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What to Do with Intrusive Thoughts that Won’t Go Away

Most of us have had the experience of having intrusive thoughts.  They’re the thoughts that “snag” in your brain and won’t go away.  When you finally shift your focus to something else, the thoughts periodically pop back. If you push the thoughts away, they may pop back faster. You feel hunted. The best way to deal with intrusive thoughts is to not push them away, but rather to have an unphased reaction to them. Acting like you don’t care about these electrified thoughts powers them down.  Most of us have had the experience of being stuck on a thought, sleeping on it, and finding that in the morning, we have the distance to say, “Wow, that thing that I was so upset about was really irrational.”

But what to do if you wake up in the morning and the thought is still there?

Invite the thought to stay awhile.

Having an intrusive thought that won’t go away and survives a good night’s sleep is unnerving.  The way to deal with it is an even more involved version of how you would deal with any other intrusive thought. Accept that you’re having the intrusive thought. Let it hang out in your peripheral vision. It may feel uncomfortable, but just let it be.

I like to visualize a “long term intrusive thought” this way: imagine that your token friend who drives you really crazy but you’re still friends, has shown up unannounced on your doorstep. Your friend is ringing the doorbell incessantly; she knows you’re home!  If you try to leave her out there, odds are good she is going to keep ringing the doorbell and she may start texting you or start calling you!  But if you go downstairs and say, “Oh, hey, come on in. I’m pretty busy right now, but if you want, you can sit on the couch and read a magazine.”  That pesky friend is going to get bored quickly and maybe think twice about showing up unannounced again.

If it sounds hard, that’s because it is hard. Not giving a shit when you have an unsettling, intrusive thought is like a muscle; if you have OCD, it’s a muscle you want to focus on strengthening.

I’m taking on this topic because it feels like my brain is on fire right now.


An intrusive thought has taken up residence in my head. It’s a thought I’ve had before. It’s disturbing, it’s really visual in nature, and it’s intertwined uncomfortably with my real life experience.  And I can’t sleep it off. It’s been five days of discomfort.

The good news is, I know this is OCD. I know this is OCD because it feels like there is an enormous problem.  But I logically know there is no problem.  I have shelter, I have food, I have friends, and everything is okay.  It’s just my brain. The issue is, when I react to this train of intrusive thoughts with anguish and fear, it’s like fanning a fire.  If I acted like I cared less, they would fade away.

So, I’m doing my best to embrace the thoughts.  I’m taking a positive affirmative approach: “Yeah, maybe I did make a huge mistake. And maybe I made the same mistake a second time. I screwed up majorly. Oh, well. I’m going to keep living my life.” I say this with affection, for the thought, for my glowing OCD brain, and for me.

I’m also making an effort to do things to get the feel-good chemicals flowing in my brain:

  1. Whenever I’m having a rough patch, I have a policy that I go into a get-exercise-everyday routine.  It’s the most surefire method to feel better.
  2. I’m doing little things that make me happy, like decluttering my apartment and listening to new music. A friend of mine recently introduced me to Glass Animals and Cillie Barnes, and I’ve been listening to any music that YouTube recommends based on my listening to these artists. I really enjoy listening to new music and getting familiar with new bands and new music gives my brain something novel to process.
  3. I’m upping my self-care game. Occasionally, this thought in my head feels like white-hot pain. So, I need to do everything I can to make myself comfortable. I’m getting lots of rest. I’m keeping my apartment crazy clean. I have my favorite super soft Ralph Lauren blanket at the ready when I want to cuddle up. I am drinking tons of cucumber water (putting fresh cucumber slices in a pitcher of water is the easiest way ever to get yourself to drink more water. It’s goddamn delicious).  I bought a bunch of dried lavender and put them in a vase in my living room; I bought a lavender aromatherapy candle and a lavender air freshener from Whole Foods. The smell in my house is inherently soothing. I bought fresh flowers for my desk. I got a manicure. Proactively doing these things makes me feel like the designer of my own life… even when it feels like my brain is a toddler having a meltdown.


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