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Intrusive Thoughts: Removing the Pink Elephants in Your Head

Can mindfulness and acceptance help extinguish terrible thoughts?

Key points

  • Intrusive thoughts can be delineated by two key facets: they are involuntary and unwanted.
  • Research reveals that acceptance and commitment therapy, alongside mindfulness practices, can offer powerful solutions.
  • Intrusive thoughts leave behind only sensory-accessible and sensory-bound representations in memory, making them hardset and intrusive.

This is Part II of a series. Read Part I here.

What actually makes a thought feel intrusive? The answer to this question is varied, and typically based on the individual’s personal experience and perceptions of events. In fact, not all involuntary thoughts are intrusive. Intrusive thoughts can be delineated by two key facets: they are involuntary and unwanted (Bernsten, 1996). Intrusive thoughts are characteristically accompanied by "emotional distress," which in turn, may create a reactionary state of avoidance. Such thoughts are also difficult to suppress, and in fact, research has demonstrated that the act of thought-suppression requires an “effortful” cognitive engagement that is not only taxing, but can inflate the intrusive thought to greater extremes (Heapy et al., 2022). However, new research reveals that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), alongside mindfulness practices, can offer powerful alternatives to changing the impact of unwanted thoughts.

'Christian/Shutterstock Photo', 'Human face disintegrating, licensed for use'.
Source: 'Christian/Shutterstock Photo', 'Human face disintegrating, licensed for use'.

Intrusive thoughts and "dual representations"

A thought becomes “intrusive” as a result of an impacting experience or event. Many things we experience leave behind dual representations in memory or moreso, representations that are both contextualized and sensory. So, in this, we may think of episodic memories of an experience as being encoded, and recalled through sensory information. Researchers like Brewin and colleagues (1996) believe that traumatic or "hard" events can only be encoded as situationally-accessible, sensory-bound representations, and not as fully “contextualized” representations that can be voluntarily retrieved. Why does this happen? Well, when we experience something harsh, our attention is focused on the "source" of the threat, and only sensory representations requiring minimal conscious attention are encoded and captured. This means that important contextualized information is absent from the event, and as a result, these fractured sensory-bound representations then become the floating artifacts of involuntary and intrusive thinking (Brewin, 2014).

How can we modify our experience of intrusive thoughts?

Mindfulness as a practice, whereby we attune to our "awareness" of the moment, can also help us direct the focus of our attention. With the following techniques, individuals can learn to reclaim and empower themselves as a more fully resourced “thinker” of thought content. Here are a few ways to start handling intrusive thoughts.

Master the process of thinking with objective truths

The idea here is learning to understand our thoughts, and those that are relevant, from the array served up at any moment. To this end, thoughts have an important presence in our lives, as they may impart questions, imperatives, morality plays, unaddressed issues, cries for help, strategies, solution tactics, happy and sad memory-scapes, and everything in between. However, distinguishing between what is intrusive, and what is not, should become part of a regular filtering process as we learn to tame unwanted material constructively. This can be done with heavy doses of “perspective” and “realism,” so that the potency of intrusive thinking is broken down in an objective way. This means that we have applied "objective truths" to thought content, distilling intrusive thoughts so that they remain independent of who we are as a person, rather than defining us.

Create a space to practice boundary-setting and engagement of thought

Intrusive thoughts encroach on boundaries. In this, we can symbolically reclaim boundaries through dedicated mindful exercises in which we allow ourselves a “practice arena” for handling a variety of thoughts. This exercise is also a form of sensorimotor psychotherapy at work. Find a quiet place for 10 minutes. Create a physical boundary around yourself using whatever you like from socks to pillows, it doesn’t matter. Sit within the circle you have created; this is your boundary area. Close your eyes and take some nice calibrated breaths, breathing in deeply and exhaling slowly from the stomach (diaphragm). Allow yourself to be still and quiet in your protected circle. Imagine a flowing river, and along the bank, a small aggregation of leaves gently being taken into the stream. As you begin to focus, it’s okay to let thoughts emerge. As the thoughts come, place them on a leaf in the pile and watch it be taken into the river downstream. If you have a hard time doing this, it is okay, simply place that thought of frustration in a leaf and allow it to also float away. When there are no further thoughts, and simply the river flowing, open your eyes. Here, the emphasis is placed on creating and fostering better adaptive behaviors of meta-cognition over the focus and overinvolvement that intrusive thoughts tend to invoke.

Create a psychic rehearsal script for addressing intrusive thoughts

Our internal dialogue, or self-talk, is important in many ways. Our self-talk can be a powerful mechanism for shaping our perceptions and experiences. In this exercise, as an intrusive thought comes in, recognize it in your internal self-dialogue as follows: “I understand that you present yourself in a way that counters what I value most in my thoughts, and I do not take your representation to be literal in the way that you present yourself, but simply, that you are having a hard time finding a place to rest in my mind. I honor my thoughts and understand you are misplaced because important pieces are missing. In this way, you cannot be fully integrated and must move on because any resolve for you here is impossible. I will also move to heal this part in me by only integrating thoughts that truly serve my health, that have an objective basis of truth, are not maladaptive, and ultimately represent what I value most.” You can clip this and put it on a small index card to use whenever needed, as often as needed. This “psychic rehearsal” script allows for a larger comprehensive understanding of who you are through a more deeply meaningful, and well-articulated form of structured self-talk discourse.

It's all about mental training

'aapsky/Adobe Stock Photos', 'Strong human brain power, licensed for use'.
Source: 'aapsky/Adobe Stock Photos', 'Strong human brain power, licensed for use'.

Remember that it can be normal to have intrusive thoughts. When we normalize this process, we begin to feel a closer connection to what it means to be human. In this humanizing aspect, we may open greater awareness.

Ease up on efforts to control. We know that suppression doesn’t work well. Acceptance therapy allows us to relinquish this and move to a state of mindful acceptance, thus allowing one's self to simply flow.

See and accept your thoughts, but know you are bigger than just your thoughts.

Train your skills, as practice is important!


Berntsen, D. (1996). Involuntary autobiographical memories. Applied cognitive psychology, 10(5), 435-454.

Brewin, C. R. (2014). Episodic memory, perceptual memory, and their interaction: foundations for a theory of posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychological bulletin, 140(1), 69.

Brewin, C. R., Dalgleish, T., & Joseph, S. (1996). A dual representation theory of posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychological review, 103(4), 670.Heapy, C., Emerson, L.-M., & Carroll, D. (2022). Are failures to suppress obsessive-intrusive thoughts associated with working memory? Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 76, 101724.

Shipherd, J. C., & Fordiani, J. M. (2015). The application of mindfulness in coping with intrusive thoughts. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 22(4), 439-446.

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