An introductory guide to managing intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that pop into our heads and make us feel uncomfortable or anxious. They can be related to past events, current situations, or future possibilities. Although everyone experiences intrusive thoughts to some degree, they can become problematic when they are persistent and interfere with daily life.


Here is a more in-depth explanation of the six steps to managing intrusive thoughts, along with additional strategies and tools you can use.

Step 1: Identify your triggers

Identifying your triggers is the first step to managing intrusive thoughts. Common triggers include stressful situations, certain people, or specific environments. Other triggers might be related to past trauma or negative experiences. By identifying your triggers, you can begin to develop coping strategies to manage them. Here are some additional tools you can use:

Keep a thought diary

Write down your intrusive thoughts and identify the triggers that lead to them. This can help you recognise patterns and develop coping strategies.

Use exposure therapy

Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing yourself to your triggers in a controlled environment. This can help desensitise you to the trigger and reduce the intensity of your intrusive thoughts.

Step 2: Challenge negative thoughts

Negative thoughts are a common characteristic of intrusive thoughts. They are often irrational and can make you feel anxious or depressed. It's important to challenge these thoughts by examining the evidence for and against them. Here is another additional tool you can use:

Use cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring involves identifying negative or unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with more realistic and helpful alternatives. For example, if you have the thought "I'm not good enough," you can replace it with "I may not be able to do this now, but I have the ability to improve".

Step 3: Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of the present moment without judgment. By practising mindfulness, you can learn to observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them. Here are some additional tools you can use:

Use body scan meditation

Body scan meditation involves focusing on different parts of your body and noticing any sensations. This can help you become more aware of your body and reduce stress and anxiety.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude involves focusing on the things you are thankful for in your life. This can help you shift your focus away from negative thoughts and towards positive ones.

Step 4: Use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) skills

ACT is a type of therapy that focuses on accepting your thoughts and feelings without judgment. One ACT skill that can be helpful for managing intrusive thoughts is called "defusion." Defusion is the process of separating yourself from your thoughts. Here are some additional tools you can use:

Use metaphorical language

Metaphorical language involves describing your thoughts in a way that makes them seem less real or important. For example, you can say "I am not my thoughts, I am the presence that observes them."

Practice values-based living

Values-based living involves identifying your core values and using them as a guide for your thoughts and actions. This can help you live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

Step 5: Use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skills

DBT is a type of therapy that focuses on managing emotions and improving relationships. One DBT skill that can be helpful for managing intrusive thoughts is called "self-soothing." Self-soothing involves doing something that is comforting and calming when you are feeling anxious or stressed. Here are some additional tools you can use:

Use distraction techniques

Distraction techniques involve doing something that takes your mind away from your intrusive thoughts temporarily. This could be watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to music.

Practice self-care

Self-care involves taking care of your physical, emotional, and mental health. This can include things like exercise, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and spending time with loved ones.

Step 6: Seek professional help if necessary

If your intrusive thoughts are interfering with your daily life or causing you significant distress, it may be time to seek professional help. A mental health professional can provide you with additional tools and strategies for managing your intrusive thoughts. Here are some additional tools you can use:

Attend therapy sessions

Therapy can provide you with a safe and supportive environment to explore your intrusive thoughts and develop coping strategies.

Consider medication

In some cases, medication may be necessary to manage intrusive thoughts. Your GP or a psychiatrist can help you to determine if medication is right for you.

In conclusion, managing intrusive thoughts can be challenging, but it is possible with the right tools and strategies. By identifying your triggers, challenging negative thoughts, practising mindfulness, using ACT and DBT skills, and seeking professional help if necessary, you can learn to manage your intrusive thoughts and live a fulfilling life. Remember to be patient and kind to yourself throughout the process, and don't hesitate to reach out for help when you need it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham, West Midlands, B15
Written by Michael Swift, Integrative Psychotherapist | BSc(Hon), MSc, MBACP
Birmingham, West Midlands, B15

Michael is a Senior Integrative Psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of Anxiety Disorders, OCD, Long-Term Health, and Acute Mental Health Conditions. He has over 10 years of experience working in private healthcare organizations and holds advanced dual qualifications in both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Health Psychology.

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