How do I 'control' intrusive thoughts?

This is something that I have heard many times from some clients who have despaired, felt exhausted, and been incapable of seeing a future free from them.


The need to control intrusive thoughts is a normal human impulse. The need to control, manage, and make sense of things internally (within our thoughts) and externally (in the environment) has been with us as human beings from the time of our evolution from the seas and onto land.

I want to change the vocabulary first of all by saying - 'controlling' intrusive thoughts need to change to 'letting the flow' of intrusive thoughts go through to dissipation. And ultimately to irrelevance. This means letting the thought run its course and ensuring that as little of a reaction to it takes place.

The fact is that 'controlling' a thought is impossible. For example, if I was to tell you not to think about 'a red ball' at any cost, what would you be thinking of? I suspect that the trigger of suggesting 'a red ball' would be firing off neuronal impulses in your mind making you focus on just that. So much for control, as they say.

So how should individuals work through intrusive thoughts that may be creating heightened anxiety and at points, making people feel that there is something wrong with them? Acknowledging that is important since there is a direct link between intrusive thoughts and self-worth.

Well, the first thing to say is that a thought is a thought and does not mean reality. Just because you may think it, it does not mean it is going to happen. So, thinking something does not make it real.

Secondly, it is the mental and behavioural associations that are attached to the intrusive thought, that give it weight and meaning. The more an individual reacts to the intrusive thought, the greater the meaning and the weight the individual gives to it. In other words, reacting to intrusive thought provides it with relevance and credibility.

It is these sets of reactions, whether through ruminations or actual behavioural changes that ultimately keep the intrusive alive and recurring. Subsequently, individuals may feel that they are unable to 'control' or manage their thoughts.

So, let me give you an example. An individual may have an intrusive thought that they are going to 'wet' themselves and that people will look at them and they will be embarrassed. To ensure that this does not happen, the individual contracts their urinary sphincter and feels it tightening as a safeguard against any bladder release. Allied with this, feelings of shame may overwhelm the individual, and they may get up and leave the room.

Such actions have created a negative feedback loop for the individual. Avoidance and checking behaviours have now given credibility to the intrusive thought. Ultimately, the answer is - reacting as little as possible to intrusive thoughts and letting the thought go through.

I am aware that this takes time, patience, learning to live with the intrusive thoughts, and ensuring that the intrusive thoughts and ruminations do not 'draw' someone into the thoughts. It is this cyclical 'pull' with weight, meaning, and credibility that draws individuals into the cyclical loop.

This is also why having a counsellor, clinician, or therapist is key to the process. To ensure that they can validate your work and your progress and ensure that you do not blame yourself for days when the intrusive thoughts may draw you into the cycle of ruminations. Ultimately this support is an essential anchor to ensure that you can feel supported.

It is also important to note that intrusive thoughts do not represent you. They don't define you. You are defined by your actions and by your deeds. 

Within this, there is the scope to see yourself for the kind, caring, and empathic person you are.

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

Share this article with a friend
London, SW7
Written by Fiyaz Mughal, OBE FCMI MBACP
London, SW7

Fiyaz Mughal OBE FCMI MBACP has worked for over 25 years in communities and is a qualified therapist. He specialises in conditions such as generalised anxiety, social phobias, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorders), panic disorder and also works with clients to explore impacts of geographical dislocation, faith, identity and intersectionality.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals