5 Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques for Intrusive Thoughts

5 Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques for Intrusive Thoughts
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Cognitive-behavioral techniques can be very useful for taking power away from intrusive thoughts. These are the thoughts that invade our mind, immersing us in their toxic mist. But before our anxiety gets worse and leads to greater cognitive decline, we can use these simple strategies on a daily basis.

For those who have never heard of cognitive-behavioral therapy, you will be happy to know it is one of the most used “toolboxes” in the typical practice of any psychologist. One of its pioneers was Aaron Beck. He realized he needed another approach after years of relying on psychoanalysis.

“If our thinking is straightforward and clear, we are better equipped to reach our goals.”

Aaron Beck-

The majority of people with depression, anxiety, stress, or the effects of trauma have within them a second self. An obsessive, negative, crushing “I” that plunges them into constant negative dialogue hard to get out of.

Such was Dr. Beck’s interest in understanding and solving this harmful dynamic that he changed his therapeutic tactics to one he considered more useful: cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral techniques proved to be incredibly effective in clinical practice. If we manage to gradually change our thought patterns, that gripping, negative emotional charge will weaken. Then, we can make changes and behave in a more healthy way.

Cognitive-behavioral techniques for intrusive thoughts.

Cognitive-behavioral techniques for intrusive thoughts

Having obsessive, negative ideas is a huge source of suffering. It is one thing that can intensify the cycle of anxiety. It can dig us deeper into our hole as we surround ourselves with images, impulses, and unhelpful reasoning that completely cloud our sense of control.

In these cases, hearing, “Calm down. Stop worrying about things that haven’t happened yet,” does not help. Whether we like it or not, your mind is an endless factory of ideas. Unfortunately, what it produces does not always help us achieve our goals or feel better.

We all have pretty absurd and unhelpful ideas. However, under normal conditions we do not give this reasoning too much power. Instead, we prefer to prioritize encouraging, helpful thoughts.

Now, when we go through periods of stress or anxiety, intrusive thoughts will be more frequent. We also usually give these thoughts more power than they deserve. Let’s see what cognitive-behavioral techniques can help us in times like these.

Holding a cloud.

1. Thought records

Thought records enable us to apply logic to our mental processes. Think of someone who is afraid of losing his job. Overnight, he gets obsessed with the fact that management thinks he’s doing everything wrong.

This cycle may end up causing a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, by thinking of everything he could do wrong, sooner or later he will end up doing it (for example, by falling into a very negative state of mind). To have a better sense of control, balance, and coherence, nothing is more helpful than making records of our invasive thoughts.

All it takes is writing down every negative idea that appears in your mind. Then you work out its truth. “I just know that everything I’ve done at work has been wrong.” Is there anything that proves that this is true? Have I caught my supervisor’s attention? What have I done differently today that I think was so bad?”

2. Scheduling positive activities

Schedule rewarding activities throughout your day. Something as simple as “quality time for myself” has very positive results. It stops your overthinking. These activities can be very simple and brief, like going out for a coffee with a friend. Give yourself a break. Buy a book, make a good meal, listen to music, etc.

3. Hierarchy of concerns

Intrusive thoughts are like smoke from a chimney; it’s the heat of something that is burning inside us. That internal fire is made up of our unresolved problems that just get worse over time.

  • The first step to control the focus of our thoughts, feelings, and anguish is to clarify them. How do we clarify them? By making a hierarchy of problems. A scale of concerns that goes from low to high.
  • Start by writing down everything that concerns you. You’re visualizing all the chaos that is inside you, like a brainstorm.
  • Next, make a hierarchy starting with what you consider small problems and ending with the most paralyzing ones that feel like too much.
  • Once you have a visual order, reflect on each point. Try to think rationally and come up with solutions to each one.

4. Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning is a very common type of distortion. For example, if I had a bad day and feel frustrated, I will start to see life as an endless, dark tunnel. Another common idea is to think that if someone disappoints me, it’s because I don’t deserve love.

So another cognitive-behavioral technique that we must learn to use daily is objectivity. We cannot forget that our emotions are not always indicative of an objective truth. They are only momentary moods we must understand and manage.

“If our thinking is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning, and erroneous interpretations, we become in effect deaf and blind.”

Aaron Beck-

5. Preventing intrusive thoughts

Whether we want it or not, there are always situations tempting us to fall into the abyss of intrusive thoughts once again. One way to be attentive to these situations is to keep a diary. Something as simple as writing down your feelings each day makes you more conscious of things.

Write down whatever comes to mind. Describe the situations when you felt certain feelings. Perhaps there are people, habits, or scenarios that make you lose control or feel vulnerable.

By keeping better records of our day, we will see what these things are. We’ll be able to prevent ourselves from having a negative reaction to them (and it can even help us manage them).

Keeping a diary.

In conclusion, there are many cognitive-behavioral techniques that can be useful in these and many other cases when we need to manage anxiety, stress, and depression. There are also good books on the subject, including Aaron Beck’s book Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders: Science and Practice. 

We have the power to acquire and develop resources to face life with. Life is complex and sometimes we need help to understand what goes on in our minds.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.