“The phrase “intrusive thoughts” seems to be having a moment—that is, on TikTok, at least.
The hashtag #intrusivethoughts has amassed over 830 million views, and research corroborates the growing interest in the phrase as over 90% of people experience intrusive thoughts. But with all this attention, the phrase’s definition has gotten, and experts aim to set the record straight.
Various TikToks have depicted intrusive thoughts as everyday impulses like the sudden urge to cut your hair or take an egg and smash it on the floor. But it can be more complex than that. Intrusive thoughts refer to images or ideas that typically cause discomfort.
Specific interactions can stimulate their presence, and other times they infiltrate suddenly, says Dr. Nina Vasan, a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer at Real, a mental health support app.
“They’re unwanted, and they cause a lot of distress,” Vasan tells Fortune. Intrusive thoughts are estimated to affect six million Americans, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Thoughts may pop into someone’s head related to violence, sex, or something terrible happening to someone they love. Other times, people face negative, degrading thoughts about themselves or feelings of paranoia about making mistakes or experiencing an accident.
While anyone can experience this phenomenon, it’s more commonly associated with mental health conditions. Having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can trigger these thoughts. Stress and anxiety, along with PTSD, can also put people at risk for these kinds of thoughts, Vasan says, and anything from a dream to an overwhelming interaction at work can set them off.
“The reason why it’s distressing is because these thoughts usually are not in line with that person’s regular way of acting or thinking,” Vasan says. “And so as a result, they end up feeling a lot of fear or shame.”
People blame themselves for having thoughts that feel embarrassing to say out loud. Instead of thinking, “this thought is bad,” people think, “I am bad,” Vasan says. It leads to rumination and distracts from daily life—not to mention is incredibly uncomfortable.
The bottom line: these thoughts can feel impossible to rid away.
So what do you do when an intrusive thought pops in and makes itself at home?
Don’t judge yourself
When faced with an intrusive thought, Vasan says to break the cycle of judging yourself for having it. Although you can’t see it, many people face unwanted thoughts.
People with a diagnosed mental health disorder tend to judge themselves and feel more shame around the intrusive thoughts, according to the OCD & Anxiety Center.
“It’s really important to recognize that these thoughts do not say anything bad about you,” Vasan says, and it can be easy to forget that people have tens of thousands of thoughts per day.
Remember they are thoughts
Our brains can play tricks on us, causing us undue fear.
We often get stuck in a worry spiral, thinking of the worst-case scenario in order to protect ourselves. But unfortunately, we can’t save ourselves from every bad outcome. Vasan says confronting intrusive thoughts takes separating the thought from reality.
“Thoughts are just thoughts,” she says. “They’re not inevitably going to happen.”
We may also face thoughts that make us question our own morals and integrity. You can comfort yourself in knowing that it doesn’t mean you will act on those thoughts, nor are they a reflection of your character, says Dr. Tom Zaubler, a psychiatrist based in New Jersey and the chief medical officer at NeuroFlow.
Don’t suppress them
Forcing yourself to stop thinking a certain way won’t wish the thoughts away. Suppression can have the opposite effect, launching the thought back even stronger. When you tell yourself not to think about something, the brain can become more attached to it.
Challenge the thoughts
Without judgment, ask yourself why you’re thinking this way. When is the thought happening? Do you notice any patterns? Sitting with discomfort can help you discover potential triggers. How can you help yourself and break the cycle?
When confronting unwanted thoughts, I’ve turned to journaling. The practice has helped me understand them better and, therefore, sort through why they may have surfaced. It gives me a sense of control over the thoughts, which are inherently uncontrollable. Try writing or repeating phrases in your head like, “this too shall pass” or “this is temporary,” Vasan says.
Cognitive behavioral therapy specifically helps people unravel their thoughts and distinguish them from their feelings and from reality. Others may find that meditation, breathing exercises, or talking the thoughts over with a licensed mental health expert works. If the thoughts become overbearing, reaching out for emergency mental health help is vital.
People have been battling their intrusive thoughts long before the phrase received wide attention over the internet. But the rise in loneliness, anxiety, and depression may have led people to open up about their experiences on social media because, by nature, experiencing these thoughts causes a “very isolated solitary experience,” Vasan says.
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