Intrusive Thoughts? To the Intruder: “The Door’s Open, Come On In!”

Intrusive Thoughts

“I can’t stand these intrusive thoughts any longer. I don’t care if they’re obsessions, symptoms of OCD – whatever. I just want ’em gone. And right now!”

4.21.21: Just posted an update. Please check-out Intrusive Thoughts: “How can I be thinking these things?”

I know. I truly get it. At one time I was stuck – and scared – smack-dab in the middle of intrusive thoughts. It was awful. But I gotta’ tell ya’ from the get-go – if your mission is to aggressively force your intrusive thoughts out the door, you’re only asking for more. Yes, tough news to swallow; however, truth.

We began this two-part series on intrusive thoughts (ITs) a week ago with “Intrusive Thoughts | ‘My God, How Can I Be Thinking These Things?‘” We learned that ITs are unwelcome thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas of an aggressive, sexual, or religious/blasphemous nature. Naturally, one is terrified they’ll act on them; which ramps-up existing guilt, shame, and despair.

Well, let’s get right to work as we chat what can be done about ITs. By the way, you’re gonna’ get your money’s worth here. So get comfy, k?

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) – a behavioral therapy – is the treatment of choice for ITs. Relief makes the scene when we face those nasty thoughts and work toward preventing the traditional response(s). Simply, ERP is the practice of staying in an anxiety-provoking or feared situation (in this case, the IT – which may be an obsession) until the distress or anxiety diminishes (side-stepping a compulsion, such as avoidance).

The goal? To reduce the fear reaction generated by the IT.

Now, that ain’t exactly easy, given the shame, fear, guilt, and assorted ick that accompany an IT. But engaging in activities to prevent the feared outcome of the IT only serves to strengthen it. See, it’s all about something known as negative reinforcement – your mind learning that the only way to avoid a thought or feeling is to engage in a reactive – compulsive – thought and/or behavior.

And so relief ultimately comes through opening the door to the IT, without then turning to the compulsive side of the fence.

Here are three examples of ERP strategy for an IT pertaining to harming or sexually abusing children…

  • Resist examining past events, or asking others, to determine if you actually behaved unacceptably.
  • Agree with thoughts of harming the child/children in question, instead of analyzing or studying them.
  • Spend time around the child/children while holding weapon-like objects (if harming in a like manner has been an IT).

News flash! ERP will not totally eliminate ITs. But millions (including me) endure “undesirable” thoughts and consider them nothing more than an occasional annoyance. And that’s where we want to go – to a point of management, eliminating life interference.

Okay, some general tips on managing ITs…

  • Do all you can not to engage the thoughts or attempt to push them out of your mind.
  • Learn to rate your anxiety level (1-10) and monitor its fluctuation in the immediate. Then move-on to management (say, working on your breathing).
  • Forget about the supposed meaning of the thoughts.
  • Don’t waste your time trying to convince yourself you won’t act on the thoughts.
  • Don’t change any of your behaviors in an effort to avoid acting on the thoughts.

And now to the all-important matter of deeply believing you’ll act on an IT. Keep in mind that thought content doesn’t matter. Yep! Having a specific thought has zippo impact on what you’ll actually do. Absolutely, a thought is not an impulse!

Okay, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention meds interventions. If psychotherapy isn’t cutting it, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, as well as the tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) clomipramine (Anafranil) may be worth a look-see. Interestingly enough, there’s evidence that the vitamin-like substance Inositol may provide relief.

Well, let’s wrap-up our hard work with a soothing point-of-view. In Part 1, I quoted therapist Sheryl Paul, MA from her article “The Architecture of Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts.” In the piece, Ms. Paul mentions Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. Featured in the book is a quotation from the late Chogyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master. Excerpts…

Going beyond fear begins when we examine our fear: our anxiety, concern, nervousness, and restlessness. If we look into our fear, if we look beneath the veneer, the first thing we find is sadness, beneath the nervousness. Nervousness is cranking up, vibrating all the time. When we slow down, when we relax with our fear, we find sadness, which is calm and gentle.

Before you cry there is a feeling in your chest and then, after that, you produce tears in your eyes…This is the first tip of fearlessness, and the first sign of real warriorship. You might think that, when you experience fearlessness, you will hear the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or see a great explosion in the sky, but it doesn’t happen that way. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart.

Soothing, indeed.

Supposes Ms. Paul, and I couldn’t agree more – maybe, just maybe, ITs are our mind’s way of trying to get our attention so we’ll slow down and tune-in. And once we start paying attention to our feelings – and trust we can handle our emotional experiences – the ITs begin to diminish. After all, they’ve accomplished their mission, so they have no reason to exist.

How ’bout this? Next time an IT strikes, ask questions such as “What am I trying to control, avoid, or fill-up?” or “What is this thought trying to protect me from feeling?” Allow these questions to take you to your heart, connecting some life-giving dots. Yes, what treasures you’ll discover!

