New Research Suggests We Can Combat Intrusive Thoughts For Good

New research suggests that distracting ourselves from intrusive thoughts could actually be making them stronger.

They can occur at any hour of the day, and come to you in any space. You might be in line at the grocery store, hurriedly packing your vegetables and toiletries into your bag when they pop into your mind, or you might be trying desperately to relax and sink into the tender massage provided by your hairdresser during the deep wash. But when intrusive thoughts enter your mind, they can be hard to escape from and for some, they even pose a threat when it comes to continuing on with their daily tasks. These are the thoughts that enter our minds without warning and are often negative or emphasise our own self-doubts. 

If you suffer from intrusive thoughts, you’re not alone. These uncomfortable or disturbing thoughts occur frequently for many, and can be a reaction to an encounter, a negative feeling triggered by a work call or personal event, or simply refer to our self-doubts regarding body image or imposter syndrome in the workplace. 

Regardless of what intrusive thoughts you might experience, the fact is that most can only try their best to suppress them or distract ourselves to focus on something else entirely – which is all easier said than done. But according to new research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, we might have been going about it the wrong way all this time. Researchers suggest that we should in fact be doing the opposite as distracting ourselves from such thoughts could actually be making them stronger. 

According to psychologists Dr Isaac Fradkin and Dr Eran Eldar, the best way to tackle intrusive thoughts is through proactive thinking. In a study of 80 people, participants engaged in a word game where they were shown a series of literary cues. For each word, they then were asked to offer another associated word as quickly as possible after seeing the first cue. 

Each cue word was shown a total of five times throughout the testing, with participants challenged to give a different answer every time for the same cue that surfaced. Others were permitted to repeat their answers. Those who were able to provide alternate responses to cues were determined to be able to suppress their thoughts to a stronger degree than the others. Those who repeated their answers showed a general pattern of quickening thought processes as their answers came faster and faster each time the same word surfaced. 

What this suggested to psychologists is that for the participants, their individual association with the cue word was strengthened each time it came around, and the responsive answer took less time to come to mind. Those tasked with finding different words to associate with repeated cues were less likely to fall into a subconscious state of repeated association. And when it comes to intrusive thoughts, the same strategy applies in that when an unwanted thought enters and we intentionally strive to give it less attention, we can then reduce the frequency of it surfacing in our mind again and again. 

When we proactively shift our thinking away from intrusive thoughts, we may be able to stop them entering our mind entirely, the key is that we need to do so proactively and regularly in order for it to be effective. As Fradkin explains, “People are usually aware of their attempts to distract themselves from unwanted thoughts, or maybe suppress them in some other way, although they can rarely judge how well these attempts work.”

“[Our study examined] whether there are additional mechanisms allowing people to reduce the probability of thinking unwanted thoughts in the first place.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, help is available. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. 

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