You’re laying in bed, almost asleep, when you hear an indistinct, almost imperceptible sound. As faint as it is, it’s enough to pull you out of your quasi-sleep and hold your attention. The initially faint noise seems to get louder. As it does, a series of methodical taps becomes increasingly more clear. The bathroom faucet. This is the moment you realize the taps are actually drops of water hitting the drain in a rhythmic drip that is apparently your anthem for the night.

You roll over, press one ear into your pillow and pull a blanket over the other to stifle the noise. This only amplifies the sound. Frustrated, you sub the blanket out for another pillow, desperate to drown out the drips. Momentary relief sets in, but the drip, drip, drip quickly returns as an unwelcome replacement for sleep. And now you are convinced that the bathroom sink has not only moved into your room, but that it has found a new home right next to you in bed. The more you try to ignore it, the louder it becomes. Eventually, you reluctantly peel yourself out of bed to attend to the sound – it’s your only hope for getting any sleep. 

But, hang on. What does your dripping faucet have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked. Not being able to escape the constant drip of a faucet parallels the experience many of us have with trying to escape intrusive thoughts that enter our minds.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts Exactly? 

Intrusive thoughts are “unwanted thoughts, images, impulses, or urges that can occur spontaneously or that can be cued by external/internal stimuli.” These thoughts can be about anything, and they can vary in “severity.” Sometimes the thoughts are related to harm, sexual behavior, religion, health fears, perpetrating an accident or another adverse situation or event. And the thoughts themselves can be bizarre, socially unacceptable, sometimes violent, and/or fear-based.

Like our dripping faucet, you may find that the more you try to get the thoughts out of your mind, the louder they become. They are considered “intrusive” because, in addition to being unwanted, they are often not grounded in reality. They are not indications of your character, and they are not indications of subconscious desires to do the things that enter your minds. Oftentimes, we associate the “noise” the thought creates with reality, and our bodies and brains perceive and react to the thoughts as a very real threat.

The perceived threat can cause us to ruminate and experience heightened anxiety around the thought: At the height of my struggle with my eating disorder, for instance, the thoughts were sometimes about how the cauliflower tempura I had just eaten at Whole Foods was going to effectively ruin my entire body, that I had just “undone all of the work” I had put into “getting healthy” with those few bites of fried cauliflower. The more I tried to escape the thought, the more I ended up focusing on it. Looking back, this thought is relatively “mild” compared to some other intrusive thoughts we may experience, but it felt very real and threatening at the time.

Why Do Intrusive Thoughts Occur?

Intrusive thoughts can occur for a variety of reasons. Research suggests that genetics, brain chemistry, and past experiences can all play a part. They can be triggered by an event, person, other stressor, but oftentimes, they come on suddenly and randomly. Intrusive thoughts can be associated with and are more common in folks who struggle with anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, and PTSD, among other mental health disorders. 

Who Do Intrusive Thoughts Impact?

The short answer: everyone. Researchers found that 94% of college students reported that they experienced at least one intrusive thought within the last three months. This reiterates the point that if you have or are experiencing intrusive thoughts, you aren’t alone, and they do not suggest anything about you as a person. 

The long answer: They impact everyone differently. And while everyone experiences intrusive thoughts to some degree, they can be particularly difficult to manage for people with anxiety disorders, eating disorders, OCD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. For instance, someone who is not struggling with a mental health disorder may be able to recognize an intrusive thought, think that it’s odd, and then move on. 

Those of us who do or have struggled with anxiety, OCD, an eating disorder, PTSD, or other mental health issues, may internalize the intrusive thought and start ruminating on what it means. If this is you, you may start thinking things like:

“What does this indicate about me as a person?”

“Am I a bad person?” 

“Am I a bad mom for having this thought about my child?” 

“Does this thought mean I am going to get sick? Or that a family member is going to get sick?”

“Is this thought a prediction of the future?”

To be clear, even those who do not have or meet the criteria for a clinical mental health diagnosis can still be in distress over intrusive thoughts. Those who struggle with mental health disorders or traumatic events simply may be more apt to experience severe distress over intrusive thoughts. And because many of these thoughts are so distressing, we don’t often verbalize them or talk about them, so we try to repress them on our own, which can make them louder and then even more distressing. Just like our dripping faucet.

What To Do When an Intrusive Thought Enters Your Mind

So what can we do we think we may be or we know we are experiencing intrusive thoughts? Consider going through the following steps:

1. Identify and label the thought as intrusive

When an intrusive thought pops up, it’s important to first identify it for what it is. Don’t try to push it away or ignore it. Depending on what the thought is about, you can ask yourself a few questions that can help you identify an intrusive thought:

  • Is it disturbing, distressing, or causing you to feel shame?
  • Is it something you want to get out of your mind?
  • Is it repetitive? 
  • Does it feel hard to control?

If your answer to any of these is, “yes,” the thought may be intrusive. 

2. Pause

Rather than feverishly trying to extinguish the thought, try to sit with the thought for a minute without reacting. Observe it without judging it or yourself. Remember, these thoughts are NOT an indication of reality, your character, or your intent or desires.  

3. Consider NOT challenging the thought

There is some research that indicates that sometimes, trying to push away or challenge thoughts can simply make them feel more powerful. Consider allowing the thought to exist, versus swatting them away (Sort of like a bee on your shoulder- you don’t have to LOVE the bee, but you also don’t have to run and scream and swat at it- that would likely make it angry anyway, right? And when bees are angry, they sting.) 

In fact, instead of running from them, you can try visualizing your thoughts. For example, picture your mind as a blue sky, and your thoughts as passing clouds. Some of the clouds are light, and some dark, but all of them slowly pass by eventually.

4. Seek Support

If you find that you are routinely struggling with intrusive thoughts, or if the ones you do have are particularly distressing or disruptive to a part of your daily life,  there is absolutely no shame in reaching out for help. Talk to a friend, family member, or therapist you trust. A therapist can help you identify and work through the thoughts using different techniques and strategies. In my own experience, sometimes simply having the opportunity to externalize and address the thoughts begins the process of “taking their power away.”

Experiencing and Managing Intrusive Thoughts: We’re In It Together

If you are struggling with or have struggled with intrusive thoughts, it can be helpful to know that you are not at all alone. In fact, you are very much in the majority. Being in the majority, however,  doesn’t dismiss the impact intrusive thoughts can have on your mental health. Rather, it can help us understand that we are not “crazy” for having these thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are taboo: everyone has them and relatively few people talk about them. 

If your intrusive thoughts are part of or accompanied by a mental health disorder like anxiety, OCD, an eating disorder, or PTSD, and you are not already getting support, you may find that outside support helps you to normalize and then effectively combat some of the thoughts you are having. 

Intrusive thoughts can be a distracting cacophony in our minds at best and a distressing and painful experience at worst. You deserve to feel like you are in control of what is going on in your mind, so let’s come face-to-face with that dripping faucet and figure it out together; then hopefully we can all get some sleep.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash, Research from Harvard University and ADAA

How Can Eating Disorder Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you identify, unpack, and manage your own intrusive thoughts, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  You can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health , maternal mental health, therapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!