to interrupt the cycle of self-destructive, self-deprecating thoughts is to challenge their truthfulness. An example is: “I’m a terrible person”. Maybe this occurred after saying no to someone, for whatever reason. Now conjure up in your mind all the good things you have done for yourself and others recently.
Negative thoughts about self are often untrue, or minimally true, and need to be re-adjusted in the contact of known history. One need not be rid of “negative” thoughts, they just need to be defanged.
Learn to let the thoughts pass through your field of attention without holding on to them
It is a method, which I use as a part of the meditation training I have received. Like lightly brushing off a fly that is irritating and getting on to the task at hand.
If not paid attention to, thoughts will not become “solidified”, and they will disappear from awareness. With the gentle practice of redirecting the mind back to what we choose to focus on, we spend less time in the realm of what we don’t want.
The process is almost like watching yourself think (called metacognition). Compassion for self is a critical part of this exercise. You deserve ease.
Robert Jhonson, Ph.D.
Psychologist | Behavior Therapy Specialist, Better Support Service
Even if they seem irrational or dangerous, intrusive thoughts are normal. For example, a passenger flying may see the emergency exit of the plane and see himself opening it mid-flight, or a passenger in a cruise may see somebody else leaning on the veranda and mentally picture himself pushing the person overboard.
Both individuals may feel horrified for having such thoughts, but such thoughts are normal. Everybody has them, and they usually strike at the most inconvenient moments. That’s why they are called intrusive thoughts.
Generally speaking, intrusive thoughts are harmless. Only when they are obsessive, do they become harmful.
Unfortunately, people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or clinical anxiety, often suffer from recurring intrusive thoughts too.
For example, I had a female patient who was a devout catholic, but thoughts of propositioning her priest often came up during confession, which led her to avoid confession altogether. Due to her religious devotion, such avoidance provoked her great grief.
Intrusive thoughts, if not associated with a mental disorder, disappear on their own.
However, when accompanied by OCD, for example, they become recurring and create an urge in the individual to avoid a situation the which those thoughts can come up; like the lady who avoided confession and even church altogether to prevent the thoughts of propositioning the priest.
As a result, people who have intrusive thoughts associated with a mental disorder, always need psychological therapy to eliminate such thoughts.
The goal of the therapy should be to show the patient that a tragedy will not occur when they are placed in the situation associated with such thoughts. In the aforementioned example of the catholic lady, she first started by returning to church and then slowly sitting closer to the confession booth, until the day that she became capable of entering the booth when empty.
Once capable of entering the booth on her own, even if empty, she then began, first to confess, and then little by little, to increase the confession time with the priest.
Intrusive thought will disappear on their own if they are not part of a mental disorder, but when they are, the affected individual should always look for professional help. It’s simple, not possible to cure oneself of such things.
One way to stop intrusive thoughts is to try and realize and remember they are not real
Intrusive thoughts occur for many reasons. One common reason they can occur is that you are not dealing with an emotion or situation. For example, if you are very angry with someone you may have a negative intrusive thought about that person. You may not realize why it is happening, but it is because you are angry and not confronting that anger.
When an intrusive thought occurs you can try and think “What emotion am I trying to hide?” When you are able to pinpoint the emotion, such as anger, you can start dealing with anger and the intrusive thoughts will decrease.
Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, MFT, ATR
Licensed Psychotherapist | Marriage and Family Therapist | Owner, Create Your Life Studio
Part of learning to manage your intrusive thoughts is practicing the art of radically accepting that you have them
Trying valiantly to push the intrusive thoughts away is actually counter-productive. You must see them, look them in the eye, and recognize them for what they are, just thoughts.
Thoughts can be changed. Thoughts are not actions. Just the act of becoming aware and mindful of the fact that you are having an intrusive thought helps you become an observer of the thought rather than a participant.
Observe your own bodily, somatic response the moment you have an unwelcome thought.
Notice what were you just feeling. This trains you to become aware not only of the unwelcome thought but the feeling you had the moments before this unwelcome thought. Noticing that this is merely an unwelcome thought helps you respond rather than react to the thought as though it is real.
Accepting your intrusive thoughts is the secret to dealing with them.
They no longer mean anything to you when you simply acknowledge them and let them go. Don’t try to fight the thought, push it away, hide it, or treat it as real. Don’t try to decipher it. Instead, label it as “an intrusive thought.”
The key to getting rid of intrusive thoughts is to see them as temporary and ephemeral thoughts
See them for what they are. Don’t give them any more importance. Label them as “intrusive thoughts” and watch them drift away, like clouds in your otherwise sunny mind’s sky.
Finding a licensed, trauma-informed psychotherapist to help you improve and learn mindfulness techniques and radical acceptance skills will be of support in your quest to let intrusive thoughts go.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Be aware when it happens and force your mind to focus on something else
Just like any bad habit in life you have to work on changing your mind to get the best results. As people, we are naturally lazy thinkers and allow our thoughts to run freely without thinking.
