Managing Intrusive Repetitive Thoughts

Most people get them occasionally, but for some they can be constant companions. And like an annoying tune that keeps playing in your head, the more you try to forget it the worse it gets.

Intrusive thoughts come in many forms. Some that I’ve heard recently include:

  • You’re/ I’m doomed

    Unhappy Businessman

  • You’ll / I’ll never be free
  • You’re/ I’m a bad person
  • She hates me
  • You’re/ I’m ugly
  • Who do you think you are?

They are often experienced as something that comes in from outside, as if the sufferer has been invaded or colonised by an alien. Almost always, the person will say they have no control over them. Frequently, these thoughts are hostile and in direct contradiction to how we might like to see ourselves, or how we might like others to see us.

Even though the sufferer knows at some level they are not true, they bring fear and anxiety and panic to those they visit. Often, the fear of the thoughts can become as scary as the thoughts themselves.

The “Why?” questions are generally not helpful, such as “Why is this happening to me?” or “Why can’t I get rid of this problem?” as they reinforce a sense of victimisation at the hands of something outside of ourselves. Instead, ask, “How could I support myself with this right now?” Or “How could I feel better about myself right now?”

Here’s a few ideas about how to deal with them:

  • Thoughts are not facts, don’t give them any more power than you would a movie or a story. That’s what they are, a story we tell ourselves. It’s helpful to acknowledge that the only person who is creating these thoughts is you (even if they are echoing something that someone has said to you in the past.)
  • Outright rejection of them often makes them stronger, so don’t fight them too hard. Try to introduce a lighter, doubting tone towards them that acknowledges that nothing is absolute, eg “Maybe that’s true, or maybe not.” Or, “I’m a bad person, except when I’m not.”
  • Interrupt the pattern. Wear a rubber band on your wrist and each time you have the thought, snap the rubber band to give yourself a sharp little reminder to think about something else. Each time you catch yourself having the thoughts, repeat a supportive mantra to yourself, such as “All is well.” Count backwards from 100, if you lose track of the counting, start again (focusing your mind on a task gives it something else to do.)
  • The thoughts may be a distraction from something we don’t want to look at or acknowledge in ourselves. Ask yourself, “If I weren’t so scared of the thoughts, what else might I be scared of?” For example, sometimes they arise when someone has experienced a loss which they are finding hard to accept.
  • Try to see them differently. Creating an image can often be helpful. If they were a character from a film, a cartoon or storybook, who would they be? Give them a name, and find a different role for them. Paint or draw the image, or find one in a book or on the internet.
  • Start a dialogue with them as if they were a real person, ask them what they need from you, and why they’re hanging around in your life.
  • Journal your thoughts, often this takes the power out of them. Many people seeing them written down find they don’t seem so powerful anymore.
  • If the thought is about another person, for example, you find yourself arguing with them in your head, or saying “She’s just so…” or “It’s all his fault…” or “Why don’t they just…” ask yourself, “If this aspect of this other person were reflecting some aspect of me, what might it be?”

One last thing…Intrusive persistent thoughts are generally ones we’ve had for a while, so they have some momentum. Think of a heavy vehicle, such as a truck or a train, and how hard it is to stop once moving. You may need to retrain the momentum in another direction by practising some of the above tools, and like building any muscle, it may take a while.

If they persist, consult a professional counsellor or therapist. Contact us here.