This five-minute tip is a game-changer.
Each human has a variety of thoughts throughout the day. Some of them are good, happy patterns of thinking, and some are known as intrusive thoughts, which can be hard to beat. They are thoughts that appear without warning and can be upsetting, disturbing, or worrisome. “Intrusive thoughts are negative, mental images, or impulses that you cannot stop thinking about, and ultimately cause a great deal of stress and anxiety,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University.
These intrusive thoughts can significantly impact one’s overall well-being, adds Amira Johnson, a mental health expert at Berman Psychotherapy, an outpatient psychotherapy practice based in Atlanta, Georgia. For instance, Johnson says, “thoughts such as ‘I’m not good enough,’ and ‘I’m a bad person,’ are intrusive thoughts that can lead to depression and anxiety, and also limit one’s ability to build connections internally with the self, and externally with other people.”
The intensity and forms of intrusive thoughts can also vary. Johnson notes that more powerful intrusive patterns can include thinking like, “I don’t deserve to live” or “The world would be a better place without me,” which can lead to self-harm behaviors. Dr. Hafeez adds that other forms of intrusive thinking can be sexual (envisioning an uncomfortable sexual situation), violent (visualizing hurting yourself or someone else), relationship-related (fixating on aspects of relationships causing anxiety), social (fear of embarrassing yourself), health anxiety, or money and job-related.
Although these thoughts can be alarming, Dr. Hafeez says it is normal to experience them and, for the most part, they are not harmful as long as you recognize that they have no important meaning. To help with this, ahead, Johnson and Dr. Hafeez share tangible tips on how to deal with intrusive thinking, including when it may be beneficial to enlist the help of a mental health professional.
The Mind Is Not The Master
When dealing with intrusive thoughts, Johnson says the first step is understanding that you are the master of your mind, not the other way around. “By recognizing one’s own power and stepping into the role of being the master of one’s own mind, an individual is being present and actively choosing within each moment what works best for their own human experience,” Johnson says. “This allows us to experience life every day from a more grounded and conscious space, distinguishing the difference between a negative, intrusive thought that derives from an old belief system that no longer serves a purpose and a positive one that will allow you to flow through daily life a little easier.”
Identify & Observe Your Thoughts
The next step is to begin developing a mindfulness practice that involves being the observer of your thoughts instead of being consumed by them. “When we fully immerse ourselves within our own thoughts, we send signals to our bodies leading to an emotional reaction that may trigger the feeling of sadness or being overwhelmed when the thoughts are negative,” Johnson says. “By becoming the observer of one’s thoughts, one can make a more conscious effort to determine whether or not these thoughts are valid and serve them and their highest good.”
Furthermore, Dr. Hafeez adds that it’s also important to identify the thought as invasive. Yes, that sounds easy in theory, but she says it can be challenging to convince yourself that the thoughts have no meaning. Dr. Hafeez says the benefit of identifying the thought as invasive is that it makes it easier to stop thinking and worrying about them with time and practice.
Accept The Thought
Along with identifying and observing the intrusive thought, accepting the thought instead of trying to push it away is also an important step. “It is often harder to stop thinking about something when you are focused on driving it away,” Dr. Hafeez says. “Tell yourself it’s OK, and try not to fear the thought.”
Incorporate Positive Thoughts
There’s a reason experts speak so highly of affirmations — they really can work for some. They’re also especially helpful for dealing with intrusive thinking. Johnson suggests incorporating a positive affirmation for every intrusive thought that pops up to harness the power of affirmations. “For instance, when the thought is, ‘I’m not good enough’ arises, one can interrupt that thought rather than allowing it to take over their present experience and affirm themselves with, ‘I was created for a reason. My existence alone shows that I am good enough,’” Johnson shares. “This will help slowly rewire the brain and the subconscious beliefs one has underneath the surface.”
Don’t Let Intrusive Thoughts Influence Your Actions
When an intrusive thought comes up, Dr. Hafeez says you may feel tempted to let the intrusive thought affect your behavior, but that often isn’t the ideal choice for your highest good. For example, she shares, if you avoid getting a mammogram because an intrusive thought focuses on fearing a breast cancer diagnosis, even though you have no family history or symptoms, the best course of action is to face the fear and get the mammogram versus giving power to the intrusive thought and avoiding it.
Seek The Help Of A Professional
All that said, if at any point the intrusive thoughts become severe or begin to interfere with your daily life and overall being, experts recommend seeking professional help. Dr. Hafeez and Johnson say this can include obsessive “checking” behavior (ensuring the stove is turned off, door locked, etc.), avoiding behaviors (not going to the doctor due to health anxiety), or other fears that lead to anxiety, depression, or self-harm. An expert, such as a therapist, can help you better understand the underlying root of the intrusive thoughts and learn coping mechanisms to live more comfortably.