How to Identify & Cope with Negative, Intrusive Thoughts

By Liza Ibrahim, LPC

Our thoughts are not always within our control, and it’s natural for our brains to skew negative from time to time. However, for some individuals, negative and intrusive thoughts can become challenging over time. If you experience intrusive thoughts, it is important to remember that a thought has no significance in itself. In most situations, individuals can cope with intrusive thoughts, and the first step is recognizing them for what they are. Developing a better understanding of your thought patterns is the first step in breaking the cycle of negative, intrusive thinking.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and involuntary thoughts that are usually disturbing in nature. They usually appear unexpectedly and can reoccur again and again. The thoughts are often out of character and may be against the person’s beliefs. In many cases, intrusive thoughts are violent, disturbing, or reflect beliefs that the person finds disturbing. The subject matter of intrusive thoughts can vary, but some common themes are harming a loved one, harming yourself, catching an illness, or thinking of a loved one dying. Other times, intrusive thoughts can be anxious thoughts that replay over and again; some common themes include failing a test, being rejected by peers, concerns of doing something embarrassing, or thoughts that question one’s judgment.

It may be difficult to always put a stop to intrusive thoughts, and that is not necessarily the primary goal. Instead, you can focus on ways to make them less overwhelming and create some distance between yourself and the thought. The goal is to feel that you are capable of managing your thoughts, not the other way around. Here are some tips to help manage and cope with negative, intrusive thought patterns:

  1. Mindful Meditation: One of the primary goals of mindfulness is learning how to become more self-aware by calmly acknowledging your thoughts and not becoming emotionally tangled up in them. This can be a great coping mechanism in dealing with intrusive thoughts because you’re not denying that the thoughts are present, just changing the relationship you have with them. There are various meditation apps available, with courses specifically geared toward beginners and people living with intrusive thoughts, that may help you. Here are a few apps you can try: Calm, The Mindfulness App, Headspace, or Mindfulness Coach.
  2. Visualization Techniques: Visualizing your thoughts can allow you to feel more in control of them. For example, you could picture your mind as a blue sky, and your thoughts as passing clouds. Some of the clouds are light, and some dark, but none of them are permanent. This is a mindfulness technique known as thought clouds. Here is an app you can try for some more interventions: VizAct: Visualization and Action.
  3. Ground Yourself In The Present: Intrusive thoughts often lead the individual to focus on the negative and develop ideas that are sometimes not based in reality. Without even realizing it, you may be spending a lot of your time perseverating over negative thoughts. Focusing on the present moment can be a powerful way to manage this. Grounding techniques that can help you center your focus may include deep breathing, active meditation, and the body scan meditation. (Here is an app where you can find more grounding exercises: Mind Unwind.
  4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is an approach used in psychotherapy that can be effective in helping individuals cope with intrusive thought patterns. It can be especially helpful for negative thoughts that become obsessive as it helps to create distance between the individual and their thoughts. CBT is based on the idea that our unhelpful thought patterns can be unlearned or changed via the connection between our thoughts, feelings and behavior. A therapist can work with you to identify your intrusive thought patterns, process them, and reframe/restructure them so that they aren’t as overwhelming.

Negative, intrusive thoughts can be distressing for various reasons. These thoughts often seem to come out of nowhere and can be out of the usual norm of our beliefs and behaviors. It’s important to remember that a thought only has as much power as you give it, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect anything about you or your character.

These suggestions can provide relief but, if more support is needed don’t hesitate to reach out to a Mental Health Professional to address your concerns further. Seeking support from a therapist or counselor can provide you with the guidance and support needed to better manage your intrusive thoughts. Please remember to be kind to yourself, especially as we approach the start of the holiday season, and do your best to remain positive and hopeful!