Man dealing with intrusive thoughts
Health

The Easiest Way to Banish Intrusive Thoughts, According to a Psychologist

Everyone has them. Here’s how to deal with them.
By Rebekah Harding
May 16, 2024

30-Second Takeaway

  • Intrusive thoughts are persistent, disturbing thoughts that may involve feelings of inadequacy, doubt, mild danger, or visualizing explicit and uncomfortable scenarios.
  • Many intrusive thoughts stem from trauma.
  • Identifying the trauma and honing in on the basic truths of your situation can help dissipate intrusive thoughts.

You’re crushing a series of heavy reps at the gym or getting frisky with your partner. Suddenly a thought flies in out of nowhere: What if I drive off a bridge? What if I intentionally drop this weight on my foot? What if I say an offensive slur?

Your next thought: Am I completely disturbed? 

Rest assured that you’re not—but you’re having disturbing thoughts known as intrusive thoughts. And you’re not alone. 

An estimated six million people in the United States struggle with frequent, unwanted intrusive thoughts according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). They can  range from uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and mild danger to full-on disturbing or explicit. 

“We have intrusive thoughts because there’s trauma in your background. It may be very clear trauma that you’re not facing and addressing,” psychiatrist Paul Conti, M.D., explained to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., on a recent episode of the Huberman Lab podcast.

The good news: there’s an easy way to nix these bothersome thoughts for good.

Mental Health

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

The first step to axing intrusive thoughts is recognizing their source, says Conti and Huberman. 

“Reflective self-scrutiny is a great idea. Ask, ‘what’s really going on inside of me?” Conti explained. For example, if you have the thought of beating your jerk of a boss to a pulp during a team meeting, you’re not a monster. You could just be pissed that he’s forced you to stay late every night for the past month.

Other intrusive thoughts come from childhood. If you struggled in school, you might be anxious about underperforming at work. 

Identifying the source of your rogue thoughts is the first step to kicking them to the curb. 

Conti’s advice: reality check your stressful thoughts with “givens” : basic truths about your situation that can neuter persistent intrusive thoughts. For example:

Intrusive thought: I’m too ugly to be in a relationship. 

Given: Several people complimented my looks recently on a dating app. 

Intrusive thought: I don’t make as much as my peers so I should epically quit my job. . 

Given: I like my job, and I’m making enough money to pay the bills and have a few hobbies. 

“Go back and look at what you’re taking for granted,” says Conti. This help you realize, ‘Oh, there’s a voice in my head saying, ‘You’re unattractive. You’re not making enough money. You’re not good enough.’ And you know what? I don’t believe that anymore.”

Over time, your intrusive thoughts should go from intrusive and disturbing, to intrusive and boring, according to Huberman. Eventually, they’ll “atrophy and dissipate.”

“That’s how they go away. There’s no more power in them,” Conti said. 

If you’re struggling with more explicit intrusive thoughts—like picturing self destructive or dangerous behaviors—you may want to talk to a mental health professional about how you’re feeling. This could be a sign of a more severe mental health condition like OCD, depression, or suicidal ideation. If you or a loved one is in current emotional distress, call 988 to get in touch with the 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.