Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that can pop up in our minds unannounced, at any time. Their repeated occurrence can make it hard to focus on daily tasks and sustain healthy relationships. They can be a symptom of common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. To address these often-debilitating thoughts and advance the conversation on mental illness, we need to understand how they manifest themselves in each mental health condition.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder can battle impaired concentration, difficulty sleeping and excessive worry when intrusive thoughts pop into their minds. For instance, they may have repeated worrisome thoughts about someone getting hurt or developing an illness. They may worry that they will lose their job.

These thoughts are not based on facts or past results — rather they are irrational and unlikely. However, they can seem very real and probable to someone who ruminates on them. These thoughts can be concerning to loved ones, especially when they start controlling the person’s behaviour.

Rumination can also accompany depression. In this case, when a person has a problem, they may find themselves thinking about it repeatedly and analyzing it for hours. The person may focus more on problems instead of solutions, and this may stop them from undertaking important tasks.

Examples of intrusive thoughts that accompany depression include seeing situations as “black- and-white,” assuming it will end disastrously because of past bad outcomes or viewing small mishaps in a magnified way. Another way in which intrusive thoughts affect people who have depression is that they can sometimes try to predict what someone is thinking, even if there’s no rationale for it. This can be distressing and take a toll on anxiety levels.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
People with OCD may place less trust in their past experiences, leading to greater uncertainty, indecisiveness and explorative behaviours. This mistrust may cause intrusive urges, images or thoughts to arise, resulting in behavioural rituals, also known as compulsions. These can vary from compulsive handwashing, checking locks or switches or the repetitive pulling of hair (trichotillomania) or compulsive skin picking.

Strategies to Reduce Intrusive Thoughts
Managing Stress Levels
Experiencing a high level of stress can cause intrusive thoughts. This is one of the reasons why some of the most successful methods for battling anxiety and intrusive thinking involve curbing stress before it becomes a problem. In order to reduce stress and anxiety, developing emotional awareness is key. Signs that one is stressed include racing heart, experiencing changes in the stomach or bowel and having difficulty concentrating.

Scientifically-proven means of reducing stress include controlled breathing, mindfulness meditation and reframing negative thoughts into more positive ones. Journaling, spending time in nature, yoga, meditation and exercise have all been found to lower stress hormone (cortisol) levels.

Prioritizing Sleep
One of the most important strategies for keeping intrusive thoughts or rumination at bay is to get quality sleep. Research found that sleeping less than eight hours a night is linked to intrusive, repetitive thoughts. The researchers showed participants a series of images that were intended to produce emotional responses. They found that those who had experienced regular sleep disruptions had greater difficulty in shifting their attention away from negative information.

Identify the Root of the Fear
In addition to battling stress and embracing good sleep hygiene, people who have intrusive thoughts can also take a behavioural approach to this issue. One useful strategy is to identify the root causes of the disturbance. By knowing your core values and identifying your boundaries, it becomes easier to identify why specific situations or experiences provoke disgust, fear or other distressing emotions.

For example, you may have experienced loss — perhaps the untimely death of someone you loved. This may begin to affect you negatively in other areas of your life. You may worry or experience intrusive thoughts that someone else close to you may pass suddenly, or in the same way. To help deal with this, you may develop repetitive behaviours that you think are going to solve the problem or stop it from happening.

Rather than suppressing intrusive thoughts, you can take a mindful approach, accepting them without judgement but knowing that they do not define you and despite their strength, you can maintain healthy thinking processes.

Facing Intrusive Thoughts Head-On
You should avoid “running away” from situations that can cause you stress, as this can push you into rumination. Try to understand the vital link between your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Recognize how these affect the way you think or feel about a situation. Also, try to reframe negative thoughts into positive ones.