How to Eliminate Intrusive Thoughts

white bear

Have you ever had a violent thought toward a close person? Maybe you thought of hurting someone you love; stabbing them; pushing them; or acting in other horrifying ways. If one of these thoughts has popped into your head without your control, you are not alone. You are not a bad person. You are not mad. You are not a criminal.

These thoughts are called “intrusive thoughts”. They are inappropriate images that enter your mind without your volition or control. They are basically stupid thoughts without any reason behind them.

Intrusive thoughts are common among those who suffer from anxiety disorder. However, these unwanted thoughts do appear also in the mind of those people who are not necessarily struggling with anxiety.

For most people these violent thoughts and images are fleeting moments of anxiety. People get very scared when they cannot dismiss them mainly because they fear they might actually put them into practice.

Avoid These 5 Mistakes

Before you learn what to do about these unwanted thoughts, let’s see five most common mistakes people make when they try to get rid of intrusive thoughts.

The first mistake is searching for the origin of these thoughts and asking, “Why do I have these thoughts?” The more you search for a logical reason, the more difficult it becomes to find a solution. These thoughts are useless and stupid.

Second mistake is trying very hard not to think of unwanted thoughts. However, our brain cannot forget by will power. You cannot not to think of something because not thinking is thinking with more intensity!

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the nineteen Century Russian author, warned us about this mistake with the following challenge:

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Social psychologist Daniel Wegner put Dostoevsky’s advice to test. In his study, the participants were divided into two groups. The first group was instructed to think of white bears for five minutes. The second group was asked not to think of white bears for the same period of time. Then after a short break, both groups were asked to think of white bears again.

Wegner found that the members of the group that were told not to think for five minutes and then were asked to think, they thought of white bears more often than participants who had been told from the beginning to think of white bears. The results of this research confirmed that Dostoevsky’s was right: you cannot banish a thought forcefully.

The third mistake is trying to resist the negative thoughts. Some therapists claim that whenever you have an intrusive thought, you will be able to control them if you say to yourself “Stop!” This thought stopping technique is not an effective way to get rid of unwanted thoughts because it’s a variation of the first mistake.

The forth mistake is also another variation of the first inefficient strategy. Some people try to distract their mind. Distraction may help you focus on another topic; however, it will not eliminate the intrusive thoughts. Later they will pop up into your head.

The fifth mistake is to try to convince yourself that you would never actually do such things. Although this seems a logical strategy, it does not work because by reasoning with these thoughts, you are paying attention to them. Whenever you search for a rational response to unwanted thoughts, it’s like running away from a monster as well as feeding fresh meat to eat! It will become stronger.

How to eliminate intrusive thoughts

The first step in eliminating intrusive thoughts is becoming aware of the above mistakes and avoiding them. They are ineffective strategies that could actually make the problem worse.

There are two specific strategies that can help you eliminate intrusive thoughts:

First useful strategy:

Every time you get an unwanted thought or image, say to yourself: “This is a stupid thought”, “ It doesn’t deserve an intelligent reply”, and “I can block my reaction to it.” As you can see, this is a different approach than trying to stop the negative thought or not thinking. You have no control over a thought that involuntarily comes to your mind. Once you have an image in your head, you cannot get rid of it.

Where is your domain of control? The answer is: your own reaction. You can control how you answer these thoughts. So, instead of focusing your attention on the unwanted thoughts, focus your effort on your reaction to them.

For few weeks practice ignoring these thoughts by avoiding giving them rational replies. Stupid thoughts do not deserve intelligent answers.

Second useful strategy:

If the first strategy is too weak for you, then you can use one of the Chinese principles of Tao Te Ching. Lao Tse, the author of this classic book of ancient wisdom, writes:

What is in the end to be weakened,

Begins by being first made strong.

This means that if you want to diminish or eliminate the unwanted thoughts, first you must encourage their flow. You can let intrusive thoughts to come to your mind without trying to stop them.

Allow yourself voluntarily to think of all these nasty thoughts. There are some rules to doing this correctly. You decide when, where and for how long you think these thoughts. It is done in a controlled fashion: it has a beginning and an end.

This exercise will help you control the uncontrollable because it’s a paradoxical approach. Reflect for a minute! The more you try to control your thoughts, the more you lose control of them. To overcome this paradoxical impasse, you apply a counter-paradox. You let go of control in order to gain control.

This idea may be scary at first but will help you channel the intrusive thoughts. After two weeks of this paradoxical exercise, the unwanted thoughts will be less likely to come back into your mind.

A good way to tame these negative thoughts is to write them down. In a previous blog post I explain in detail the step-by-step of this assignment. You can set an alarm to write for 30 minutes all your intrusive thoughts that you voluntarily can conjure up. Then write whatever comes to your mind as you express freely any emotion that you feel. Perform this task alone in a room so you would feel free to cry if you feel like it. When the alarm goes off, stop writing and tear up the papers into pieces.

“What you deny, subdues you. What you accept, transforms you.” Carl Jung