7 Tips on How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts in Addiction Recovery

man having Intrusive Thoughts in Addiction Recovery

Today, over 6 million Americans deal with chronic intrusive thoughts. However, an estimated 94% of us deal with unwanted and worrying thoughts – often involving violence, substance abuse, sexuality, and harm to people or things. Those thoughts aren’t welcome, but they are normal. And, while they can be difficult to manage, can cause embarrassment, and can make you feel ashamed of yourself, they’re a normal part of life. Most people experience them more often during periods of high stress and change – for example when you’re going through addiction recovery.

Learning how to manage those intrusive thoughts is often the only thing you can do. That often means managing stress, managing yourself, and learning to identify intrusive thoughts so you can deal with them. And, of course, you’ll want to ask for help, especially if intrusive thoughts are more problematic than a few random thoughts here and there.

1. Learn to Recognize Intrusive Thoughts When They Happen

So what are intrusive thoughts? Can you recognize them as they happen? For most people, thoughts have to be quite a bit extreme for you to immediately go “this is revolting” or “this is not who I am” immediately when the thoughts occur. But, if you can recognize a thought, even after the fact, and go “this is not me, this is an intrusive thought”, you’re already pretty far along on learning how to deal with intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts include thoughts that:

  • Bother you or make you feel uncomfortable
  • That don’t go away when you try to rationalize through them
  • That can’t be rationalized through or that keep reoccurring exactly as they were, no matter how much you rationalize them
  • Sudden imagery you wouldn’t normally have
  • Sudden thoughts that you never had before

However, you might also approach intrusive thoughts as “thoughts you don’t want to have”. That can make it harder to deal with them. For example, thinking about drugs or alcohol because of compulsive cravings.

“This thought makes me uncomfortable, and I want to focus my attention on something else” is a perfectly valid response. So is, “This is not who I want to be anymore so I should focus my attention elsewhere”. A thought doesn’t have to be completely alien to who you are to be intrusive to who you are now.

However, stopping and recognizing when something is happening and that it isn’t who you want to be is the first step to managing intrusive thoughts.

2. Take Time Out to Deal with Them

If you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts, it’s important that you make time to stop, think about them, and deal with them. There are multiple tactics you can use to do so. For example, visualization, journaling, acknowledgement, redirection.

Redirection tactics are good for if you’re in the middle of something, for example work or at a party. Here, you try to redirect your attention and your thoughts. “I acknowledge this thought, it is not who I want to be, I will shift my attention to something else”, and then you can purposefully redirect your attention to something you’re doing.

Here, you want to:

  • Acknowledge the thought. “I am thinking this”, “I am experiencing a desire for”, “I see this”, “I see this thought”
  • Acknowledge why the thought is not okay, “and it is not who I am anymore”, “following through on it would be unhealthy for me”, “It is hurting my ability to progress to where I want to be”, “it is intrusive and not me”
  • Put it away. “I will focus on doing this task”, “this thought has no place in my life anymore”, “I will choose X instead”, “I care more about the progress I am making”, “I care more about the life I am building for myself”
  • Be nonjudgmental. It’s never helpful to guilt or shame yourself for thoughts. Instead, treat the thoughts like they’re something going by. “That’s interesting, it’s not what I want for me”, “this thought is here but it’s not what I want”, “A past version of me would have thought this but it’s not what I’m choosing for myself anymore”. The more you judge, the more you make yourself feel bad, the more you’ll experience intrusive thoughts.

This all sounds simple, but it’s not. Dealing with intrusive thoughts can be extremely difficult. Often, you’re best off using something to occupy your hands. For example, a fidget toy or sketching, or playing a game on your phone, while you wait for the pressure of the thought to go away. Take time out, stay occupied, and focus on what you actually want.

woman Practicing Mindfulness Skills

3. Practice Mindfulness Skills

Mindfulness or grounding skills are designed to help bring you out of thought processes and into feeling present and one with your body. Often, these include mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, and larger practices like yoga or tai chi. Mindfulness and breathing exercises are good, short skills you can learn to take 10 minutes out to focus, calm, and clear your mind. They won’t make intrusive thoughts go away, but they can take the pressure off and give you more time to rationalize that they are just that, intrusive.