We have the power to control our thoughts even though many may not think it is possible. I am not saying that intrusive thoughts will not come but it is imperative to consciously be aware of it when it happens and instantly force your mind to focus on something else.
This will take continuous practice to master stopping intrusive thoughts when they occur. However, when you take control of the intrusive thoughts it will decrease and or alleviate the negative effects that present itself.
Sheila Tucker, LAMFT, MA
Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist | Owner, Heart Mind & Soul Counseling
We can’t stop thoughts. That’s what minds do – think. Instead, it’s about our relationship to our thoughts. The goal is in gaining the skills to coexist with our thoughts while also gaining distance from the intrusive thoughts.
Start by acknowledging your thoughts
“I’m having the thought that…” From there, try to notice that your thoughts are single words that are strung together. This collection of words makes up your thought.
Additionally, try a grounding exercise to bring you into the present moment
One of my favorites is grounding through your senses. Name 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can feel (as in touch), 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste.
Again, this doesn’t take away the thought or how you feel about it, instead it gives you space and a little peace. Understand that these thoughts may continue. That’s normal. Also, understand that it takes time and practice. A little self-compassion and self-kindness will go a long way.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
I have done a lot of work with children and in that work, I learned the “stopping thoughts” technique
In this very basic technique, one will practice “stopping” their thoughts simply by saying the word “stop” out loud or in their heads. We practice by asking our client to start singing a song in their head. Randomly the counselor will say “stop” and the client will practice stopping their train of thought mid-song lyric.
Next, the client will practice telling themselves to stop and can continue practicing independently at home on their own. It may sound juvenile, but I have taught the same basic technique to adults struggling with high anxiety and repetitive intrusive thoughts and they have found it very successful.
Michelle Croyle, MA
Psychotherapist | Counselor and Founder, Abundant Freedom and Counseling
Accept your intrusive thoughts
While intrusive thoughts can be incredibly distressing, the natural tendency to fight them can actually make them worse. The reason for this seems to be due to the limbic system and the fight or flight response. When we perceive a threat, we are naturally wired to want to fight it or to run away from it. The problem is that we can’t run from our thoughts, so we often try to fight them.
The more we fight, the more our system tells us there is a threat, and the more the perseverating intrusions continue.
While the content of intrusive thoughts may be the opposite of what a person wants to think about, and often why it causes such distress, if the person afflicted will simply put words to what is happening and accept it, the thoughts may decrease in intensity or frequency. It’s a matter of doing the opposite of what one might naturally do in response.
An example is to say to one’s self, “I am having distressing and intrusive thoughts right now because I feel anxious, and the thoughts themselves make me feel anxious, but these thoughts are nothing but my brain misfiring and sending messages that I don’t want to have right now. I accept that I am having intrusive thoughts and do not like it, but Ido not need to fight them.”
Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, Kern Wellness Counseling
Here a few ways someone can attempt to combat against unwanted intrusive thoughts, but first a short explanation of why these thoughts still stick around:
The “Pink Elephant Trap”
For a moment, I want you to think of a pink elephant. Do you see it? How big is it? I bet you can describe it well. Now, I want you to not think of a pink elephant. So what else are you thinking of? Did it work? In most instances it usually doesn’t, and here’s why.
Regardless if I tell you to think of a pink elephant or not, the thought of the words “pink elephant” still float around in our heads because we’re still using the same words. Same goes for intrusive thoughts. Even if we tell ourself, “Don’t think that you’re stupid,” or “Don’t call yourself that.” We’re still using the same words.
So when you’re stuck with these words then, what is it you can do? Well, this is when this post can become more useful to you.
Create some space
Going back to the principle of the pink elephant, it’s as if these thoughts linger around in the mind and wait for you to become aware of them. So, once you are aware of then, try this.
First, tell yourself the following: “I’m having the thought of being ______ right now.” Then insert what it is you’re thinking. What this does is create space between yourself and this thought. Rather than saying, “I feel stupid,” you could say “I’m having the thought of feeling stupid right now.” It’s not as personal as telling yourself directly that you are such and such. Give it a shot and create some space between you and these thoughts.
The “Car Technique”
Now, this technique comes from the world of mindfulness. In short, mindfulness means to be more aware of the present for the benefit of focusing and calming the mind. So this is where the car technique comes in.
When that intrusive thought comes to mind I want you to picture a long empty road in the middle of the desert. Now imagine a single car driving on that road and place your thought in the passenger seat. Now zoom out until you can see the entire road again and the car driving with that intrusive thought.
All I want you to do now is allow that car to drive right on through minding its own business until it passes and disappears on the long road. With practice, you’ll be able to try this with many intrusive thoughts.
Put your thoughts on trial
This technique is an interesting one and can be practiced anywhere to help remove intrusive thoughts for the moment. Take one of your intrusive thoughts and write it down. And if you can write it down, make sure you practice one thought at a time. For example, let’s say the thought of “I’m always a failure” appears. So let’s put this on a mental trial.
Ask yourself, “Is this thought completely true?” Really, break it down. Is it even possible to “always” fail? Probably not. Name a time when you weren’t a failure, I’m sure you can name a few.
