Cbt for intrusive thoughts (How to cope)

In this blog, we will explore how CBT deals with intrusive thoughts and what these intrusive thoughts entail.

How does CBT deal with intrusive thoughts?

CBT does not eliminate intrusive thoughts as it is impossible to prevent people from having thoughts. But CBT can help with identifying, challenging, and replacing negative thought processes that give rise to anxiety, obsessions, and compulsive behavior in people suffering from OCD.  

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted automatic thoughts that involuntarily enter our minds without any preamble and cause us psychological distress. These thoughts appear without any warning and tend to be repetitive and disturbing.  

Intrusive thoughts are most likely present in people suffering from anxiety disorders or depression but that doesn’t it cannot happen to those who are not afflicted by these disorders.  Though intrusive thoughts are not harmful by themselves they tend to hurt our behavior making our life difficult. The intrusive thoughts appear in our minds in different forms such as they can be in the form of images, sounds, or even statements. 

The intrusive thoughts can be classified into two broad categories. They are as follows

Fear inducing Thoughts

These are one of the most commonly found types of intrusive thoughts pertaining to safety concerns and risks. relates to concerns about safety or risk. Most of the time these thoughts occur through visual forms (i.e. images or falsely imagined scenarios etc. ) where a person might imagine sitting in a place bustling with people and stabbing someone in the crowd or harming a loved one or even running someone over under their car etc. Recently turned mothers could have intrusive thoughts of dropping their baby or losing it. Obscene images or thoughts about sex that are inappropriate and create mental anguish also come under this category. 

Critical Thoughts

Critical thoughts are considered as a milder form of intrusive thoughts as compared to fear-inducing thoughts. They are thoughts such as, “You will never succeed in life”, “You are a failure and a disappointment, “Everyone hates you and your appearance” etc. 

Traumatic Thoughts

When someone develops PTSD due to a stressful and traumatic event in their life they can experience intrusive thoughts about the event. They might constantly relive that event in their minds or be subjected to recalling the causes or that led to that horrific moment or even specific moments that happened before that incident. These traumatic events could be anything such as getting in a car accident or someone robbing, being subjected to physical or sexual violence, or even the death of a loved one. Such traumatic events leave a lasting impact on the person’s psyche and our brain is prone to remind us of these events. These reminders or flashbacks can be so intensely stressful that they can even debilitate the person.

Identifying intrusive thoughts

To recognize intrusive thoughts there are some identifiers. They are as follows:


The intrusive thoughts are atypical or different from the person’s typical thoughts. It can uncharacteristically extreme in nature. For example, the person might have an extremely violent and aggressive thought.  


These thoughts are often bothersome and cause distress in people. They can be unpleasant and uncomfortable and make you feel like pushing them out of your mind. 


The intrusive thoughts cannot be controlled and appear without our control. These thoughts are repetitive in nature and don’t go away on their own.

Tips to deal with intrusive thoughts

Do not constantly think about them, giving attention to those thoughts spikes your anxiety and emotional distress which in turn further exacerbates the thoughts. 

Learn to accept them as they are and try to adapt to living while having such thoughts. 

Do not judge and be harsh to yourselves for having these thoughts as they weren’t caused by you intentionally and they are out of your control. Having these doesn’t make you a bad person and does not imply that there is something wrong with you. 


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is a type of psychotherapy.  Throughout the past few decades, it has emerged as one of the most effective and sought-after psychotherapies. Contrary to the other therapies CBT has a shorter duration of treatment which can last anywhere between a few weeks to months for the outcome to appear. 

Though some theories predominantly focus on the past, which is indeed important, CBT chooses to focus on making the person capable of solving problems that they are facing at present. 

Approaches Of CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is classified into different therapeutical approaches. They are as follows

Cognitive therapy: 

Cognitive therapy focuses on relieving psychological distress by identifying and challenging maladaptive and negative thinking and replacing it with positive and productive thoughts, to bring about desirable change in a person’s behavior and attitude. It is also often referred to as cognitive restructuring. 

Behavior therapy: 

It consists of various effective techniques, skills, and methods to modify undesirable or negative behavior with positive and adaptive behavior.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): 

It utilizes techniques and interventions such as emotion regulation and mindfulness to modify and replace negative thoughts and attitudes with positive thoughts. 

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT): 

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is one of the earlier forms of CBT and is still very relevant and useful. It focuses on identifying irrational beliefs and challenging them to replace them with rational beliefs.

Multimodal therapy: 

It is a very unique and intriguing approach that deals with seven different modalities such as behavior, imagination, biological considerations, cognition, interpersonal factors, emotions, and feeling. These modalities are interconnected and since this approach handles these multiple modalities it is called multimodal therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral techniques for intrusive thoughts.

