Well first off, I want to make it clear that it is not only you who experiences intrusive thoughts. They happen to all of us each and every day. The main difference tends to be the power of thought.
For instance, there is a big difference between a thought that pops into our head as we make a judgment about someone in passing: “Wow, she looks like a real jerk!”, compared to something that stings: “Why bother, no one cares about me anyways.”
Let me start by stating the not-so-obvious. We do not have control over our intrusive thoughts. They come so quickly that when we notice that they are there, the thought has already occurred. People in my practice often ask me how to “get rid of them”. Well, intrusive thoughts will always happen. I’m not saying they have to be as loud or mean, but they will always happen. The intention in therapy is therefore to help us take the power away from intrusive thoughts.
And no, this does not mean to think “happy thoughts” all the time. There is some great follow-up information on why this is not so helpful in a blog post by my colleague Dr. Boksman on why positive thinking is bunk.
Intrusive Thoughts - Are you Feeding Them?
Intrusive thoughts are like leaves blowing by your face. You sometimes notice them, sometimes they go by without you paying any attention to them. But sometimes we try to grab and collect all the leaves going by and put them into a basket - because these leaves are really important and we cannot let them go.
The statement I usually introduce to people around the leaves they want to grab hold of - those intrusive thoughts we want to give power to - is “notice it, label it, lose it”.
An example of this might be that I am lying on the couch and my partner gets up to go to the bathroom. I suddenly get the urge to check his phone - the intrusive thought being something along the lines of: “I wonder if he is cheating on me.” When you use the statement I provided above, it might go something like: “I notice you there, thought, and quite frankly you make me feel like crap. So you can stick around as long as you want but I am going to continue with what I was doing.” If you’re more of a visual person, you might enjoy using the leaf analogy by visualizing the thought on a leaf and pretend that it is floating past you.
Unhelpful and powerful intrusive thoughts are like a little monster on our shoulder. We have the choice to feed it and make it bigger and stronger, and it will stick around because it gets fed here. Or, we can practice not engaging with the monster. Eventually it will just leave because it will have to get its food from somewhere else. Some people even find it empowering to tell the intrusive thoughts to just “eff off”.
How to Deal with Intrusive Thoughts
Here are my general suggestions about beginning the battle with your intrusive thought “monsters”:
Label them for what they are, "intrusive thoughts”.
Keep reminding yourself that these thoughts are automatic, and that you are not calling up intentionally.
When you try to push these thoughts away, you give them more attention than they deserve. Instead, allow the thoughts to sit there without giving them anymore power.
Give yourself permission to sit with the thought - also known as letting it “float”. Practice just letting the time pass without expecting that the thought will go away - once again we are trying not to give power to these thoughts.
Less is more. Less attention = more success.
Give yourself time. There is no urgency. As much as we want to “get rid” of the thought, actively trying to push it away just gives the thought more power.
Accept that the thought will probably come back again.
Be aware of and accept the feelings that are there, but just keep doing what you were doing before the intrusive thought came up.
Try not to:
Give any attention to the thoughts - we do not want to engage with them.
Either actively push away or avoid the thought, because then you unintentionally give it undeserved power.
Analyze the thought or try to discover its “meaning”.
Keep checking whether the steps you are taking are "working" to get rid of the thoughts.
I do not want you to be confused that it is easy to implement these techniques. This is hard. However, if you persist, you should likely notice some results in just a few week’s time. The results will often show as a decrease in how often or how intensely the unwanted intrusive thoughts pop up.
If you want further help in using this technique and in challenging intrusive thoughts, feel free to give us a call us at 613-877-4148 or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to see if any of our therapist’s would be a good fit to help you navigate this.