How to cope with intrusive thoughts

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Health Assured team

05 August 2022

A recent study found that more than 94% of people have unwanted, intrusive thoughts and impulses.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that pop into your mind - they are often unpleasant, happen without warning and interrupt your day-to-day life. These intrusive thoughts may be an indication that you are dealing with a mental health condition as they are common symptoms of anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

These thoughts are often reoccurring, hard to manage and can significantly impact an individual’s health and wellbeing. It is therefore essential to develop techniques that deal with these unpleasant thoughts when they arise. 

Intrusive thoughts and mental health

As mentioned, intrusive thoughts are often related to underlying mental health conditions, including (but not limited to) OCD, bipolar disorder and . For example, people who live with OCD usually attempt to suppress these unwanted thoughts by completing specific behaviours (known as compulsions). 

These thoughts and subsequent compulsions are often debilitating and anxiety-inducing, making everyday tasks difficult and time-consuming, which can seriously impact the person’s ability to contribute meaningfully to their personal and professional lives. 

5 tips to cope with intrusive thoughts 

When dealing with intrusive thoughts it can be hard to provide the right help. From time to time, nearly all people will have experiences with unwanted thoughts. While most of these thoughts are harmless and fleeting, there are some instances where they can be distressing and potentially harmful. While these thoughts are nothing to be ashamed of, it is necessary to develop techniques to cope with them. To help with this, we have provided some example techniques below:  

1. Recognise the thoughts 

There is no direct cause of intrusive thoughts – they can occur at any moment and lead to unwanted reactions. One strategy to cope with these thoughts is to recognise and label them as intrusive. By managing these thoughts and recognising them for what they are (momentary thoughts that you cannot control) you can begin to move past them without reaction. 

2. Positive affirmations  

As mentioned, intrusive thoughts are often negative and make the sufferer feel stressed and anxious. It’s important to counteract these negative thoughts, providing yourself with constant encouragement. These positive affirmations may include verbal reminders, such as saying something positive to yourself each morning. They can also be physical – an uplifting phone wallpaper or leaving positive notes at your desk. These small moments of positivity can restore self-competence and, as a result, help you overcome any negative thoughts that can damage your health and wellbeing. 

3. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on the current moment and grounding yourself in the present. It can help you challenge the negative thinking that comes from chronic stress. It can involve relaxing, meditating or concentrating on sounds or thoughts. These exercises can be as short as 60 seconds or as long as an hour. During this time, you can become more aware of yourself and your surroundings. 

Mindfulness practices allow you to relax and clear your mind. Being mindful can be beneficial for tackling intrusive thoughts – helping you acknowledge these thoughts without attaching any importance to them. Additionally, mindfulness can help reduce anxiety and accept our thoughts and feelings. So, while you may still experience these negative thoughts, you move past them without compulsion. 

4. Take care of yourself

Self-care protects against mental and physical health problems. It also prevents those problems from worsening. So, self-care is a way of owning your health - it’s a way to create a happier, healthier and more balanced life.

Self-care can help cultivate feelings of self-compassion and release tension in the body. It could involve exercising, eating a healthy meal or having a better sleep – this time offers a chance to relax and reconnect. These moments of self-care can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, both of which increase susceptibility to intrusive thoughts. 

5. Seek treatment 

Dealing with intrusive thoughts can be overwhelming. If you feel like the above methods are not working for you (and you feel ready to do so), you should consider talking to a mental health professional. Therapists can help you recognise where these negative thoughts come from and help you implement strategies to get past them. They can also help you understand the commonality of conditions like intrusive thoughts. Remember, 94% of people are affected by this. Sometimes, it’s good to know that you’re not alone.

Health and wellbeing support from Health Assured

Health Assured is the UK and Ireland’s largest EAP provider – supporting over 15 million lives across 70,000 organisations. We provide around-the-clock, comprehensive support helping employees deal with mental, physical, social and financial wellbeing issues.


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