Our mind is a creative space, filled with thoughts and ideas that suddenly appear without will or intention. Most often our spontaneous thoughts have little purpose or meaning, dealing with things that are benign and trivial. Sometimes these intrusive thoughts can be bizarre and fantastical, causing us to chuckle at their absurdity. At other times, we have positive mental intrusions that bring a momentary sense of encouragement and a feeling of blessing, and then there is a rare occasion when we have a truly creative thought that we consider inspirational. But in the midst of this hubbub of mental spontaneity, one can also experience negative, even dark thoughts, which pop into the mind and cause considerable personal distress when they grab our attention. It is these distressing intrusive thoughts, images and memories that can trigger a fresh round of negative emotion like depressed mood, anxiety, frustration and guilt.
Most conventional forms of cognitive behavior therapy focus on more persistent, intentional forms of negative thought. Yet, spontaneous negative thoughts can be especially troubling for people because they are involuntary, often appearing against our will. Because of this we tend to pay more attention to them and think they are more meaningful and significant. If I suddenly have the thought “everyone is looking at me” I am more likely to feel anxious because the intrusiveness of the thought makes it more believable. The same thing with a depressive intrusive thought like “I don’t want to do anything”. A person may conclude that the sudden occurrence of this thought means that it’s best if you take it easy and not push yourself.
Often distressing intrusive thoughts cause emotional distress because they trigger more persistent forms of negative thinking like worry, rumination or obsessions. If this is happening to you, it’s important to learn how to deal effectively with your negative intrusive thoughts, images or memories. There are three key strategies you can use to stem the negative effects of unwanted mental intrusions.
- Normalize the Intrusion: Spontaneous thought is a normal part of brain function. In fact, unintended spontaneous thought has been called the brain’s “default mode of operation”. No doubt some people have more spontaneous thought than others, and these “intrusive thinkers” cannot expect all their thoughts to be positive or neutral. We all have negative thoughts about ourselves, our personal world and our future that pop into our mind. So, don’t be surprised when you have a negative, even distressing, intrusive thought. Treat it as a normal part of your creative mind.
- Detoxify the Intrusion: Our negative intrusive thoughts become distressing when we misinterpret them as having deep personal significance. If the thought “I’ve been such a failure” pops into your mind, you might conclude that you really are a failure because the thought suddenly came to you. When we overthink our negative intrusive thoughts, they can become a “toxic” way of thinking. The alternative is to evaluate the validity of the thought, and if it is found to be exaggerated or unrealistic, treat it as a thought and not a fact. It’s an uninvited mental intruder that can be treated with the same degree of meaningless as the most random, trivial thought that pops into your mind. With repeated practice, you can learn to strip these distressing intrusions of their toxic personal meaning.
- Relinquish Mental Control: There is a paradox when it comes to mental self-control. The harder we try to suppress, prevent or dismiss an unwanted thought, the more we experience the opposite; that is, we find ourselves paying more, not less, attention to the thought. If you don’t believe me, try to not think of a white bear for two minutes. If you are like most people, the harder you try not to think about a white bear, the more you’ll think about the white bear. So when it comes to negative intrusive thoughts, stop trying to control your mind. Let your spontaneous thoughts, even the negative ones, come and go without trying to effortfully direct your attention. Accepting the intrusion, letting it fade from your mind naturally without effort on your part is the most effective way to deal with these unwelcomed mental intruders.
So if you are an “intrusive thinker”, I encourage you to exercise greater acceptance of your highly creative mind. You might find that you have many interesting and sometimes highly creative thoughts pop into your mind. But at the same time, you’ll probably have some negative mental intrusions. If you can accept these “darker” thoughts as the product of your creative mind, strip them of special personal meaning, and relinquish excessive mental control efforts, you can reverse their deleterious effect on your emotional well-being.
David A. Clark, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of New Brunswick, Canada. He completed postdoctoral training in cognitive therapy at Aaron T. Beck’s Mood Clinic in Philadelphia and has published over 150 scientific articles and papers on cognitive theory and therapy of depression and anxiety disorders. He has authored or coauthored several books including The Anxiety and Worry Workbook (Guilford, 2012), The Mood Repair Toolkit (Guilford, 2014) and The Anxious Thoughts Workbook (New Harbinger, 2018). He is a Founding Fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy and currently has a part-time private practice in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. For further information visit www.davidclarkpsychology.ca.
This entry is based on intervention strategies for anxious and depressive intrusive thoughts presented in The Anxious Thoughts Workbook: Skills to Overcome the Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts that Drive Anxiety, Obsessions & Depression by David A. Clark, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2018.