Five Things to Know About Intrusive Thoughts

Five Things to Know About Intrusive Thoughts. It’s probably safe to say that we’ve all had those unwanted thoughts run through our minds at some point in our lives. Perhaps, it’s something embarrassing that happened to us years ago that we can’t let go of, but can also thankfully laugh about now. Or, maybe it is something like a difficult project we need to finish in the future that we cannot stop fretting about. While sometimes annoying, these types of thoughts are normal. However, when they become intrusive thoughts that disrupt our day-to-day lives, it is probably time to address them professionally.

Everything You Need to Know About Intrusive Thoughts?

According to the clinical journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, “Intrusive thoughts have been defined as unwelcome repetitive thoughts, images or impulses.” Now, there are two important words that embody whether or not these types of intrusive thoughts reach the potential of “disordered,” or symptomatic of a disorder. These words are “unwelcome,” and “repetitive.” 

It is when these intrusive thoughts either exacerbate other symptoms of a mental health disorder or are the defining symptom of a disorder that they become not only disruptive but destructive. Yes, we may all experience intrusive thoughts at some point in our lives, but most of us won’t experience them to a magnitude that can be dangerous to our overall well-being. This is what people experience when intrusive thoughts are a symptom of their mental illness.

What Mental Health Disorders Are Most Associated With Intrusive Thoughts?

According to the previously mentioned journal, while healthy individuals can have intrusive thoughts that are similar in form, “clinical psychologists have empirically investigated the role of unwanted, intrusive thoughts in pathologies, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.” These investigations were specific to these disorders because they share the common symptom of excessive intrusive thoughts.

While the common thread of the aforementioned mental health disorders is anxiety and depression, other mental health disorders also have intrusive thoughts as a symptom. These include other mood disorders like bipolar I and II disorder, and personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder. Beyond mood disorders, another area of mental health that tends to harbor excessive intrusive thoughts is addiction.

Understanding Addiction and Compulsion

People with addiction often struggle with a “compulsion” to use alcohol or substances. These compulsions are a form of intrusive thoughts. These thoughts don’t automatically go away just because an individual is no longer using substances. It takes a lot of recovery work to manage them. 

Other intrusive thoughts related to addiction have to do with what in recovery is known as “the wreckage of the past.” These are thoughts of past mistakes and missteps that happened before entering recovery. 

There are intrusive thoughts that form as resentments. These resentments can fester as intrusive thoughts long after an individual takes a drink or a drug, and can ultimately lead to a relapse. This is why in 12-Step recovery resentment is often referred to as “the number one offender.” Also, this is why intrusive thoughts must be treated as soon as possible.

What Are Some Effective Treatments?

While there are many ways to treat intrusive thoughts, – such as experiential therapies like art and nature immersion therapy, and holistic treatments that involve meditation, breathwork, and mindfulness – the primary form of treatment is psychotherapy.

Evidence-based psychotherapies (“talk therapies”) like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and narrative therapy work to get at the underlying issues that tend to be the root/core causes of intrusive thoughts. Once these underlying issues are uncovered, they can be addressed and ultimately the associated intrusive thoughts can be dissected for what they are; unrealistic cognitive nuisances. 

Managing Intrusive Thoughts In Long-Term Recovery

One way of managing intrusive thoughts in the long term is by continuing a relationship with therapy. While the sessions may not be as often, it can be essential for a successful recovery to check in from time to time.

It is also important to have trusted recovery peers and professionals that can be reached if intrusive thoughts become unmanageable again. These people can help put these intrusive thoughts at bay by breaking down the unrealistic nature of these intrusive thoughts. They can help put things back in perspective and show that intrusive thoughts are generally anxiety-based worries about a past that can’t be altered and a future that hasn’t even happened yet.