In a world where we are constantly on the go, worrying about the next thing on our to-do list, it can be easy to forget to be present and focused in the moment. Unfortunately, not focusing on the here and now can easily lead to stress and overwhelm.
As a result, introducing mindfulness—the practice of observing thoughts, feelings, urges and sensations without judgment—into our lives has become more and more popular as a means for practicing self-care and improving overall wellness. Mindfulness techniques like meditation have been proven to help people manage their stress levels, reduce anxiety, and even aid in the management of depressive episodes.
If you find yourself having intrusive thoughts that leave you disturbed and uncomfortable, you might be wondering whether mindfulness can help. In this article, we’ll dive into the current research surrounding intrusive thoughts and mindfulness techniques.
But first, know that you’re not alone in having intrusive thoughts. The truth is that just about everyone will experience unnerving, disturbing, or unusual thoughts from time to time. In fact, one study that surveyed college students around the world found that 94% of those participants reported having an intrusive thought.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, often distressing thoughts, images, urges, or ideas. These thoughts tend to be especially uncomfortable because they don’t align with your actual feelings, morals, and normal way of thinking. These random thoughts can pop into your mind seemingly out of nowhere, causing anxiety and discomfort due to the nature of how disturbing and/or inappropriate they are.
While intrusive thoughts can circulate around many different things that make you uncomfortable, some common themes can include:
- Sexual thoughts, in which you have unwanted sexual thoughts about taboo or unsettling subjects
- Violence and harm, like suddenly thinking about hurting your loved ones or yourself
- Religious/moral intrusions, or thinking about subjects and topics that go against your beliefs and ethics
- Doubts and fears, like suddenly worrying about whether you actually turned off your stove or locked your door
Intrusive thoughts are often disturbing because they don’t line up with how you normally think. This might leave you wondering why you had that thought, or what it means about you that you did. But while they might leave you feeling unnerved, it’s important to remember that intrusive thoughts are very common, and they don’t need to mean anything significant at all about your belief system.
With that said, intrusive thoughts are also a hallmark feature of many different mental health conditions. While having intrusive thoughts in and of themselves certainly doesn’t mean that you are dealing with a condition, if your intrusive thoughts are causing a great deal of distress or interfering with your life, they may be a sign of a deeper underlying issue.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is one such condition. OCD is defined by unwanted and intrusive thoughts, feelings, and urges which are classified as obsessions. But while other people may be able to move on from those intrusive thoughts, people with OCD tend to experience extreme levels of distress, shame, or anxiety from their intrusive thoughts. They then cope by performing compulsions, or ritualistic and often repetitive behaviors that are meant to ease that anxiety, but only reinforce their obsessions and distress in the long run.
As a result, intrusive thoughts are a frequent and recurring feature for people with OCD. A study looked at the frequency of intrusive thoughts in a large group of participants, some with OCD and some without. While everyone who was surveyed reported having at least one intrusive thought, the participants with OCD reported experiencing significantly more intrusive thoughts than the non-clinical group.
Similar thoughts are also associated with other conditions as well. “Most anxiety disorders have an element of perseverative thoughts,” says Dr. Mia Nuñez, licensed clinical psychologist and Regional Clinical Director at NOCD. Perseverative thoughts are extended, negative worries and ruminations that can be described as “persistent, unwanted types of thinking,” she explains. “Most anxiety disorders have an element of it.”
It’s also a common theme in depression. “In depression, there’s a lot of negative thinking about oneself. It’s not quite the same as an intrusive thought, but it involves unwanted thought patterns.”
What causes intrusive thoughts?
So why might your brain present these thoughts in the first place, when they are so different from what you normally think?
“The simplest way to put it is that brains are weird,” Dr. Nuñez explains with a laugh. “We process so much and take in so much from the world around us. If you think about your dreams, they’re just putting weird stuff together, so we have weird thoughts. Some just happen—they’re just mental events.”
Intrusive thoughts don’t have to mean anything at all, and they can often be chalked up as random products of your brain processing all of the information and stimuli that you take in throughout your life. But Dr. Nuñez continues, “What causes them to stick around is engaging with the intrusive thought.”
She illustrates this point by giving a hypothetical example of someone who gets an inappropriate and intrusive thought about their brother looking attractive. “It’s very odd, and it doesn’t feel right to be thinking that. If you shake it off and go about your day, then that will probably be the last time you think about it.” But others might latch onto that intrusive thought, try to decipher it, and even assign significant meaning to it. “‘Am I into my brother now? How do I make this stop?’ As long as you’re doing that and assigning meaning to the intrusive thought, the more likely it is going to keep happening.”
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a mental practice that involves bringing your attention and awareness to the present moment. Rather than letting your mind wander from place to place or to dwelling on certain thoughts, emotions, or concerns, mindfulness aims to bring you back to the here and now. Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness is to observe what’s going on in the moment without judgment, reducing stress and promoting relaxation in the process.
