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"Why am I having these thoughts?": intrusive thoughts and how to cope with them

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Why am I having this thought?” and “What does it say about me that I’m having this thought?”. In this blog post, we’ll be talking about what intrusive thoughts are, and some strategies for coping with them as they arise.

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts encompass a myriad of thoughts and even images, and their specifics can vary between individuals. Here, we’ll use the following definition: thoughts that are upsetting, distressing, or frightening that are intrusive in nature.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts can cause us much distress, especially when we fear that it may somehow speak to our character or inner self. We may start to believe that thinking about intrusive thoughts may make them more likely to occur and that these repetitive thoughts are important revelations about who we are.

Why do these thoughts persist or get stuck?

You have likely learned that these thoughts are not similar to your day-to-day types of thoughts. They seem to be immune to your usual coping strategies, whether it be distraction, pushing it out of your mind, or reasoning with it.

Initially, an unwanted intrusive thought functions as an ordinary, albeit perhaps unpleasant, thought. We may feel upset, disturbed, or frightened by the thought, and in turn label it as a thought that “I don’t want to have”. This sets the stage for our mind to direct much energy to not have the thought, thereby creating a paradoxical process where being on the lookout for the thought leads to experiencing it in a recurrent way. This is captured by the phrase “What we resist, tends to persist”. Trying not to think about something leads us to thinking about it more. What often makes these thoughts especially painful is that the thoughts you least want to have are the ones that often get stuck.

Coping with unwanted intrusive thoughts

1. Remember that unwanted intrusive thoughts are not indicative of your character or your inner self.

The reason why unwanted thoughts become intrusive thoughts is because it is the opposite of what you want to think about, and they are opposite of your values and wishes.

2. Remember that unwanted intrusive thoughts are not impulses.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts may be accompanied by a fear that you are going to act on the contents of your intrusive thoughts. This can understandably feel very frightening, and yet it is important to remember that your brain in sounding a false alarm. Unwanted thoughts are a symptom of over control rather than lack of control/impulsivity.

3. Remember that the frequency in which we have a thought is not Indicative of their relative Importance.

Thoughts tend to repeat when they are resisted or pushed away, and it is the attempt of keeping certain thoughts at bay that makes them likely to become intrusive.

4. The next time you feel an intrusive thought arising, remember the following steps:

  • Recognize the thought for what it is – an unwanted thought

  • Accept and allow it to be there – there is nothing you need to do. You do not need to argue with it, reason with it, or push it away.

  • Be gentle with yourself – acceptance is hard. You are doing something brave by allowing the thoughts to be there. Remind yourself that it will pass, and that this act of non-action is one of empowerment not passivity.

Knowing that you are not alone in finding yourself in a struggle with intrusive thoughts is extremely important. Changing our relationship with our thoughts is a journey and working with a qualified therapist can be helpful as your endeavour on this brave journey.


Hannah Peirce

For further reading on the topic, I highly recommend the following book: “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts” by Sharon M. Winston and Martin N. Seif.

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