If You've Ever Had Truly Terrible Thoughts, You'll Want to Read These Tips From Therapists

While it's not often discussed, a lot of people who battle anxiety experience intrusive thoughts. These aren't the same types of worries you might have about how you're doing in school, your finances, or your relationships (also common), but disturbing, unsettling thoughts about the possibility that you'll lose a child or run your car off the road, for example.

If you have these thoughts occasionally or frequently, it's important to know that you're not alone. "Perhaps the most significant step of coping with intrusive thoughts is knowing that everyone has them, and it's completely normal," Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in New York City, told POPSUGAR. "It's how you manage and get past them that can determine your attachment to them."

If your intrusive thoughts are a constant companion and interfere with your daily life, it's always best to enlist the help of a therapist. For those who don't have immediate access to professional help, we've rounded up some therapists' best tips and techniques for combatting intrusive thoughts on your own.

Do Something Creative
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Do Something Creative

Gayani DeSilva, MD, a psychiatrist and author, explained that doing something creative — like drawing, painting, or even coloring — helps the brain use different pathways than the worrisome ones. "The brain is extremely powerful, but lazy. It tends to use the same pathways that generate the same thoughts over and over again," Dr. DeSilva said. "So, the more time we spend worrying about something, the more often we'll worry about the same thing."

However, if we task our brain to solve a new problem, it switches into a more powerful mode and begins to make new connections, which means that new thoughts are generated. "The more often we task our brain to think in different ways, the less likely we are to get stuck in the same useless thinking patterns," she explained.

Practice Some Breathwork
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Practice Some Breathwork

Diane Strachowski, Ed.D, a licensed psychologist, told POPSUGAR that coping strategies that relax the body will indirectly calm the mind. When you're anxious or stressed, your natural response is to hold your breath — this is called "sympathetic arousal," otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response, Dr. Strachowski explained. Restricted breathing sets off a cascade of other symptoms, including lightheadedness, a racing heart, or the feeling of being out of control.

"The solution is to engage the parasympathetic system or the relaxation response by doing breathwork," Dr. Strachowski said. "The technique involves filling the lower belly — also called the diaphragm — with air, then releasing the breath with exaggerated force." When you do this, make a whooshing sound on the exhale. Dr. Strachowski recommends repeating this cycle for 10 minutes for optimal results.

"With more oxygen and a relaxed body, the brain gets the message, 'Nope, there is nothing to worry about here,'" she explained. "People who have done healing breathwork are less likely to experience intrusive thoughts."

Try Meditating
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Try Meditating

According to Dr. Strachowski, mindfulness meditation or transcendental meditation can be extremely helpful in managing intrusive thoughts. "The goal of meditation is less to clear the mind [and] more to become mindful of one's thoughts," she explained. When she's working on mindfulness meditation with her clients, Dr. Strachowski suggests that they project their thoughts onto a big movie screen moving from left to right. "The objective is to observe rather than to interact with what they see," she explained.

Regardless of which style of meditation you choose, stick with it. Like yoga, meditation is a practice, so routine and consistency are important. "Meditation has been proven scientifically beneficial," Dr. Strachowski added. "People who meditate show more neural activity in their brains compared to people who don't meditate."

Find a Way to Ground Yourself
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Find a Way to Ground Yourself

"When your thoughts are repeating over and over without any respite from the chatter, you are most likely not conscious of your physical body," Patti Ashley, PhD, LPC, told POPSUGAR. "In order to stop the thoughts, you must first get grounded in your body." Dr. Ashley provided some simple techniques to do exactly that:

  • Imagine your feet cemented solidly into the ground.
  • Imagine sitting in a chair that's nailed all the way down into the earth.
  • Do a body scan to identify where you might be tight or tense.
  • Simply touch your cheeks and/or other body parts.
Reframe Your Thoughts
Getty | Qi Yang

Reframe Your Thoughts

Rebecca B. Skolnick, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and cofounder of MindWell NYC, told POPSUGAR that everyone has thoughts going through our minds each day, some of which are more accurate or helpful than others. If you're having intrusive, disturbing thoughts about negative things happening, "turn those thoughts into predictions and then evaluate the likelihood based on evidence," she said.

As an example, Dr. Skolnick said that, if you're worried about a family member getting sick, you can check the facts by comparing what you know with the thoughts you've had. "Based on that information, you can determine how likely it is that your worry is going to come true," she said, adding that you can also walk yourself through the worst case scenario, best case scenario, and most likely scenarios in order to get a more realistic picture of what's likely to occur.

"When thinking about the worst case scenario, it is useful to then think about how you can cope effectively if this were to come true, even if it is unlikely," Dr. Skolnick advised. "These tools are helpful in bringing in more rationale and well-rounded perspectives since anxiety tends to make us focus on the negative or catastrophize situations."