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Intrusive Thoughts: Don't Stare at the Pink Elephant

Intrusive thoughts and what we know doesn't work.

Key points

  • Intrusive thoughts are an aspect of normative responses to stress, sometimes considered "sensory flashpoints."
  • Thought suppression, or the attempt to extinguish an intrusive thought, is a default strategy for many people.
  • Ironic control theory reveals that suppressing intrusive thoughts can impose rebound effects.
'Justlight/Shutterstock', 'Plagued by intrusive thoughts, licensed for use'.
Source: 'Justlight/Shutterstock', 'Plagued by intrusive thoughts, licensed for use'.

When I first started counseling for an addiction clinic, group therapy was a part of the program. During a session, although my phone was silenced, the screensaver lit up, revealing an image from the science fiction movie, The Matrix, where the central character, Neo, has his hand extended, stopping bullets in mid-air.

One of the patients asked me in front of the group why I had a picture of Neo on my phone. I first apologized for the phone not being completely turned off, we chuckled, and I thought it was a great opportunity to share the reason. I told them the image from the movie was an important reminder that daily, we are met by thoughts that come at us from an array of life’s issues, good and bad, and that it was a great metaphor for how I must be mindful to stop the metaphorical bullets of intrusive thoughts from harming my mind.

The group liked that explanation, and I encouraged them in a similar fashion to find something that could serve as a reminder of how we must practice addressing thoughts every day. Such imagery can be powerful in helping galvanize self-motivation toward desired behaviors.

Over the years, I have counseled many on "intrusive thoughts." Intrusive thoughts are part of a normative response to stressors and are quite common across various disorders. As researchers Shipherd and Fordiani (2015) postulated, they might be considered sensory flashpoints (commonly visual) occurring with an impression of the “now-ness” of a moment.

Intrusive thoughts can be defined as, “Any distinct, identifiable cognitive event that is unwanted, unintended, and recurrent. It interrupts the flow of thought, interferes in task performance, is associated with negative affect, and is difficult to control” (Clark, 2015).

And when intrusive thoughts invade, we can experience emotional distress. With this, so many kinds of intrusive thoughts can occur from a spectrum of issues such as traumatic experiences, negative or hard experiences, and more. For many, living with intrusive thoughts can feel debilitating. And perhaps more than anything, suppressing a thought, which perhaps seems most logical and convenient given a negative thought, has proven more disabling than successful.

The Anatomy of Thought Suppression

According to Moss et al. (2015), thought suppression is a “conscious” process whereby a person may attempt to expel an intrusive thought by actively attempting not to think about it at the moment. Thought suppression is perhaps the most commonly engaged prima facie default strategy for many trying to control intrusive thoughts. But most interesting is that studies and experiments concerning thought suppression reveal a dark contrast.

Recent experimental research has established that thought suppression can manifest the potential for a negatively promoted effect (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). As a result, suppressed thoughts may grow, creating an imposing rebound potential of the same intrusive thought, which becomes even more hyper-accessible the next time the intrusive thought occurs. This is known as the ironic control theory.

How does thought suppression’s counter-effect work in our brains?

'Olly/Shutterstock Photos', 'Confusion, licensed for use'.
Source: 'Olly/Shutterstock Photos', 'Confusion, licensed for use'.

When an individual attempts to suppress unwanted thoughts, there is an increased probability of recurrence of the same thought because our mind is constantly monitoring for that same unwanted material. This suppression leads to intrusions (Taylor & Bryant, 2007). And often, what an individual may feel as immediate relief, can return more imposing and be carried into the night in the form of a dream-rebound effect. (Taylor & Bryant, 2007).

The way this entire paradoxical effect works is that when we try and suppress any thought, mental control typically invokes the interplay of two parallel functions, one being an intentional operational process and the other being an ironic monitoring process (Wegner, 1994; Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). When a person tries to suppress an intrusive thought, the operating process is activated to purposefully scan for thoughts that might stop the suppressed thought from continuing.

In parallel, a monitoring process then locks in, beginning its search for indications of the unwanted thought or mental breaches (Wegner, 1994). The crux here is that while the operating process is engaged under conscious effort in the search for alternate thoughts to replace the intrusive one, the increased demand on mental processing also leaves a vulnerable, weak flank as the monitoring process continues looking for mental contents that signal a failure to establish mental control. You may conceive of this as standing still trying to work on a math problem while someone consistently taps your shoulder to get your attention. Thus, the rebound potential can be magnified and more easily accessible next time as a now more permanent construct of memory.

Thought suppression can thus solidify a mental construct and potentially increase the likelihood of a response behavior re-occurring. This was shown in studies of people trying to stop smoking who engaged in thought suppression, leading to increased smoking behaviors after only a week (Erskine et al., 2010). Yet, current evidence suggests that people can change how they interact with intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness, as an aspect of dialectical behavior therapy, and a part of cognitive behavioral potentials, can provide powerful ways of dealing with intrusive thoughts.

The Practice of Mindfulness

So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is "a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.”

Thus, we should understand that it is normal to have many thoughts throughout the day, but when thoughts become the unwanted possibilities of invasive persecutory introjects, it is time to do something about them for our mental health. And even more, through mindfulness and acceptance practices, we don't have to be left with limited prospects when dealing with intrusive thinking.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Clark, D. A. (Ed.). (2005). Intrusive thoughts in clinical disorders: Theory, research, and treatment. Guilford Press.

Erskine, J. A., Georgiou, G. J., & Kvavilashvili, L. (2010). I suppress, therefore I smoke: Effects of thought suppression on smoking behavior. Psychological science, 21(9), 1225-1230.

Moss, A. C., Erskine, J. A. K., Albery, I. P., Allen, J. R., & Georgiou, G. J. (2015). To suppress, or not to suppress? That is repression: Controlling intrusive thoughts in addictive behaviour. Addictive Behaviors, 44, 65–70.

Rassin, E., & Diepstraten, P. (2003). How to suppress obsessive thoughts. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 41(1), 97–103.

Taylor, F., & Bryant, R. A. (2007). The tendency to suppress, inhibiting thoughts, and dream rebound. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(1), 163–168.

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological review, 101(1), 34.

Wenzlaff, R. M., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology, 51(1), 59-91.

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