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How to manage intrusive thoughts

Undesired thoughts may make you feel anxious, but they are frequent – and there are techniques you can take to deal with them.

It seems to appear out of nowhere – an odd, unsettling notion or image that appears in your head. It might be aggressive or sexual, or it could be a persistent fear of doing something wrong or embarrassing. Whatever the topic, it's usually disturbing and might make you feel worried or ashamed. The more you attempt to drive the notion out of your head, the stronger it becomes.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, six million Americans are estimated to be affected by intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts are sometimes linked to a mental health problem, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which thoughts become so annoying that they inspire recurrent activities or compulsions to avoid them. They're also frequent in post-traumatic stress disorder, which is brought on by a life-threatening or very stressful incident like an accident or a violent attack. Many people who have similar ideas, however, do not have a mental health condition, according to Dr Kerry-Ann Williams, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Stress and worry are common triggers for intrusive thoughts. They might also be a temporary issue caused by biological causes like hormone changes. For example, following the birth of a child, a mother may feel an increase in intrusive thoughts.

Stressful and lonely times are part of life.

According to Dr. Olivera Bogunovic, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, many women have endured severe stress as a result of the pandemic's isolation. Anxiety issues are typical when women go from one period of their lives to the next. She says they may grow more lonely or acquire a dread of ageing or having physical problems. An increase in anxiety and, in some cases, compulsive thinking might occur as a result of this.

While intrusive thoughts might be annoying, they aren't dangerous or indicative of a hidden desire to do the things that come to mind.

According to Dr. Williams, people are often too embarrassed or ashamed to discuss it. A lot of the time, when patients bring it up to me, they'll say things like, 'I'm not crazy, but this strange notion pops into my head,'" she adds. "They may consider harming a family member, such as a child. They're shocked when the notion occurs—'I can't believe that just came into my head.' I shouldn't tell anyone because they might think I'm crazy.

Recognizing intrusive ideas

So, how do you know if you're having trouble with intrusive thoughts? There are a few things to keep an eye out for.

This is an unusual thought for you. An intrusive idea is typically distinct from your regular one. "It may, for example, be very violent," Dr Williams explains.

The notion irritates me. It might be an invasive thought if a thought is bothering you and you want to get it out of your head.

The idea is difficult to control. Intrusive thoughts tend to repeat themselves and refuse to go away.

"The more you think about it, the more worried you become, and the worse your thoughts become," Dr Williams explains. It is preferable to learn to live with intrusive thoughts rather than battling them. When you get these thoughts, attempt the following steps:

1. Recognize the intrusive thought. "Think to yourself, 'that's just an intrusive idea; it's not how I think, it's not what I believe, and it's not what I want to do," Dr Williams suggests.

2. Don't put up a battle with it. Accept any intrusive thoughts that come to mind. "Don't attempt to get rid of it."

3. Don't pass judgment on yourself. It's important to understand that having an odd or unpleasant idea doesn't always mean there's something wrong with you.

When should you seek assistance?

If unpleasant thoughts are beginning to disturb your everyday life, get help from a mental health professional, especially if they are affecting your ability to work or do things you like. Even if intrusive thoughts aren't significantly hurting your life, you can get treatment from a professional.

One technique that has proven to be effective in helping people control intrusive thoughts is cognitive-behavioural therapy. The method may assist you in shifting some of your general thinking patterns, allowing you to better control and reduce the frequency of unpleasant ideas when they do arise.

Intrusive thoughts can also be controlled by treating the underlying issue, such as anxiety, stress, or a trauma background. While it may be beneficial to express your specific ideas, keep in mind that a therapist can still assist you even if you aren't comfortable talking about them in-depth. Dr Bogunovic also advises women to be aware that intrusive thoughts usually respond favourably to therapy.

"Keep in mind that you may not require assistance indefinitely," Dr Williams advises. "It may be a one-time thing."

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