Intrusive thoughts, also known as „intrusion,“ are sudden involuntary thoughts that are often perceived as disturbing and annoying. They take different forms and are sometimes related to mental disorders and illnesses. They are often related to taboo subjects such as sexuality or violence. Often there is a reference to fear, which has manifested itself in the experience of a person. This can be very diverse and, for example, be related to loss, which can manifest itself in the fear of losing a close person. Or also in the constant thought of possibly being infected with pathogens.
What are intrusive thoughts? Meaning, definition, explanation
Furthermore, intrusive thoughts usually have connections to memories of past events, which a person has gone through in his real life. Some of the experiences have not been fully processed, which is why they keep coming back to the affected person in the form of intrusion. Basically, this form of thoughts is characterized by the fact that the experiencing person has little to no control over the thoughts.
In some cases, the thoughts are particularly pronounced. This is usually the case with an underlying traumatic experience. This can result in recurring intrusive thoughts, which are also referred to as „flashbacks.“ This psychological term can also be found again and again in everyday language. In the field of psychotraumatology, a precise distinction is made between flashback and intrusion. However, both can be assigned to intrusive thoughts.
Flashbacks are a particularly intense form of intrusion. They can be symptoms of certain mental disorders and illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Certain triggers, which are key stimuli, are considered to trigger this form of intrusion. These cause memories of certain traumatic events of the past to suddenly force themselves into the consciousness of the affected person. They are recalled and often relived on a mental level, which is experienced as agonizing by the affected person. There is a strong connection to emotions that were experienced in connection with traumatic events in the past. The emotions are also reactivated, which is why they affect the person’s experience as part of the flashback. However, there does not always have to be a specific trigger.
Intrusions that are not flashbacks are usually experienced less intensely. The affected person can still perceive his or her surroundings and retains at least a partial connection to reality. Another characteristic of these thoughts is that they often occur at moments when they seem inappropriate. These can be, for example, intrusive sexual thoughts in a serious situation in which a serious demeanor or empathy is required. Often the thoughts also trigger worry or anxiety and cause sufferers to ruminate repeatedly about past events. Intrusions also do not necessarily have to have a specific trigger, but can occur quite suddenly without being controllable. They can also trigger other physical symptoms, which are often associated with stress. These include heart palpitations and breathing problems. In some cases, the experience can escalate to the point of a panic attack. In the psychiatric context, obsessive thoughts occurring in certain mental disorders are also classified as intrusive thoughts.
Gaining control over intrusive thoughts
In science, it is assumed that it is possible to inhibit intrusive thoughts with certain thought techniques. Likewise, certain brain regions and neurotransmitters play a major role. Basically, the hippocampus and in this context the neurotransmitter GABA are of particular importance in the brain. Research has shown that people with too low a concentration of GABA in the hippocampus are less able to inhibit intrusive thoughts. By releasing GABA, it is regular that the activity of certain neurons can be inhibited. Too low a concentration of GABA proves to be a hindrance in this respect.
Different approaches and recommendations exist on how to control intrusive thoughts. One possible way is to try to accept the thoughts. This involves accepting that these thoughts occur and being aware that many other people are affected by them. It can be helpful to take away the relevance of the thoughts. When less attention is paid to them, they seem less important than when thoughts always revolve around them. However, the intrusions should not be ignored or repressed. Attempting acceptance can lead to learning to deal with the thoughts better. It is helpful to reflect on the situations in which the thoughts occur and record them in writing. This can be done with the help of a diary. In this way, the affected person can take time every day to deal with the written thoughts. However, it is recommended to limit oneself in time. The thoughts can also be reworded in a positive way. For example, recurring worries can be considered useful because they encourage the person to act thoughtfully and to recognize dangers. This can prove beneficial in many life situations.
If intrusive thoughts are particularly pronounced, as is the case with flashbacks, it makes sense to seek professional help. This can take the form of psychotherapy by a psychological psychotherapist or psychiatric treatment by a specialist.