How To Stop Intrusive Thoughts From Ruining Your Life

Have you ever been doing something completely normal, maybe even something you’ve done a million times before, and all of a sudden your mind is flooded with horrific visions or impulses that you can’t control and that seriously unnerve you? You’re experiencing intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts are unpleasant, unwelcome, and can become totally debilitating if they happen frequently enough. They also happen to be extremely common – a study out of Concordia University estimated that a whopping 94% of people experience them to some degree. And while most people are able to shift their focus and still live happy, healthy lives, others struggle to overcome them.

If this is you, there are a few things that might be helpful when it comes to kicking intrusive thoughts to the curb.

  1. Identify intrusive thoughts when they crop up. This is the first step to finding some relief. It’s important to practice self-awareness so that when one of these thoughts enters your mind, you can immediately recognize it, identify it, and ultimately shut it down. While you can’t prevent these thoughts from entering your mind, you can keep them from having too much power over you by seeing them for what they are.
  2. Embrace mindfulness meditations and breathing exercises. It’s so hard to stay present and grounded in the moment, but working daily to master this skill will serve you well. It keeps you from getting carried away with your intrusive thoughts and also helps alleviate some of the anxiety that tends to come along with them. They also help you develop emotional toughness, which comes in handy in every area of your life.
  3. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you challenge and reframe negative thought patterns. CBT is all about examining negative behaviors and ways of thinking so that you can challenge them and ultimately reshape them into something positive. Many people with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and OCD (which many belief intrusive thoughts to be a symptom of) find relief with CBT. Look for a therapist who has training in this method of therapy — you never know how it might change your life.
  4. Adopt some positive affirmations. Because intrusive thoughts are overwhelmingly negative, balancing them out with positive affirmations can be a major help. Of course, not all affirmations will work for you — and admittedly, some are pretty cringeworthy — but find ones that resonate and that focus on the specific areas in which you’re struggling. There are body image affirmations, self-worth affirmations, and millions of others out there to choose from.
  5. Get a sweat on. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it has to be said that exercise is vital not just for physical health but mental health, as well. Getting your heart rate up and sweating it out, whether by playing sports, hitting the gym, or even g going for a run, releases feel-good endorphins. Those endorphins are proven to help alleviate stress and anxiety and boost your mood.
  6. Allow your creative juices to flow. When intrusive thoughts won’t leave you alone, express your frustrations, fears, and sadness by doing some art. Whether you like painting, writing, sewing, or any other form of creative expression, giving yourself time and space to engage in an artistic practice will bring peace and fulfillment. We could all use a little more of that.
  7. Get out in nature and enjoy some fresh air. It’s all too easy to get caught up in your own head when you’re sitting in your living room with nothing to do. Research has shown that spending time in nature lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and improves your mood. In fact, the benefits are so widespread that even the Japanese practice “shirin yoku,” or forest bathing, in which people go out and sit quietly in nature and simply enjoy a sense of calm and serenity. This can be a major help for those who struggle with intrusive thoughts.
  8. Learn good sleep hygiene. When you’re not well-rested, it’s hard to feel like you can even get out of bed, let alone take on the world. Being sleep-deprived decreases your ability to function well, which means warding off intrusive thoughts — and their effects on your mental and emotional health — becomes much harder. Develop healthy habits around bedtime and ensure your body is getting the regenerative time it needs to operate at its best.
  9. Seek support from your circle. This is literally what they’re there for! Your friends and family members would hate to know that you’re struggling on your own, so don’t be afraid to speak up. Let them know when you’re struggling with unwanted intrusive thoughts and how they’re making you feel. Sometimes simply by expressing these emotions and experiences, you feel so much better. Plus, they may have some valuable tips or feedback that help you put things in perspective.
  10. Establish a structured routine. Keeping your mind and body busy is a very good thing. That’s not to say that you should be running yourself ragged by overfilling your schedule, just that you should have a routine in place that you know well and that makes good use of your time while also providing a distraction so that you don’t become overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts. You’ll begin to find comfort and balance in this routine, and in combination with the other tips on this list, you should be on your way to mastering your thoughts in no time.
Jennifer Still is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience. The managing editor of Bolde, she has bylines in Vanity Fair, Business Insider, The New York Times, Glamour, Bon Appetit, and many more. You can follow her on Twitter @jenniferlstill