Unwanted thoughts, so easy to come by these days, leave you feeling uneasy and distressed. Here’s why they happen and six tips for how to deal with intrusive thoughts.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are normal, and most people experience them. Research shows that 94 percent of Americans experience intrusive thoughts, which are unwanted reflections or images that seem to pop into your head randomly. It is easy to become obsessed or distressed over them. Common intrusive thoughts include worrying about the future, upsetting memories and fear that you may do something disturbing or embarrassing.
Intrusive thoughts can be linked to specific mental health conditions, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In these cases, thoughts can become so obsessive that people adopt compulsive behaviors to prevent them from occurring again. Intrusive thoughts can also be triggered by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, stress and anxiety. However, there are some valuable strategies for managing intrusive thoughts and putting your mind at ease.
1. Don’t Suppress the Thought
A common reaction when many people have intrusive thoughts is to suppress them to try to forget about them. This approach often ends up having the opposite effect and making us hold onto the intrusive thought even more.
Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University, conducted an experiment to demonstrate this concept. In his experiment, he asked the participants not to think about white bears for five minutes. The results showed that the participants thought about white bears more than once per minute on average, showing that suppressing intrusive thoughts is not an effective way to deal with them. Instead, there are some activities you can practice to take your mind off these thoughts.
2. Identify the Trigger
Thinking about what could be causing your intrusive thoughts is a practical way to prevent them from happening so often. Try keeping a journal to monitor your intrusive thoughts and help you understand the patterns of your feelings over time. By tracking your mood, you can possibly identify potential triggers that may lead to obsessive or disturbing thoughts. For example, you may notice that you experience more intrusive thoughts when you are experiencing stress at work or school.
3. Mindfullness Meditation
Practicing mindfulness meditation is also helpful for dealing with intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings calmly, so you can deal with the intrusive thoughts instead of denying they are present. This approach changes your relationship with negative thoughts through acceptance. A 2010 study shows that mindfulness can benefit people suffering from intrusive thoughts. In addition to meditation, mindfulness practices can include mindful walking, or yoga.
4. Spend Time in Nature
Spending time in nature is another approach to handling intrusive thoughts. One study found that spending time in nature is an effective tool for reducing obsessive thoughts. Spending time outdoors gives you an almost immediate feeling of peace and can free your mind from negative thinking patterns. Being outside can include exercises like trail running and gardening activities such as horticultural therapy or nature therapy. All of these outdoor activities positively engage your body and mind, drawing your attention away from unwanted thoughts.
5. Spend Time With Animals
Animals can provide distraction and uncomplicated emotional support when you are dealing with intrusive thoughts. Spending time with animals also has many other benefits that can help prevent intrusive thoughts, including lowering anxiety, providing an escape or happy distraction, reducing loneliness and promoting the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin.
According to a 2019 study, interacting with animals can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is associated with mental health conditions like major depressive disorder and is linked to intrusive thoughts.
6. Engage in Physical Activity
A habit of regular exercise can have a positive impact on both your physical and mental health. Studies show that exercise is very effective at improving mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood and improving self-esteem and cognitive function. So, spending more time exercising is a way to replace negative, intrusive thoughts with positive ones by shifting your mindset. One excellent exercise for boosting mental wellbeing is wild swimming.
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