The Mental Health Impact of Intrusive Thinking

Most people have a significant amount of control over the things they think about from day to day. This control is important. It supports your ability to maintain mental stability. It also helps you maintain perspective on the wider world around you. Unfortunately, some people do not have reliable control over their thought processes. Instead, they suffer from something called intrusive thoughts.

Left untreated, intrusive thoughts can seriously disrupt your mental health. In fact, two of the most well-known mental illnesses – PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder – feature intrusive thinking. Treatment for these conditions will help you overcome unwanted mental intrusions. It will also help you overcome other symptoms you may be experiencing.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts get their name because they intrude on your normal way of thinking. Out of the blue, you find yourself thinking about something completely different. These thoughts seem to come from somewhere else and are frequently distressing or disturbing.

In the U.S., roughly six million people experience intrusive thoughts. Many of these people have diagnosable symptoms of mental illness. However, many do not. Instead, they experience occasional or temporary problems with this kind of thinking.

But, exactly what are intrusive thoughts? In other words, how do you know if a thought is intrusive? Experts look for a few telltale signs. First, these thoughts are not typical for you. Instead, they represent a clear change from the norm.

Second, intrusive thoughts bother you and upset your sense of mental balance. As a result, you may find yourself trying to push them away. Finally, intrusive thoughts seem difficult or impossible to control. They recur again and again, whether or not you want them to. When you try to push them away, they simply return once more.

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Examples of Intrusive Thinking

Intrusive thoughts come in a wide range of forms. The specific thoughts present vary from person to person. However, there are some common examples of intrusive thinking. They include such things as:

  • Unusually or extremely violent thoughts
  • Sexual thoughts or imagery
  • Fear of doing something embarrassing or unacceptable in public places

People with PTSD or obsessive-compulsive disorder typically experience more narrowly defined intrusive thoughts. The specific thought patterns differ for each of these conditions.

Some Causes of Intrusive Thoughts

Why do intrusive thoughts occur? There is no single answer to this question. Some people develop them only when under pressure or when they feel unusually anxious.

Such thinking can also be triggered by changes inside your body. For example, hormonal changes following childbirth can trigger intrusive thoughts in new mothers. Other potential causes include social isolation and fear associated with aging. You may also have intrusive thoughts triggered by a diagnosable mental illness. In these cases, the ultimate cause of those thoughts is related to the cause of your illness.

Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive Thoughts and PTSD

PTSD is a posttraumatic stress disorder. It appears 30 days or more after you experience a traumatic event such as:

  • Sexual assault or rape
  • A natural disaster
  • Combat or a terrorist attack
  • A major accident
  • The immediate threat of violence
  • Witnessing acts of violence against others

You can also develop the illness as a consequence of secondhand exposure to a traumatic event. All people with PTSD have symptoms that fall into four separate categories. One of these categories is intrusion, or intrusive thinking.

Types of Intrusive Thinking in People With PTSD

If you have PTSD, you may experience multiple forms of intrusive thinking. The list of potential intrusive symptoms includes:

  • Recurring memories of what happened to you during a traumatic event
  • Nightmares related to that event
  • Vivid “flashbacks” that make you feel like you are reliving what happened to you

These symptoms are intense and help feed and support other effects of the disorder.

Intrusive Thoughts and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

As its name indicates, obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, features two related problems – obsessions and compulsions. OCD obsessions recur repeatedly and take either of two forms:

  • Thoughts that are intrusive and irrational
  • Impulses that are also intrusive and irrational

On one level, affected people are aware that there is no rational basis for these thoughts and impulses. However, at the same time, they fear that their obsessions may also reflect reality in some way.

Types of Intrusive Thinking in People With OCD

Specific thoughts and impulses common to people with OCD include:

  • The idea of hurting someone or having caused harm in the past
  • Disturbing sexual imagery
  • Worry about not having completed routine tasks like locking a door

The compulsions in a person with OCD are a reaction to intrusive thoughts and impulses. They are intended to bring relief and temporarily quiet those intrusions.

Coping With Intrusive Thoughts on Your Own

If your intrusive thoughts are not related to mental illness, you may be able to cope with them on your own. There are several things you can do to work toward this goal. One important step is recognizing when thought is intrusive rather than normal. Once you make this identification, you will have a better idea of what is happening to you.

Mental health professionals recommend that you do not try to fight off intrusive thinking. Why? As a rule, this will not help you. Instead, the unwanted thoughts will just keep coming. Your lack of success in preventing them may only add to your level of distress.

Instead of fighting with intrusive thoughts, try to accept them. Occasional or temporary thoughts of this type are not usually caused for alarm. In time, they will fade away and leave you no worse for wear.

The situation changes if intrusive thoughts recur frequently and begin to disrupt your ability to function. In these circumstances, seek help from your doctor or a mental health expert. You may be suffering from a serious issue that requires professional treatment.

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Options for Treatment of Thought Disorders

What are the available options for the treatment of thought disorders? Interestingly, there is a large amount of overlap between treatments for PTSD and treatments for OCD. People with either of these illnesses often benefit from antidepressant medications. They also typically benefit from a form of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT.

CBT is actually an umbrella term for a number of different therapies. Options helpful for people affected by PTSD include:

  • Stress inoculation therapy
  • Prolonged exposure therapy
  • Cognitive processing therapy

In their own way, each of these options helps you break free from a pattern of intrusive thinking. They also help ease the effects of other kinds of PTSD symptoms.

People with OCD often receive something called exposure and response therapy, or ERT. ERT is based on the core principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It is specifically designed to make it easier for you to:

  • Cope with intrusive thoughts and impulses
  • Avoid using compulsions to relieve those thoughts and impulses

Inpatient Mental Health Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts

It may be possible for you to recover from PTSD- or OCD-related intrusive thoughts in an outpatient setting. However, if you have moderate-to-severe forms of these illnesses, you may need inpatient mental health treatment.

Inpatient care provides you with some key benefits. For example, it helps ensure that you get all of the treatment you need to fully support your recovery. A residential program also offers a safe environment that lets you focus on your recovery efforts. In addition, it gives you convenient access to medical attention if such a need should arise.

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Moving Past Intrusive Thoughts Through Help From Emerald Isle

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, disturbing changes in your normal way of thinking. You may experience occasional or temporary thoughts of this type during everyday life. However, you may also experience recurring thoughts that make it harder for you to function or feel mentally well. Mental health conditions associated with intrusive thinking include both PTSD and OCD.

There are many possible reasons for developing intrusive thoughts. Periods of high stress and anxiety are a common source. Intrusive thoughts may also result from hormonal shifts or other changes inside your body. In addition, thoughts like this may appear within the larger context of a mental illness.

You may be able to cope with temporary intrusive thinking on your own. However, if it happens again and again, you may need help from your doctor or a mental health specialist. Medication may play a role in your treatment. Behavioral therapy is also widely used. The right treatment plan can help ease the impact of intrusive thoughts. The end result for you may be a significantly improved mental health outlook.

Need help moving past intrusive thoughts? Seek help from the professionals at Emerald Isle Health & Recovery. Our team of experts will help identify the source and severity of those thoughts. And if they are caused by mental illness, we can provide you with a customized treatment that supports effective recovery.

No matter how seriously you are affected, we offer realistic options for improvement. Whether you need inpatient treatment or an outpatient program, we are standing by to assist you. Just call us today for more information.