Mindfulness practices have many benefits, especially when it comes to mental health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression. It is also an easy and accessible practice for many different purposes, since it doesn’t require much more than a little bit of dedicated time and guided practice. However, one of the best things that you can gain from mindfulness is the ability to observe your own thoughts without judgment. In particular, if you’re worried about intrusive thoughts, this can help you change your relationship with unwanted thoughts and reduce their power to cause you distress, shame, or worry.
How Mindfulness Can Help You Manage Intrusive Thoughts
Mindfulness practices often involve allowing your thoughts to exist without judgment, which means that it can be a very useful tool for anyone who struggles with intrusive thoughts and feels a need to engage with them, suppress them, or avoid them.
For example, mindfulness has been used successfully in conditions that involve elements of unwanted or intrusive thoughts, like depression. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a type of treatment that involves acknowledging self-critical or negative thoughts, allowing them to be present without engaging. Studies have found that it can be used successfully as an intervention for depression, although studies have also found that it is also helpful for non-depressed patients.
It’s also very interesting to see the role that mindfulness can play in helping people manage OCD, since it is very much defined by persistent, unwanted thoughts, as well as a strong urge to respond to them with compulsions, rather than accepting them without judgment. However, it’s important to note that mindfulness on its own is not an effective form of treatment for OCD. Instead, think of mindfulness as an adjacent skill that can be used to complement specialized treatment.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is considered the gold standard for OCD. In this treatment, people with OCD work with a licensed professional, who gradually exposes them to the situations that trigger their obsessions and distress. The clinician then works with them to actively resist those urges and stop engaging in compulsions, interrupting the vicious cycle of OCD. In both elements of ERP, mindfulness can be a useful skill, helping people recognize what’s going on inside of their mind when experiencing those obsessions and urges.
Dr. Nuñez explains, “I wouldn’t say that anyone should only practice mindfulness for OCD. That being said, elements of mindfulness do come into play with ERP. For instance, during an exposure, you want to be attending to the stimuli, or the thing that you’re exposing yourself to, rather than avoiding it. But sometimes when we’re anxious, our brains think they’re helping us by trying to distract us, telling us to look away or think about something else. It’s a mindfulness practice to be able to bring your attention back to the exposure in that moment.”
Both mindfulness and ERP involve an element of letting a weird or uncomfortable thought exist, but simply accepting it and moving on, neither avoiding it or assigning significance to it.
“In mindfulness, you let the thoughts come, but allow them to pass by like clouds in the sky,” says Dr. Nuñez. “You don’t try to shoot them out of your sky, but they’re there. You can approach obsessions and urges to engage in compulsions in the same way.”
So in the case of ERP treatment, mindfulness comes into play when you allow your obsessions to exist without reacting with compulsions. As a result, mindfulness-adjacent practices like disengagement can be helpful for disengaging from compulsions. “If you’ve practiced mindfulness before and have those skills, you can bring that skillset to your ERP,” says Dr. Nuñez.
If you are interested in learning more about how NOCD’s team of ERP-trained clinicians can help you with OCD, consider booking a free 15-minute call with us.
5 Ways to Practice Mindfulness for Intrusive Thoughts
If you find yourself getting caught up in an unhelpful, disturbing, or distressing thought process, putting aside an intentional moment to practice these mindfulness practices may help.
- Mindful meditation
Meditation is one of the best places to start your mindfulness practice. Simply sit or stand comfortably in a quiet room and observe what’s happening in the present moment. Observe your breathing and how your body feels in the current moment, rather than allowing yourself to dwell on unhelpful or repetitive thoughts or sensations.
- Thought observation
Alternatively, you can do a thought observation practice. In this mindfulness practice, rather than ruminating on stressful, intrusive thoughts and allowing them to disturb your peace, instead give yourself some time to let your thoughts come and go as they please. It can help to think of those thoughts as events rather than truths or actions. The key here is to observe them without judgment—instead, let them happen without attaching any extra meaning to them.
- Focused breathing
Breathwork is another great practice for grounding yourself and bringing your attention to the present moment. Actively draw in deep, slow breaths, and let your mind focus on that action. This can also help improve your mind-body connection to separate yourself from unhelpful thought processes.
- Labeling your thoughts
Labeling your thoughts is another great thought-focused meditation that can help you distinguish your intrusive thoughts from reality. To do this, start by observing your thoughts, then put a one-word, non-judgmental label on each of them (for example, “feeling,” “urge,” or “idea”). This can help interrupt a long, negative stream of thought, bringing an element of awareness and simple observation instead.
- Mindful acceptance
Finally, it can also help to simply allow your thoughts to be, as they are, without letting them take over your psyche or bring you anxiety. Instead of trying to push away your intrusive thoughts, practice mindfulness by accepting their presence. Acknowledge that you are having those thoughts, but that they don’t define you or your intentions—or impact your life in any way whatsoever.
We can never be in complete control of our thoughts. However, we can control how we react to them, and how much we let them affect the way we live. Mindfulness is a helpful tool for many different types of intrusive thoughts, and can help us make peace with those random, sometimes distressing creations of our brains.