Maybe it’s more true if we were to say something like “there are times when I do fail, but not all the time.” It may seem silly to think this way at first, but perhaps this means you’re not used to this kind of thinking, yet. With practice, you’ll be kinder to yourself, and more truthful.
Certified Mental Health Expert | Family Care Professional, Maple Holistics
Having a positive mantra and be ready to repeat to yourself whenever needed
“I am Free of Sadness” and “I am a warrior, not a worrier” are a couple of examples but you must find one that fits you. You can have a variety of mantras ready for different scenarios.
It is key to have it prepared beforehand, you will not be able to think of a new one on the fly while intrusive thoughts are flooding into your mind. Once you have an intrusive thought repeat your mantra until the intrusive thought has subsided.
At first, it may take a while for the mantra to be able to override the intrusive thought, but the more you do it, the more effective it will become.
Founder, The Intentional Mindset
The noise is normal
The key to championing intrusive thoughts is to first and foremost develop an understanding that the noise of negative thoughts is completely normal. One of the best ways to control these kinds of thoughts is to give yourself permission to acknowledge the thoughts.
Acknowledge the feelings associated with the thoughts
I am a strong advocate for using the art of self-reflective journaling as a means of therapeutic reprieve. I encourage individuals to keep a pocket-size or purse-size journal that is easily accessible throughout your day.
On the first and last page of this journal fill the pages with positive affirmations. At the first instance of your mind getting clouded or dark thoughts creeping in, whip out your journal and acknowledge your thoughts and feelings freely. Feel it, all of it, but only for an amount of time that you allow (I’d say a max of 5 mins) and write freely.
After your timed experience is done (ex. 5 minutes of feeling), pick a page of positive affirmations. Read each affirmation silently, then read it aloud even if it’s quiet. Feed the calm in you and watch your life change.
Recovery Coach | Mentor
Finding our responsibility in creating these intrusive thoughts is the key to letting them go
Intrusive thoughts exist because something about the thought resonates with us. These thoughts may be judgments of others in which case it is often fairly easy to ask ourselves where we are doing the same thing we are judging others for doing.
This will often open a conversation within ourselves that will allow the intrusive thoughts to dissipate because the thoughts are not what they seemed.
Intrusive thoughts can also be sexual in nature – with coworkers or others who we really don’t want to be having these thoughts about. This tends to be in the more addictive range, having cravings for sex, alcohol, or other stimulants is often about escape.
In these situations questioning what it is, we are trying to escape is often as the crux of the situation. Of course, this is not good advice for those who are inactive addiction, but this is perfectly reasonable for those who enjoy a passing fancy.
Intrusive thoughts come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but the key to stopping them, overtime is awareness.
Self-awareness is the path to self-control. Asking yourself “Where am I guilty of doing this?” or “Where in my life does this thought originate?” can be an illuminating start to stopping intrusive thoughts.
Of course, this takes time but with the practice of not avoiding yourself and your feelings, you’ll quickly learn to see that the world is just reflecting your inner ideas externally.
Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern
Research has shown that actively trying to suppress intrusive thoughts often has a boomerang effect. While the frequency of the thought may temporarily subside, the thought is likely to become more central over time creating a tug-of-war situation with the mind. Like a song that gets stuck in your head, the more you try not to think of it, the louder the thought seems to become.
Let yourself experience the thought as it truly is
Pictures and words passing through the mind. Try restating the thought with the phrase “I’m having the thought of” in front of it to help shift your perspective. The goal is not to force the thought away but to open yourself up to experiencing it differently.
At this point, the mind is likely to respond with a thought like “that is impossible,” to which you can kindly thank it for its opinion. Such an approach highlights the important distinction between thoughts and the person who has them.
Self-Empowerment Teacher | Creator, Movie-Based Counseling
First of all, we must examine the obtrusive thought and see what we can do about it if anything
Sometimes, there is a series of actions we can take to improve our situation. Other times, the obtrusive thought is mostly just a bad habit. Laugh about it, be as playful about it as you can. Shaming yourself actually adds more fearful energy to the obtrusive thought, and that’s truly not necessary.
After you’ve laughed about it a little, the best way to stop obtrusive thoughts is to think new thoughts
You just cannot think, I’m not going to think about a pink elephant, right? You have to start leading your thoughts in the direction that you’d like them to go.
Ideally, you’d talk to yourself about what you would love to experience and how much fun it will be to do so. Or perhaps things in your life you already enjoy. But in many cases, people don’t have any access at all to such lovely thoughts because they’re chronic worriers. In that case, my favorite way to get yourself to think about something else is to watch a movie or TV show!
Believe it or not, by watching a different reality, you change your frequency entirely, and from that point, you can jumpstart a whole uplifting creative process.
In fact, I have developed a whole methodology around the concept that we can use our favorite movies and TV shows for our self-discovery and self-actualization. However, people need not spend hours in front of the TV. A simple 15 minutes can completely change your framework.
Don’t make your obtrusive thought too big of a deal! They’ll go away eventually when you orient yourself towards the things that give you