Managing Intrusive Thoughts

Updated: May 1, 2021

Your thoughts affect your perceptions and, therefore, your interpretation of reality. They can be both positive and negative, true or false. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t sometimes have a negative voice inside their head. They are part of life, and these thoughts can prompt you to make smart choices and shifts to grow into a better version of yourself.

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that seem to be stuck in your mind. They can cause distress since the nature of the thought might be upsetting. They may recur frequently, which is disturbing. Intrusive thoughts may be violent or traumatic.

If you turn small things into big things that bother you for days, weeks, or even longer, you're having intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can make you feel sad and anxious. They take the joy out of life and they can take a toll on your physical health.

You can recognize an intrusive thought immediately by how it makes you feel. Sometimes it creates worry or anxiety, and it can trigger a fearful physiological fight-or-flight response. This can manifest in an increased heart rate and blood pressure, or in a surge of adrenaline. You may experience shallow breathing or breathlessness and muscle tension. These responses can make it more difficult for you to control your thoughts effectively.

Types of Negative Intrusive Thoughts

  • The Inner Critic is your abuser who is often a conglomerate of other people’s words. They are thoughts you have created based on your own or other peoples’ expectations. The inner critic gets its juice from low self-esteem, lack of self-acceptance, and lack of self-love, and stems from things you tell yourself as a result of painful experiences such as betrayal or rejection. Your interpretation of these experiences can create self-doubt and self-blame.

  • The Worrier lives in the future—in a world of “what ifs'', and is motivated by fear, which is often irrational and has no basis. Occasionally, the worrier-self is motivated by fear that what happened in the past will happen again.

  • The Reactor appears when someone is triggered by anger, frustration, or pain. These triggers stem from unhealed wounds of the past. An experience that resembles a past wound may set off a reaction. This stimulus can be words or feelings or even sounds and smells. The reactor has poor impulse control and is run by past programming.

  • The Sleep Depriver can arise from a combination of squatters including the inner planner, the re-hasher, and the ruminator, along with the inner critic and the worrier. Self-doubt, low self-esteem, insecurity, and generalized anxiety can trigger intrusive thoughts that lead to sleep deprivation.

Intrusive thoughts are like smoke from a chimney; it’s the heat of something that is burning inside us. That internal fire is made up of our unresolved problems.

The first step to control the focus of our thoughts, feelings, and anguish is to clarify them. How do we clarify them? By making a hierarchy of problems. A scale of concerns that goes from low to high. Start by writing down everything that concerns you. Visualize the chaos inside you, like a brainstorm. Next, make a hierarchy, starting with what you consider small problems and ending with the most paralyzing ones. Once you have a visual order, reflect on each point. Try to think rationally and come up with solutions to each problem.

Ask yourself, how would I like to be thinking right now? This serves as a reminder that you are accountable. Do I want to be stressed and frustrated or at ease? Do I want to be worried about this or that, or feel in control? Then ask yourself, if I were in that state of mind, what thoughts would I be having? What would it feel like to be in control of my thinking?

Roleplay this in your mind, and you’ll get a “state change.” Like tapping an icon, your brain goes where you direct it. When you decide, at that moment, to focus on something positive, you are using your mind and directing your attention as if you are driving that machine we call the brain.

Next, envision yourself as the person who is in control of your thoughts. If you’re trying to banish insecurity and anxiety, envision a version of you who feels supremely confident. Imagine what your day would look like. For instance, if you were stuck in traffic, how would you respond to the delay? What if you were drawn into a confrontation or conflict at work, how would you feel and respond? After the day is done, how do you disconnect? Imagine going through a day like this in a control person, and record how you react to outside stimuli. You will never have complete control over the external stimuli in your day, but you have control over how you react.

Journaling helps with intrusive thoughts. We have thousands of thoughts scrambling around our busy brains every day. We’re assaulted with facts, news, rumors, and other information. Journaling is a highly recommended stress management tool. It allows you to explore the experiences that make you anxious, and helps you calm and clear your mind of intrusive thoughts and release negative feelings. Journaling is much like talking to a trusted friend who listens without judgment. It can serve as a way for you to communicate anything you want to write about—your hopes, dreams, worries, and disappointments. Journal when it feels right for you whether that’s daily, every other day, or weekly. The timing is up to you, however, try to aim for writing consistently.

One of the most studied aspects of journal writing pertains to its healing effects. It promotes problem-solving. When you’re stressed and have a problem, keeping a journal can help you identify what’s causing that stress or anxiety. Once you’ve identified your stressors, you can work on a plan to resolve the problems and reduce your stress.

Journaling can be a bad mood booster. Writing down your feelings, whether they’re positive or negative, can improve your mood and give you a sense of peace and happiness.

Many of us have pain or shame that we haven’t shared with others. Rather than ignoring these emotions, which are harmful to our health, we can disclose them with journaling and in this way confront our traumas. Journaling about traumatic events helps you explore and release the emotions involved. If you’re writing to overcome trauma, don’t feel obligated to write about a specific traumatic event—journal about what feels right at the moment.