Living With a Sticky Brain: How Intrusive Thoughts Can Hijack Your Mind

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

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Imagine spending an enjoyable afternoon with your friends and family, feeling content and relaxed. Suddenly, an intrusive thought hijacks your mind, demanding your attention and stealing your focus from the moment.

This is a common occurrence for people who struggle with obsessions, and it can be difficult to overcome. Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that consistently enter your mind against your will, and often pop up at unusual moments. They come in many forms and can cause issues like anxiety, attentional difficulties, and depression. 

It is essential to understand how to manage these thoughts so that you can reduce their impact on your mental health. Let’s explore how to manage intrusive thoughts and the potential psychological issues that can arise.

Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

This term refers to the way the human body automatically handles threats or danger. When faced with perceived threat, some people choose to fight, others run away, and others freeze.

Everyone has a default response to a perceived threat, and a number of physiological symptoms take place in your body to prepare yourself for survival. This nervous system response can be set off by pain, hunger, or fatigue. For some people, intrusive thoughts can set off an intense stress reaction.

Although it is common for people to have occasional intrusive thoughts about blasphemy, suicide, violence, etc, some people can struggle with debilitating anxiety when these thoughts present themselves. The amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, is activated and sends off false signals of danger. People who struggle with these types of obsessions can feel perpetually stuck in this fight-flight-freeze response.

Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are common feelings people experience when dealing with intrusive thoughts. For example, someone might constantly relive memories from a past relationship, leading them to recall all of the things they did wrong. This relationship may have ended in a way that prevents them from contacting their former partner, causing them to feel guilty and ashamed.

It is important to remember that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, and they are not a reflection of your character or worth. By learning how to manage these thoughts, you can reduce their impact on your mental health and live a happier, healthier life.

Anxiety

Anxiety and intrusive thoughts can be a challenging combination to deal with. Anxiety can make you feel like something terrible is going to happen, but you don’t know what or when it will occur. This sense of impending doom can have a significant negative impact on the quality of your life.

When anxiety is elevated, you may become quite risk-averse. For instance, you might refuse to get in your friend’s car because your intrusive thoughts present like a premonition. Even though there is no notable threat, your mind will produce an overestimation of the likelihood that your friend will get into an accident.

Intrusive thoughts often lead to anxiety because they are accompanied by uncertainty. A common scenario could involve feeling extremely anxious about receiving a performance review at work. Even though you can’t think of anything you’ve done wrong, you catastrophize about losing your job.

It’s important to remember that intrusive thoughts are a symptom of anxiety, which can come and go without consequence once you know the truth about them and learn how to stop fighting them. 

Depression

Frequent intrusive thoughts can lead to feelings of hopelessness and a loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities. Without proper intervention, someone who struggles with intrusive thoughts can slip into depression.

Once depression takes hold, it is notably difficult for sufferers to overcome it on their own. When the future seems hopeless, they might not feel motivated to improve their life.

Possible signs of depression include a neglect of personal hygiene, declining physical health, and a poor outlook on life. As these continue to decline, the prospect of reversing the problem begins to seem impossible.

The Consequences of Unwanted Thoughts

The anxiety, irritability and frustration that come with intrusive thoughts can result in irrational behavior due to poor coping skills.

Someone who struggles with their thoughts could engage in substance abuse, self-harm, social isolation, or aggressive behavior.

These maladaptive coping mechanisms can damage relationships, wreak havoc on the job, or negatively impact academic performance.

Finding Therapy Services

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to help people manage intrusive thoughts. This is a form of psychological treatment that helps reframe how you think about the distressing nature of your thoughts. It teaches you how to experience your thoughts without judgment and without an emotional reaction.

Exposure therapy and response prevention (ERP) is a specific CBT strategy to train the nervous system to desensitize to these intrusive obsessions in a safe and controlled environment. 

Given that this is a specialized field of psychotherapy, it is important to find an expert who is highly skilled in ERP for OCD and related disorders

Manage Intrusive Thoughts Appropriately

It can be difficult at first to manage your intrusive thoughts, but with the proper guidance, you will learn how to disarm your thoughts by inviting them in without judgment and curbing your reaction. Over time, your nervous system will disentangle itself from the once distressing nature of these thoughts.

Advanced Behavioral Health specializes in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectic behavior therapy (DBT), and mindfulness-based therapy. We strive to exceed all expectations and help our patients get their lives back on track. You’ll learn more about the benefits we provide when you get in touch with us today.

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