Intrusive thoughts are closely related to addiction. They are a central feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Persistent, unwanted thoughts about traumatic memories, feelings of shame, and worries about the future may plague you constantly. People often drink or use drugs to quiet these thoughts temporarily. Of course, this often makes the problem worse. People in recovery have to learn to manage not only the intrusive thoughts that drove their addictions, but also intrusive thoughts related to relapse. Learning to deal with intrusive thoughts is crucial for recovery. Here are some suggestions.
Remember you are not your thoughts.
People often identify with their thoughts more than they should. Brains work mostly by association. Sometimes your brain comes up with strange associations, memories, or thoughts you really don’t like. Those thoughts are not so much about you as they are subconscious computations of weighted inputs, some of which are totally random. Think of your thoughts as more like your Facebook feed. They are often unpleasant, repetitive, and irrelevant. You are experiencing a succession of posts, but they are not you. You are free to scroll through without engaging.
Don’t try to avoid intrusive thoughts.
If you try to avoid thoughts or push them away, they only become stronger. We experience the fear or repulsion associated with them and that emotional charge reinforces them. Just as a dangerous encounter impresses itself more deeply in our memory because of the strong emotion it causes, an intrusive thought becomes stronger when we react to it with fear. The alternative is to accept the thought, acknowledge it, and recognise it’s just a thought and it can’t hurt you. If you don’t put energy into it, it will eventually go away.
Therapy can help.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, has been shown to be effective in dealing with all kinds of intrusive thoughts. In CBT you learn to challenge your relation to your thoughts. Often, there are irrational beliefs driving obsessive thoughts. They might have to do with feelings of shame, anger, resentment, or fear. For example, you may feel like it would be unbearable if your partner left you and you worry about it obsessively. In reality, it wouldn’t be unbearable, but that isn’t obvious when you’re trapped in obsessive worrying. A therapist can help you spot those traps and develop skills for escaping them.
Castle Craig Hospital is a landmark of addiction and mental health treatment in Scotland, serving the UK, the EU, and patients from all over the world. Our commitment to long term abstinence has created a successful programme of clinical and complementary therapies for mind, body, and spirit. Serving over 10,000 patients for more than 25 years, the Castle Craig model is proven in changing lives. Call our 24 hour free confidential phone-line for information: 0808 231 7723. From outside the UK please call: +44 1721 788 006
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | January 10, 2020