Intrusive Thoughts, Part 1

A few weeks ago I was going about my day, getting ready for a business lunch meeting. Showered, shampooed and shined, I was applying my makeup in my big, round, brightly lit make-up mirror, when seemingly out of nowhere, there it was. THAT thought. And then the NEXT one. The thoughts inside my head sounded like a noisy movie set with the director of this horror movie screaming, “Action!”

And so it began – just like a movie reel: a montage of faces, voices, smells… all of them immediately caused me to feel nauseous and panicked. I was triggered. For a moment, or maybe a bit longer, these faces, voices, and smells attached to distorted bodies and pictures… and I lost myself. For a moment, or maybe a bit longer, I panicked at the thought that these awful faces were after me NOW

Of course, they weren’t.

Yet, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t quite shake the “roller-coaster” feeling in my tummy — that unanchored, wandering feeling of uneasiness, as if something really bad (the original trauma) was going on in my present. I tried to ignore it and move through my day, but that’s not how PTSD works.

I got on the treadmill and blasted some raucous hard-pounding music. 


I still felt that uneasy, sick feeling of ongoing doom. I knew this feeling well and where it was taking me. I recognized where this could go. If I ignored it and left it unprocessed, it would paralyze me. Learning to process flashbacks/intrusive memories came when I was treated at an intensive trauma treatment program (Help for Trauma) that applied the ITR (Instinctual Trauma Response) method of treating trauma that changed my life in ten days of outpatient therapy.

What is an intrusive thought? 

An intrusive thought is an involuntary thought, memory, image, or unpleasant idea that you don’t want and didn’t welcome.
Intrusive thoughts can become an obsession, are upsetting and/or distressing, and can feel overwhelming when you try to manage or eliminate them. Intrusive thoughts may also occur in flashes and often cause significant anxiety when they make an appearance. Another word for these thoughts is “rumination.” Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD

There are different types of intrusive thoughts, but generally they fall into one of these categories:

  • Unwanted Memories: Unwanted memories are not often considered ‘intrusive thoughts,’ at least not in the medical sense. Many people experience persistent, unwanted memories. Those with PTSD, however, are especially prone to these types of intrusive thoughts/memories. It’s important to note that anyone may, and most people do, have a memory that causes them significant anxiety, and those with PTSD are more likely to have that memory pop up at unwanted times.
  • Violent Thoughts: Violent thoughts and aggression may also be common to those with some types of anxiety disorders and PTSD. Generally, the person has thoughts of themselves doing violent/aggressive things. However, one could consider worries about danger happening to other people to be violent thoughts as well.
  • Sexual Thoughts: Like violent thoughts, a person can have unwanted sexual thoughts. Sometimes these sexual thoughts are paired with religiously-induced shame, while other times the sexual thoughts may also be somewhat violent in nature.*

Any thought that comes at an inappropriate time may be considered an intrusive thought, but remember that FEAR is an intrusive thought and a lot of fear usually equals a lot of intrusive thoughts. 

Intrusive thoughts/memories are a core symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I know that in the past, talk therapy was (and maybe still is) considered a helpful therapy for intrusive or obsessive thoughts. After trauma treatment, I wasn’t having nightmares/flashbacks/intrusive thoughts on a daily basis anymore. The issue became how I handled them when they occasionally occurred, if I managed them well, and if I learned to “do it better” each time they happened. 

“Do it better” is another way of saying that I don’t try and ignore intrusive thoughts/memories anymore. Instead, I immediately begin grounding myself. Using the five senses is one way to ground ourselves in the here and now. Depending on the situation, grounding myself looks like different things. At times I sit quietly, holding and sipping a cup of HOT coffee. Drinking coffee is an experience that grounds me and gives me a feeling of safety and protection. After focusing on the comforting taste and warmth, I honestly look at what my reactions might be trying to tell me about my CPTSD journey and how I can comfort the part of me that feels distressed. 

Research on people without PTSD and general anxiety disorders shows that almost 90% of us have “bizarre” thoughts––thoughts about contamination, harm, religious impropriety, losing control, sexual “perversion”––you name it. Many of us have had thoughts like these. So your “weird” thoughts might mean nothing about you. Join the club. We are all a little weird. 

Thoughts and reality are not the same. If they were, we’d all be rich. Think about a pot of gold. Think about it all day. Wish for it. Pray for it. At the end of the day, all you will have will be a lot of thoughts, and you can’t take your thoughts to the bank.

What is the DIFFERENCE between a FLASHBACK and a MEMORY?  A flashback is NOT the same as a memory.                     

Those living with PTSD are prone to flashbacks.   Those with PTSD relive the traumatic event(s) any time they are “triggered.” Once triggered, they also relive the events in dreams/nightmares or at random times throughout the day. Once the traumatic event is triggered, it becomes almost impossible for the brain to focus on anything else. 

A memory is a recalled event that has a sequence, a timeline: a beginning, middle and an end. A flashback is a memory, but without any sequence or timeline. A flashback has a beginning and maybe a middle… but there is no end to the story (trauma), therefore a flashback cannot be processed. In the mind of the one living with PTSD, 10 or 15 years post-trauma, the traumatic event is still going on as if it never ended. Trauma causes what I call a “brain stutter” because it short circuits the brain’s ability to process trauma in the left hemisphere, where it is given a sequential time line which allows the event to be stored in the past as a memory.

Those with PTSD relive the traumatic event(s) any time they are “triggered.” Once triggered, they also relive the events in dreams/nightmares or at random times throughout the day. Once the traumatic event is triggered, it becomes almost impossible for the brain to focus on anything else. 

Living With Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can become a serious issue and are not limited to the examples above. You need to ask yourself  whether or not intrusive thoughts disrupt your life and cause enough anxiety and distress to be a problem that influences your ability to cope with life. If they are, then perhaps treatment can be considered.

Therapists are trained to teach people how to control their intrusive thoughts, but alternatives to therapy can also help. There are methods you can use on your own at home or in a place that provides comfort and safety. These methods help you to remain “grounded” when intrusive thoughts/memories occur. Some of these methods include art therapy, equine therapy, therapeutic massage, therapeutic yoga, and meditation, among others. 


Next week in Part 2… 

Am I trying to ignore intrusive thoughts/memories? 

Do I try to avoid situations that evoke them? 

Is there a WRONG way to deal with intrusive thoughts? 

Does anything really work? 

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