I Think? I'm Having? Intrusive Thoughts? What Do I Do???

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I Think? I'm Having? Intrusive Thoughts?Sofie Birkin

Hey, you! Welcome to the little corner of Cosmo that we call Free Therapy. We're glad you're here. This is where we take reader questions—about family feuds, work woes, friendship fiascos, mental health headaches, and everything in between—and get answers on how to deal from our advice columnist extraordinaire, therapist Minaa B.

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Content warning: This article has mentions of self-harm. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or going to 988Lifeline.org.

Dear Minaa,

It’s taken me a while to put a name to what I’m going through, but after a lot of googling and scrolling TikTok (I know…but it’s helpful?), I’m pretty convinced I’m suffering from intrusive thoughts. I’ll get this voice in my mind— to be clear, it’s my own voice, not a hallucination or delusion—telling me to do things that I would never actually do.

Like, when I’m out to eat, it imagines me knocking over my water glass…just because. Or a more serious and scary example: Recently, the voice hinted that the next time I have a depressive episode, I might get to such a low that I decide to hurt myself. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression in the past, but it’s never gotten to that point; I’ve never even considered self-harm. Now, “hearing” these thoughts is freaking me TF out.

They don’t seem to be triggered by anything—they just pop into my head and I can’t get them out. And because they’re coming from my own brain, I feel like it must mean something, you know? Every time it happens, I end up in a frantic “What is happening?!” spiral.

Are these actually intrusive thoughts? And if so, why do they feel way more intense than other examples I’ve read about, like people thinking, What if I threw my phone into a lake right now? Will my inner voice be stuck like this forever?

Dear Reader,

In case TikTok wasn’t clear or nuanced enough (or, ahem, accurate, for that matter), intrusive thoughts are repetitive ideas or visuals that unexpectedly slip into our minds. They can often take the form of “something we shouldn’t do”—actions that, if you followed through IRL, would have negative consequences. It sounds like this is exactly what you’re dealing with, and rest assured, your situation is very common.

Each intrusive thought falls on a long spectrum from harmless impulse (like knocking over a glass of water) to something more serious, like hurting yourself or others. An example of the latter kind would be, What if I poured this hot oil on my foot? while you’re in the middle of cooking. Or if you were holding a baby and your mind unexpectedly went to, I could easily drop this kid on the floor. But here’s the important part: As long as you don’t feel motivated to act on these thoughts, even the more troubling ones usually aren’t a big deal. The fact that you’re thinking about doing something doesn’t mean you actually will.

Instead, look at these thoughts as little glitches in your mind. In most cases, there’s no root cause—a weird (often inappropriate, jarring, or just uncomfortable) notion is simply passing by. It’s totally normal for your brain to occasionally cycle through thoughts like this, so try not to fret or overanalyze them.

All that said, I want to address the weightier moments you’ve been having. Although no one really knows why intrusive thoughts happen, people who go through prolonged stress or a traumatic event or who have a mental health diagnosis are more likely to experience them. So it’s possible that your anxiety and depression diagnosis is linked to both the frequency and intensity of your intrusive thoughts. And that an underlying nervousness about having another depressive episode could also be at play.

Generally, it helps to ground yourself in the present moment to remind you that you’re safe. If a thought becomes overwhelming, name the circumstances of your environment and reality, like, “I’m standing on a rug. I can see a poster on the wall. I smell coffee in my kitchen.” Do this until you feel like your attention is focused on the here and now.

Similarly, identify your intrusive thoughts for what they are: just thoughts. Tell yourself exactly that—“It was just a thought”—however many times you need to. This helps you weaken the idea’s intensity and power. Journaling is also a great tool. Whether you write things down or use voice notes, working through thoughts on paper or out loud can help you look at them in a more objective way.

Finally, if you’re not already seeing a therapist, consider finding one who’s well versed in what you’re dealing with. They can help you create a care plan that keeps you from acting on any of these thoughts and helps you identify any particular triggers. Whatever strategies you ultimately use, keep reminding yourself that you’re okay—and that you’re the one in control, not these seemingly out-of-nowhere thoughts.

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