Intrusive Thoughts: What They Are & How to Not Let Them Run Your Life

In this podcast (episode #366) and blog, I talk about intrusive thoughts, and how to manage them using what I call “thinker moments”.

Intrusive thinking is can be defined as uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts that we feel unable to resist. This kind of thinking is often a way of coping with an underlying, unresolved issue. It’s not always the most effective or sustainable way to deal with pain or trauma, but it’s a coping mechanism—a type of distraction you use to try to keep the source of your pain bearable, at least in the short term. 

Intrusive thoughts are a type of toxic thought habit, which are negative behavioral patterns we have established over time, like getting irritated in traffic, snapping at a loved one, or allowing ourselves to go down worry “rabbit holes” by always seeing the negative. 

If we are constantly trapped in a web of intrusive thinking, it can become a toxic mindset. Whatever we think about the most grows because we give it energy, which, in turn, can impact our ability to think and our overall health.

Fortunately, these thoughts can be changed through the process of reconceptualization. And this includes one very powerful tool that is often overlooked: daydreaming!

As you have heard me say many times before, the brain is neuroplastic. This means it is constantly changing. We merge with our environments through our choices, including how long we decide to spend on our phone. “Thinker” time is very important because it balances our minds, allowing us to observe our environment before we just let it influence and direct our thinking, as I discuss in detail in my books Think, Learn, Succeed and Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.

Contrary to popular belief, the mind does not grind to a halt when you are doing nothing. Spontaneous thought processes, including mind-wandering, creative thinking, and daydreaming, arise when thoughts are relatively free from focused thinking and external influences. This type of internal thinking plays an important role in contributing to the richness of intentional thinking and subsequent learning, adding a powerful creative aspect to our lives. Learning in the “thinker” moments can enhance our success in work, school, and life.

Indeed, the process of understanding what allows free thinking, and what allows something to get “stuck in our heads,” is crucial to mental self-care. Analyzing our thoughts in this way gives insight into how we can capture and change toxic and intrusive thoughts that are blocking our success—those things and feelings we just can’t seem to move past, which grow stronger as we think about them. 

Deliberate, persistent, negative thinking like “I can’t do it” or “This is too hard” can result in harm in the brain and body, setting the stage for future mind and brain issues. These types of thoughts can literally paralyze our imagination, inhibiting success in school, life, and work, and creating negative reinforcing feedback loops. The mind can be hijacked, so to speak, by these thoughts as they move up from our nonconscious mind, unless we learn how to control them.

Thankfully, “thinker” moments allow us to manage our mind and regulate these intrusive thoughts. Controlling the mind-wandering “thinker” is actually known as an awake resting state. It activates the coexisting default mode network (DMN) and task positive network (TPN) in the brain in a constructive and healthy way. These networks form the brain’s inner life with the DMN dominating and becoming especially active when the mind is introspective and thinking deeply in a directed rest or idling state. 

The DMN is a primary network that we switch into when we switch off from the outside world and move into a state of focused mindfulness. It activates to even higher levels when a person is daydreaming, introspecting, or letting his or her mind wander in an organized exploratory way through the endless myriad of thoughts within the deep spiritual nonconscious part of who we are. 

The TPN, on the other hand, supports the active thinking required for making decisions. So, as we focus our thinking and activate the DMN, at some point in our thinking process we move into active decision making. This activates the TPN, and we experience this as action. 

Being alone with our thoughts can also provide valuable and potent insight into how we function and can positively influence our judgment and decisions. As Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Thinker moments allow us to examine our own internal lives and develop our unique imagination. 

Management of our mind and thinking is the key to success, which is why it is the overriding objective of all my work, research, books, and programs. It is your perceptions of your thoughts, and what you do with your thoughts, that are important. Learning to capture thoughts and evaluate them logically by developing a thinker mindset is one of the most significant parts of any mental self-care regimen, allowing us to become more self-evaluative and self-regulatory. 

Here are some simple ways to activate your “thinker mindset” and build up your resilience against intrusive thoughts: 

  • The average person spends up to eight hours a day using technology. Some of the worst effects of electronic devices seem to be mitigated when devices are used less than two hours a day. Find ways to limit your use of technology throughout the day.
  • Thinker moments aren’t an odd quirk of the mind but are natural and spontaneous. Allocate time, at least sixteen minutes a day, to just thinking and allowing your mind to wander. You can spread this across the day in two or three intervals.
  • As mentioned above, thinker moments teach you how to live the self-examined life. As your mind wanders, think about what you are thinking and your own experiences, perhaps writing about your thoughts in a journal or notepad.
  • During your thinker moments, write down, in a self-reflective way, which thoughts are free-flowing as well as which thoughts get stuck. Track the direction of free-flowing thoughts over time. Schedule in time to work on the thoughts that you feel are keeping you stuck.
  • Evaluate whether your thoughts give you a sense of peace or make you worried. If your thoughts concern you, think differently about the same thing every time that thought pops up. In other words, reconceptualize the disturbing thought. Next, practice developing the newly reconceptualized positive thought daily and automatizing it over time into helpful, useful, and successful memory. For more on this process see Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, my app Neurocycle, and my previous blogs and podcasts

For more on intrusive thoughts and thinker moments, listen to my podcast (episode #366). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!). 

You can now also join me on Patreon for exclusive, ad-free content! Sign up for a membership level that suits you, and receive access to ad-free exclusive bonus podcasts. These episodes will include more targeted, step-by-step guides for specific mental health issues AND some fun, more personal podcasts about topics like my favorite skincare products and favorite books, as well as live Q&As, fan polls and requests, and exclusive digital downloads!  

This podcast is sponsored by: 

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Podcast Highlights

1:30 Intrusive thoughts are a global problem!

2:50, 7:30 What intrusive thoughts are

8:00 Why we must weaken intrusive thoughts 

9:00 Mind management & intrusive thoughts

9:50 The importance of thinker moments & how they train us to be more self-regulated 

12:05 The brain is constantly changing—it is neuroplastic

12:30 Whatever we focus on the most grows, including intrusive thoughts

14:00 The power of being alone with our thoughts

19:00 How to get into a “thinker mindset”

21:00 How thinker moments affect the brain

23:00, 26:15 Tips to use thinker moments to build up mental resilience & manage intrusive thoughts

This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

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