Cognitive-behavioral techniques for intrusive thoughts

Being constantly bombarded with obsessive and negative thoughts leads to a lot of distress and suffering among people. It can even exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety in people. 

When people are immersed in these problems saying things like, “Please calm down, everything is all right”, “ Those things haven’t even happened yet so stop obsessing over them”,  cannot really be of help.

Everyone experiences thoughts that are unhelpful, unusual, or even absurd in nature. But usually, such thoughts are brushed aside without any worries and we instead focus on positive and helpful thoughts. 

But when we are going through some unpleasant situations and experiencing bouts of stress and stress and anxiety these thoughts become more frequent. Due to our mental vulnerability during these times we end up giving more power to these thoughts than they deserve. To help deal with these thoughts CBT has a variety of techniques. They are:

Thought records

Thought records help us in looking at things logically. Suppose a person slipped at a party and heard a few people nearby chuckling and assumed that the people were laughing at them.  Then the person would become overly conscious about that matter and might even obsess over it. Because of the obsession, they might be overly careful of their actions at social gatherings and this peculiar behavior might draw unnecessary attention and even laughs. Thus the person might end up causing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we keep thinking something is going to be wrong our actions might get negatively affected and we will actually end up doing something wrong. 

Therefore to prevent this and a better sense of control, balance, and coherence, making records of our invasive thoughts is an amazing technique. 

We just have to write down all the negative thoughts that appear in our heads and analyze them rationally with a calm mind.

Scheduling positive activities

To overcome invasive thoughts we could try the technique of scheduling positive activities. By scheduling these rewarding activities that could be as simple as reserving quality time for oneself we could achieve great results in the right direction. It helps us in dealing with obsessive thinking and is even fun and rewarding in nature and doesn’t feel like a chore. 

Hierarchy of concerns

Our intrusive thoughts are the result of unresolved and unattended problems within us. Unless we reach those problems are eliminated or resolve them we cant deal with our intrusive thoughts effectively. Therefore, first of all, we need to identify and assess their contributions toward our invasive thoughts. We can do this by writing down every concern that we have and then making a hierarchy of those concerns. We could start with small concerns and as we move down the list we could include an increasingly troubling concerns in the list. After we are done with the list we are left with a very apparent record of our problems that we can work with. 

Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning is another effective technique. Often if we have a bad day we tend to overgeneralize and feel everything in our life is bad and is not going the way it should. But we need to realize that we are being governed by our emotions at the moment and things are not really the way they seem at the moment. At such times it is best to take a step back and give oneself some time to think rationally.

Emotional reasoning is a very common type of distortion. For example, if I had a bad day and feel frustrated, I will start to see life as an endless, dark tunnel. Another common idea is to think that if someone disappoints me, it’s because I don’t deserve love.


We must remember that our emotions do not always indicate an objective truth or fact. They are just a consequence f fluctuating moods and situations and must be handled accordingly. We shouldn’t give unnecessary power to those emotions. 


We learned how CBT utilizes various techniques to help deal with intrusive thoughts and also examined the nature of these thoughts

Frequently Asked Questions

Can CBT help with obsessive thoughts?

CBT has been considered to be effective in achieving long-lasting benefits in OCD patients and also helps the clients in learning the effective ways of managing unwanted, maladaptive thoughts and feelings so that these thoughts do not impair functioning in the long term.

Will intrusive thoughts ever go away?

The symptoms of OCD may wax and wane with time which causes patients to believe that it is a recurring disorder. That the symptoms keep going away and coming back. But in reality, OCD symptoms never go away and require lifelong treatment. Their intensity may subside but they never go away completely,   

Does CBT focus on the past?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a structured therapy and is a problem-oriented strategy. It aims to find solutions for the currently occurring problems in the client’s life. Therefore it is a therapy that is rooted in the present, unlike psychoanalysis that primarily deals with the past. 

Are dark thoughts normal?

Dark thoughts are normal. Moreover, various studies have proposed that almost everyone in the world has intrusive and disturbing thoughts, images, or ideas. These thoughts can range from the mild and odd, to the extremely graphic and even obscene.

Do intrusive thoughts mean anything?

No, intrusive thoughts are most of the time harmless. Only when we obsess about them and become stuck with them do they affect us and our lives. If the thoughts start interfering with our day-to-day life, then this can be a sign of an underlying mental health problem. Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).


OCDUK. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2022, from https://www.ocduk.org/overcoming-ocd/cognitive-behavioural-therapy/#:~:text=The%20aim%20of%20CBT%20isn,anxiety%2C%20distress%20and%20compulsive%20behaviours.