What are Intrusive Thoughts?

I heard that there was a shortage of social workers in Israel, so I asked my dear Israeli friend and colleague how I could help. By the end of this conversation, we had settled on a webinar on Intrusive Thinking, so I began to read. This has always been and still is my answer to everything: First, to read.

After pulling up many articles, I noticed that I had already written a post on tips for negative thinking, quite recently in fact. So, what I would like to do is refresh some of that and then add to it—a single pivotal point—on what to do and not do about the intrusive thinking.

From the earlier post:

93.6% of participants in one study reported experiencing negative (“intrusive”) thoughts—some more than others for sure. Not all unwanted thoughts are negative. Even something as neutral or even pleasant as what to put on your grocery list, yum, can be unwanted/intrusive if we are trying to take a timed exam or to focus on a task that we have to get done. 

The negative thoughts are not just a distraction, because they can affect our moods and our lives, and are thereby a central feature in mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and eating disorders. But a lot of people are troubled by negative thinking even without a full-blown disorder. Why is that? Why is negative thinking so common? Why do have them at all?

We have them because back in the day when the modern human brain was forming negativity helped us to survive and to thrive. If something pleasant came down the pike and we missed it, like a food opportunity, oh well there will be another. But if it was a predator and we missed it then we would be lunch. So, our ancestors who were best at looking out for danger (negative thinking) were more likely to live to fight and procreate another day, and here we are all wired up with radar for negative people, places, and things to occur, even if they don’t.

That’s the evolutionary psychology point of view in a nutshell on what is called the “negativity bias,” well-known and well-used even by the 2023 World Economic Forum (WEF): 

There is currently a “permacrisis” of disruption on every conceivable front, fueled by volcanic eruptions that have simmered beneath the surface for years. From human-induced trauma such as war, inflation and recession; to cybercrime and real-world malfeasance, they all coalesce into a cacophony of negativity…. Negativity bias is universal. 

Approximately “six million Americans” are affected by intrusive thoughts, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Intrusive thoughts can be defined as: “Any distinct, identifiable cognitive event that is unwanted, unintended, and recurrent. It interrupts the flow of thought, interferes in task performance, is associated with negative affect, and is difficult to control.”

Stress and Trauma can bring them on and make them worse. In fact, a number of authors mentioned how normal it is to experience intrusive thoughts in response to stress and trauma. But they scare people, stressing them even more. Thoughts like jumping off a bridge or hurting someone they love scare people, so a typical response is to try to make them go away. This is not a good idea for a reason that I am about to address.

Why is it Better to Let the Intrusive Thoughts Come?

You know what happens when people say don’t think about elephants. Right, you think about elephants. But do you know why? Here’s why. It’s called Ironic Control Theory, and it is a bit confusing:

A theory of ironic processes of mental control is proposed to account for the intentional and counterintentional effects that result from efforts at self-control of mental states. The theory holds that an attempt to control the mind introduces 2 processes: (a) an operating process that promotes the intended change by searching for mental contents consistent with the intended state and (b) a monitoring process that tests whether the operating process is needed by searching for mental contents inconsistent with the intended state.

The operating process requires greater cognitive capacity and normally has more pronounced cognitive effects than the monitoring process, and the 2 working together thus promote whatever degree of mental control is enjoyed. Under conditions that reduce capacity, however, the monitoring process may supersede the operating process and thus enhance the person’s sensitivity to mental contents that are the ironic opposite of those that are intended.

In other words, if I understand correctly, the harder we try to push the intrusive thoughts away, the more activated the monitoring process searching for the negative thought becomes. The research bears this out, including smokers trying to quit with thought suppression who wound up smoking even more after only one week. Maybe that’s why dieters wind up gaining weight too. And, moreover, the more stressed we are (reduced capacity), the more likely it is that the monitoring process will prevail with intrusive thinking that is getting stronger with every breakthrough event.

Clearly, then, the understandable human instinct to push away intrusive thoughts is something we need to consider carefully and gently. As we say with mindfulness meditation, let the thoughts come and let them go like clouds in the sky. In other words, it’s more than okay to think about the elephant or whatever else the unwanted thought is. And then if the thought really does not warrant any further consideration, we just let it go.

Keyword: Acceptance. The #1 Tip to deal with intrusive thoughts is to practice Acceptance. Letting the thoughts come, and then letting them go like clouds in the sky. We do not try to hold onto clouds in the sky. We note them and let them go, which they will if we let them rather than picking them up and chewing on them like a dog with a bone. But wait…

What if the Intrusive Thoughts Won’t Go Away?

Again, unwanted, intrusive thoughts are common. One study found that 90% of the population experienced them. But what if the intrusive thoughts won’t go away? What if they are all over you like a dark, heavy, wet blanket, and you can’t shake it off.

In other words, how do we know when it is a normal stress or trauma response that will ease up with the passage of time versus something more serious calling for professional help?  Consider this. It is time to seek professional help when there is:

  • Disruption of daily functioning and relationships in work and life.
  • Disturbance in physical well-being, such as GI problems, chronic insomnia, severe anxiety, or panic attacks.
  • Disconnection from interest in usual activities, and social and emotional withdrawal or numbness.
  • Duration of symptoms lasting for an extended period of time, such as months or years.

That said, I would also like to make the case that, for traumatic events and severe chronic stress, earlier intervention can prevent symptoms from becoming habits of the mind and body that can be harder to reverse the longer they persist. And, of course, for anyone worried about their physical or emotional safety, please seek immediate assistance via 911, your physician, or a hospital emergency room.

And, to talk about how to use mindfulness to achieve acceptance, or to discuss another matter, Contact Me at [email protected]



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About the Author: Madelaine Weiss
Madelaine Claire Weiss (LICSW, MBA, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Board Certified Executive-Career-Life Coach, and bestselling author of “Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life.” sfas

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