Be they obsessions, symptoms of OCD – whatever. What to do about intrusive thoughts? Open the door and warmly invite them in…

Many, many more Chipur articles await your eyeballs. My titles are yours

  • Dr. Herby Bell October 29, 2013, 4:51 pm

    A wonderful companion to the first part of this fascinating exploration of thought, Bill. Your closing line reminded me of the psychologically savvy Rumi poem, “Guest House”–of which I’m sure you’re familiar–and as per your suggestion, which rings so true for me, invite those “just passing through” thoughts into the “guest house” and be hospitable soze they don’t tear the place down. Also dig your multivalent approach including mindfulness which reminds me of the Tibetan idea that, “The clouds are not the sky.”

    And finally, reading about the possibility of approaching this troublesome human foible with something called, “ERP” made me giggle–and that’s always good. Thank you.

    • chipur October 29, 2013, 7:37 pm

      You’re always so good about stopping-by and commenting, Herby. And it’s appreciated. Yes, it’s so important to be hospitable when the perceived wolf’s a knockin’ at the door. Soooo immediately frightening; however, when we really get to know it (her/him?), we often learn our perception was inaccurate and we’ve cheated ourselves out of a true measure of comfort and freedom. So you like that “ERP” biz, huh. Wouldn’t it be a hoot if it was developed by someone named Wyatt? Peace, Herby…

      • Jimmy November 4, 2015, 10:15 pm

        Just started reading this section. Glad I found more info. Bill I try/do any tips you can pass along to me. Not sure if I have OCD, physiologist says no, but since a year ago, I get these thoughts, then they go away the. Few weeks later they are back, then gone then back after a few months then back for a few weeks then gone for 6 months now back.

      • Chipur November 5, 2015, 6:44 pm

        Man, you pop-up all over the place here on Chipur, don’t you, Jimmy?! Seriously glad you’re browsing about. Know what? I’m going to refer you back to my last reply on your comment on this piece. It’s the one about the dashboard lights


  • Leslie Ferris October 29, 2013, 10:43 pm

    To me, this makes a lot of sense Bill. In very layman’s terms, I guess you are saying sort of ‘make friends’ with the thoughts, and then they don’t see so scary. Yep, I like it….. Thanks for all of you insights. I always learn a lot from you. :) cheers.

    • chipur October 30, 2013, 6:43 pm

      Glad it makes sense, Leslie. Well, yeah, “in very layman’s terms” I am saying that. Um, as long as you understand (and I’m betting you do) – easier said than done. Hey! I’m pleased you learn when you stop-by. And I always appreciate your visits and participation…

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh October 30, 2013, 6:16 pm

    This strategy makes so much sense to me when the thoughts come up to ask yourself some personal questions – “What am I trying to control, avoid, or fill-up?” Paying attention to your emotional needs and to your inner feelings sounds like a recipe for keeping things balanced. Thanks, I appreciate the new insights!

    • chipur October 30, 2013, 6:58 pm

      Hi, Cathy!

      Thank you for your visit and contribution. Man, there are so many things we do – most often without knowing – to cover the true issues that haunt us. Taking pause – and it’s an acquired discipline – long enough to ask crucial questions is just huge. It’s then that we get down to the very foundation of what’s troubling us – and can move-on to relief and healing…

  • Kyczy October 31, 2013, 1:06 pm

    As Herby says – let your mind be the guest o=house of IT, invite them in and don’t resist. They gobble resistance like pack man dots and grow. I like this line from the article

    “just maybe, ITs are our mind’s way of trying to get our attention so we’ll slow down and tune-in.”

    • chipur October 31, 2013, 5:29 pm

      Hey, Kyczy! That’s for chiming-in. Glad you connected with the slap in the face dynamic. And, believe me, when ITs come a callin’ it’s a mighty slap. But, man, if we can allow it to happen – and indeed slow down and listen – we’re well on our way to insight and comfort. “Gobble” “like pack man” – love it. Take care, Kyczy – and come back…

  • Lisa Frederiksen October 31, 2013, 9:51 pm

    Boy I was so stuck in fear – it took many years working with a therapist who specialized in helping family members/friends of addicts/alcoholics. And we had a lot of work to do to unravel the automatic reactions I’d developed to cope with the non-stop ITs of “what if _______, ” “maybe if I _______,” “it wasn’t that bad,” “so many people have it worse”and on they went…. It was taking the time and practice to face the fears that lurked behind the ITs, let them in, face them and put them in their proper perspective/place that I could finally sort out fact from fiction and find healthier ways to react (or not). But the most important piece was to let them in and not try fend them off. I love this article, Bill – you have broken down this very complex reality in a way that can be used by anyone – wonderful!

