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Why do we have intrusive thoughts, and how do we stop them? Here's what you need to know, according to a neuroscientist

Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Has a thought ever popped into your head which made you think, 'Wow, where the hell did that come from?' Although most of the time it can feel trivial (e.g. 'I could totally just drop this plate of spaghetti RN'), it can also be a deeply unnerving experience.

Intrusive thoughts are often (but not always) symptomatic of mental health conditions, in particular obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). At their worst, intrusive thoughts can take the form of suicidal ideation, or thinking about harming yourself (or others).

It's important to note that whatever the content of intrusive thoughts, they don't inherently make you a bad person. Libby*, a PR consultant, describes her experience with intrusive thoughts, saying, "I would obsess over mistakes, which actually were not even mistakes, but replay them over and over again in my mind [...] I’d be driving and then have thoughts about just swerving into the hard shoulder."

Libby's not alone. A study back in 2014 found that 94% of people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts and impulses. Research also suggests that trying to suppress intrusive thoughts is an often ineffective coping mechanism. So what can you do to manage intrusive thoughts?

We spoke to Dr Caroline Leaf, a world-renowned neuroscientist (and host of Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast and founder of the NeuroCycle app), to find out what causes intrusive thoughts, and – crucially – how you can learn to manage them.

What are intrusive thoughts?

According to Dr. Caroline, intrusive thoughts are "negative behavioural patterns established over time, like getting irritated in traffic, snapping at a loved one, or allowing ourselves to go down worry “rabbit holes” by always seeing the negative."

She continues, "Over time, we build toxic habits into our mind and repeat them often, so we feel like they’re a natural part of us. They’re destructive habits that can cause lots of toxic stress in our brains and bodies, as well as in relationships and life. They need to be identified, uprooted, and reconceptualized into constructive habits."

How long do intrusive thoughts last?

Dr. Caroline explains that the duration of intrusive thoughts depends on the individual. She adds, "We can start rewiring an intrusive thought pattern at any time using self-regulation and mind-management techniques, but it takes a minimum of 63 days to change a neural network and establish a new thought pattern."

What are examples of intrusive thoughts?

Dr. Caroline identifies "Ruminating on the negative, catastrophising, and [experiencing] uncontrolled fear of the unknown" as examples of intrusive thoughts which, "feel like they are taking over your mind in the moment."

How can you tell if your intrusive thoughts are reflective of a bigger mental health condition, such as OCD?

According to Dr. Caroline, "When you get stuck ruminating on an intrusive thought or a negative pattern, this creates too much high energy for too long, affecting brain cells, which need healthy balanced energy to function well. Over time this can lead to OCD-type behaviours, depression, inflexibility and resistance to change and other mental health issues as the brain tries to restore balance."

Here are Dr. Caroline's top tips for managing intrusive thoughts:

Do calming and refocusing exercises : This can be deep breathing, meditation, tapping, prayer, or yoga — whatever works for you. Doing this will align the mind-brain connection and facilitate the correct flow of delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma energy in the brain, which optimises the physiology and DNA of the cells of the body. This allows a lot of unseen and incredible brain, genetic, neuroendocrine, psychoneuroimmunological (mind-brain-immune system), and gut-brain things to happen in response, which will build up your cognitive resilience over time

Practice developing a possibilities mindset: Try to look for a few options or different ways of seeing the situation. There are so many possibilities a situation can end up resolving itself into. Even the worst situations have possibilities. You must believe that these possibilities actually exist, which takes time and work.

Practice temporal distancing: This basically means focusing on the long term, which will broaden your perspective and can help relieve emotional pressure in the moment. So, imagine you’re an hour, a day, a week, or a year down the line. What does this situation look like? What’s different? What have you learned? How have you changed? What advice would you give someone in a similar situation now that you’ve gained some hindsight?

Make mind-management a lifestyle: When you're aware of your mental power, you can catch and control intrusive thoughts that cause chaos in your mind. You can learn how to really listen and tune in to how you think, feel, and choose and how others think, feel, and choose, literally designing and customising how you react to people and events.

By Lucy Morgan. This was originally published on Glamour UK.

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