Over the years, I’ve learned a number of words, phrases and definitions that have helped me understand my own mental health. Some of these are connected to mental illness or medicine, while others are connected to mental wellness. In this recurring series, I break down some of the mental health terms I’ve learned over the years. Today, I’ll be breaking down intrusive thoughts: what they are, what they look like and what we can do about them.
What are Intrusive Thoughts?
I spent many years experiencing intrusive thoughts without knowing what they were. Even once I learned about them, I still had trouble understanding them. The definition of intrusive thoughts is quite simple, but dealing with them can feel far more complicated. According to Healthline, intrusive thoughts “are unexpected images or thoughts that seem to pop into your head. They’re often strange or distressing. But these thoughts happen to almost everyone from time to time.”
It’s not always easy to spot intrusive thoughts, or to name them when they happen. In fact, not knowing how to name these sort of thoughts can lead someone to assuming that’s just how their mind works. But intrusive thoughts are often unpleasant and unwanted, and that lack of desire for a thought you may have is a good sign that you’re experiencing an intrusive thought. This can also lead people to feeling ashamed or wanting to control/stop these thoughts, which can lead to spirals and other mental health issues.
What Do Intrusive Thoughts Look Like?
Intrusive thoughts are just that – thoughts. There’s an instinct to believe that every thought we have matters or to worry about what they mean, but they’re just thoughts. Our brains have (on average) around 6,000 thoughts per day and for a lot of people, most of those thoughts are pleasant or just nondescript. But it’s these intrusive thoughts – which can often feel scary because they are dark or violent, or full of worry or doubt – that have a habit of sticking with us. These are the thoughts we can’t let go of if we’re not careful.
When I think about identifying intrusive thoughts, there are two criteria I look out for:
Did this thought feel unwelcome/unwanted? Was I thinking about something else, or anything at all, when this thought popped into my head?
Is the content unpleasant, or something that feels vastly different from what we usually think about?
When I can identify these sort of patterns when it comes to a thought (or a set of thoughts), I can recognize them as intrusive and begin to deal with them.
What Can We Do About It?
The more I write these blog posts, the more I end up stressing that the most important part of understanding any of these terms is awareness. This is especially true with intrusive thoughts. Without knowing what to call these thoughts or recognize when they happen, things can feel scary. We can begin to think that those thoughts are who we are, or that they aren’t intrusive and they just are part of us. But we need to push back against this narrative and build a new one.
Thoughts are just thoughts, and if they aren’t interfering with your daily life or make a person feel like they need to take action, they can be harmless. But it’s important to name and define the various aspects of our mental health, even if we don’t deal with all of them. The mental health stigma grows when we’re afraid or unable to talk about our problems. We still might be afraid of these problems when we name them, but at least we know what we’re up against.