    • chipur November 1, 2013, 9:32 am

      Sure am glad you stepped-out, Lisa, and shared a bit of your story. Having real-world shtuff really helps readers identify and attach to the content. And that’s why I’m always ready, willing (and able) to share my goings-on. Thank you. For sure, learning how to “unravel” our automatic unproductive coping responses is super-hard work. And let’s toss-in the process of identifying them. How well you phrase it: “…sort out fact from fiction and find healthier ways to react (or not).” But that can’t happen if we don’t open the door to that which upsets us and causes distress/despair. Pleased you liked the piece, even more that you believe it can be easily used by anyone…

  • Patricia Miller November 1, 2013, 8:53 am

    I’ve been working to fight ITs and one has to do with being a failure. I mentioned it at dinner to my husband in passing, just saying that an event at work really fueled this fire. He began into a list of negating statements, which while sweet was not the right approach. I told him, “No, that isn’t how I’m supposed to respond. Don’t you get it…? I’m the QUEEN of the losers. Where is my crown? Bring me my scepter. I want my Queen of the Losers throne. Let all others bow before my superior ability to fail.”. He looked at me and had a sad face on and said, “You can’t talk about my wife that way.” I replied, “Yes I can and I must because compulsive thoughts like this are a Chinese finger trap and the more I fight the tighter it is.

    • chipur November 1, 2013, 12:08 pm

      Nice, Patricia, very nice. Thank you for sharing a smidge of your household – life – with us. What better way to defuse an inaccurate/false thought but to take it on and proudly wear it? ‘Course, fact is, you know the truth. And your (what I assume is) humorous approach is wonderful. By the way, I like your husband’s response – quick-witted guy, I’d say. I’m always thankful for your visits and contributions. Please continue to stop-by and participate…

  • Jody Lamb November 3, 2013, 8:14 pm

    Very interesting to learn about how to combat those powerful intrusive thoughts! You’re doing a very wonderful thing sharing this information the way you do – you’re likely reaching people who really need to learn about these methods, yet haven’t yet taken steps to get help for them and are feeling more anxiety because of it. Thanks for all you do, Bill!

    • chipur November 4, 2013, 9:12 am

      Thanks for the kind thoughts/words, Jody. We be doin’ all we can on this side of the fence. Appreciate your visit and participation…

      • Elle January 15, 2014, 10:37 pm

        Thank you so much for this article. I was sexually molested as a child in a contained incident. I went on with my life loving children and people and blocking out that incident. Than one day out of the blue the IT struck and it hit me hard I attempted suicide and refused to be around children for a whole year. I was having panic attacks any time I was near one and anxiety at home thinking I was sick. Time went by and I recovered with counseling and medications and I used this method. Recently I relapsed HARD while trying to be intimate with my fiance’ and the pressures of going to school full time and working full time after 7 years. I have developed IT’s of all nature from harm to sexual. I have started seeing a counselor and started medications. I still have a long way to go but doing research on my own I realized this is all in my head. Also I’ve had to confront my PTSD along with my IT’s and potential OCD but I’m feeling better day by day. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!

      • chipur January 16, 2014, 10:10 am

        Well, hey, Elle, thank you so much for stopping-by and participating. I appreciate your sharing so frankly. That’s so important here on Chipur, ’cause that’s how readers learn and heal. You’ve been through much, and it sounds like your spirit remains strong. My best to you, Elle, as you move on in your recovery…

  • Micaela March 11, 2014, 9:46 pm

    Thank you for this! I have been plagued with the intrusive thoughts syndrome for the past eight months as well, and very often feel very hopeless.. at twenty years old, it’s extremely debilitating considering the ITs effect literally my every thought. I would honestly rather have ANYTHING else be wrong with me. I just need them to end.

    • Brian L. March 12, 2014, 6:47 am

      I am experiencing ITs as well Micaela. I relate with your feeling hopeless, and have been going though anxiety for over a month. I don’t know which came first the anxiety or the IT, but they seem to be working together and making my life hell on earth. Living through this anxiety-IT period of my life has been about the most difficult I have experienced.

      • chipur March 12, 2014, 12:04 pm

        Thanks for stopping-by and contributing, Brian L. I’m responding to both yours and Micaela’s comment, k?

        Boy, I sure understand the devastation of ITs. Mine hit right around age 19. I’ll never forget lying in bed in my dorm room at Michigan State – hearing the midnight freight going by and being tormented by the thought of running to the tracks and throwing myself in front of it. And there were so many other ITs that terrified me for several years following. I had absolutely no idea as to what was going on. And then there was walking down an open staircase in a cave in SW Missouri with a child in my arms, wondering what would happen if I threw her over. God! So I know the torment. I don’t deal with ITs anymore. However, I know there are times when I start to lean toward the obsessive. When that happens, I know it’s time to take a look at the stress factor. Am I doing too much, not getting enough sleep, need to hit the gym, etc.

        It’s my opinion high levels of anxiety and stress generate ITs. But, of course, when we experience them our anxiety ramps-up. So, go figure, another vicious cycle. I want to remind both of you the point of intervention is the compulsive response to the IT – typically avoidance. Doing everything possible to buy some time – divert – until the IT passes is the way to go. Focusing upon making the obsessive thought go away won’t get you where you want to go, k?

        I know all may seem hopeless, but I had a nasty case of ITs – and don’t any longer. Don’t give up – and don’t lose hope!!!

        Thank you both for stopping-by and sharing. It super helps anyone who visits…


    • chipur March 12, 2014, 11:18 am

      Hi, Micaela! I appreciate your comment. I’m going to respond to it, along with Brian L’s, as reply to his comment…