Headspace and similar apps are great resources here. In fact, you can easily learn multiple 10–15-minute exercises which you can do in a bathroom or an office. Then, if you experience an intrusive thought, you can take 10 minutes, deal with those thoughts, and go back to whatever you were doing.

However, the longer-term benefits of mindfulness skills will help even more. Practicing mindfulness meditation or practices once a day might help you to be more mindful in your daily life – and that will reduce the number of intrusive thoughts you experience.

4. Maintain a Regular Schedule

Intrusive thoughts may appear more often when you’re dealing with sudden change, a lack of stability, or a lack of routine. Maintaining a daily routine might sound boring. However, it will provide you a good basis for mental health. That means waking up and going to bed at around the same time every day. It also means eating well at least 80% of the time. It means avoiding caffeine and sugary beverages that can tip your mood one way or another. And, it means taking time to get regular and healthy exercise with 4-5 hours of light to moderate exercise per day.

All of that will help you to deal with intrusive thoughts by ensuring that you are in a good state to be mentally healthy. Again, it won’t cure intrusive thoughts, but a good rhythm and stability means you have more space for mental health. And, you’ll have more of a baseline of what you normally feel like, which means you’ll be better-able to recognize when you are having intrusive thoughts.

5. Learn how to Destress

Intrusive thoughts are often triggered by stress and anxiety. So, learning techniques to destress can greatly improve the number of intrusive thoughts you have. Here, management takes two forms. The first is to reduce the amount of stress and anxiety in your life by tackling problems. The second is to improve how you deal with stress and anxiety.

For example, if you’re frequently stressed because of the commute to work, finding a different commute option or a different job may fix the problem. If you’re frequently stressed at work, moving to a less stressful job may help. If you’re stressed because of your relationships, taking active steps to fix those may be helpful.

At the same time, it’s important to learn stress management skills like mindfulness, stress reduction, and positive mental attitudes that help you respond well to stress. For example, seeing stressful situations as situational rather than all-encompassing. I failed this thing right now and I can try again instead of “I’m a failure”. Therapy and treatment can help you with those kinds of shifts where needed.

6. Try Visualization Techniques

Visualization techniques are a valuable tool in letting go of thoughts, often because it gives you a tool to externalize them. Here, you can create a mental picture of what happens if you follow through on the thought. Most people create a sort of mental comic where they are characters and act out the thought. You can then go “is this a conclusion I want”, “is this a realistic outcome”, “is this where I want to be”. Visualization isn’t easy for everyone, and you don’t have to “just” visualize it. Instead, you can think it through or write it out to a likely conclusion and then do the same thing. The idea is that you give your thought space to be acknowledged and for you to process and decide that isn’t what you want rather than leaving it at a surface level urge with no follow-up or repercussions.

female client talking to psychologist during cognitive behavioral therapy

7. Keep Going to Therapy

Therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy is a recognized way to treat intrusive thoughts. If you’re dealing with them, getting ongoing help can ensure you have the tools to manage intrusive thoughts. That can mean building coping mechanisms, learning the underlying causes of those thoughts, and building new behaviors so you can get better.

If you’re struggling, asking for help is important. Hopefully these tips help you deal with your intrusive thoughts in the meantime. Good luck!

Stairway Recovery Homes has multiple sober living homes located in Los Angeles, CA. We provide community-based recovery homes for both men’s sober living and women’s sober living. Recovery IS possible!

About Jim Sugel

SEO and Digital Marketing Expert Jim Sugel is an SEO and Digital Marketing Expert in addition to having achieved the coveted Google Partner status for PPC expertise. Prior to focusing on Digital Marketing, Jim worked in Information Technology roles at a variety of national firms as a software engineer and consultant, resulting in many years of professional coding and consulting experience. Jim holds a Bachelor of Science, cum laude in Computer Science and Psychology from Loyola University Chicago. After relocating to Southern California from his native Chicago, he became involved in the recovery industry here, discovering a natural niche in helping treatment centers with Digital Marketing and other technology projects. Jim is the Founder and CEO of Airtight Digital, a firm that specializes in digital marketing for the behavioral health industry. His other interests include hiking, canyoneering, urban exploration, and screenwriting. Jim now lives in beautiful and sunny Orange County, California.