Mental Health

How to Help with Intrusive Thoughts

Delaney Ruston, MD
October 4, 2022
Yellow brain with circles for intrusions

World Mental Health Day is coming up on Oct 10th, and I want to give an energetic and loving shoutout to organizations around the globe that are working tirelessly to provide services to individuals with mental illness and their families. 

Today, rather than focus on any specific mental illness, I am writing about a topic that relates to human mental health at the widest level: intrusive thoughts (also known as repeated negative thoughts, unhelpful chatter, and so forth). 

It has been paramount to my parenting that my kids deeply understand that all sorts of thoughts will come into our brains. Even when we do not want them to come, they will come. I give them many examples. Things like, “We don’t want to have jealous thoughts about our friends, but we do,” or “We don’t want to experience thoughts about some element of our looks, but they still might come up.”

It is not uncommon for me to share my own brain’s concoctions with my kids. With an eye roll, I will say something like, “There goes my brain serving up crappy thoughts about how my friend Julia is not in touch because I must just be annoying to her.” 

In my early thirties, I began having intrusive thoughts on a more regular basis. Many types of negative thoughts ping me throughout the day. It could be long-standing regret, marriage issues, or comparisons to other people. One example is that for two full years after getting married, I got all sorts of negative brain pings about the size of my wedding. The wedding was perfectly great, yet my brain circuits kept feeding me “brain garbage” ( a term my friend uses and I’ve since picked up). 

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If the mighty metaphorical scorekeepers of intrusive thoughts were to give me a ranking, I would get a pretty high score. 

When thoughts pop in, I sometimes get caught up in them. But often, I am able to see the intrusive thought as “just a thought” and then employ a skill from options such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, to name a few. I have also benefited from seeing therapists at various times in my life. 

Let’s get back to our kids. Below I mention three ways I talk with teens in my practice and my kids about intrusive thoughts and ways of handling them when they arise.  

3 Key Discussions to Have with Kids 

1. Discuss Brain Biology
Our brains have endless circuits, and so many things determine the thoughts that pop into our brains: biology, physiology, and genetics. Even our environment can be at play.
Being human comes with the price of, at times, not being able to control what drops into the inbox of our minds. Repeating this message to our kids is critical. Kids often think they are the problem, not understanding that genetics and other factors cause our brains to generate a multitude of thoughts. 
2. Discuss Radical Acceptance
Thoughts are going to come. Trying to stop them is useless and very risky. People will try to distract themselves through screens or drugs, etc. When we can calmly accept that our brains will give us thoughts that we wish they would not, we can more effectively respond to these thoughts. 
Believe me, I am not happy about the intrusive thoughts I get, but I focus on my skills to mitigate them. 
3. Share A Coping Method
I call this my “counter move” (like a strategic play on a chessboard). I use my intrusive thoughts as opportunities for positive physical change. Each thought is like a little alarm that causes me to do some type of muscle contraction to get stronger. I often contract my rhomboid muscles (they help pull the scapula bones together, causing better posture). Or perhaps, I engage my calf muscles by standing on my toes a few times. 
I can’t tell you how much benefit I have gotten from this practice. By no means do I strike a move with every negative thought, but I do some type of physical movement in response to intrusive thoughts about five times a day. 
What is particularly cool is that science has recently shown that myokines, a type of protein, secreted into the blood when muscles contract, are associated with boosting mood and relieving stress — who can’t love that?

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Finally, it’s an honor knowing that the Screenagers movies have thus far brought together kids and adults in 95 countries to learn ways to improve the mental health of our youth.

Ideas to get the conversation going: 

  1. What are some intrusive thoughts that any of us have experienced? 
  2. When they happen, do you try to push them away?
  3. How might it be to try to accept the thought versus try and push it away?
  4. What do you think of the counter move of trying to contract a set of muscles when a negative thought arises?

{One more thing: Thank you all who had your kids fill out the form about Euphoria. Next week I'll let you know what I learned from the kids. It's not too late to have them still do it. Here is a link to last week's blog with the form.

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Mental Health

How to Help with Intrusive Thoughts

Delaney Ruston, MD
October 4, 2022
Yellow brain with circles for intrusions

World Mental Health Day is coming up on Oct 10th, and I want to give an energetic and loving shoutout to organizations around the globe that are working tirelessly to provide services to individuals with mental illness and their families. 

Today, rather than focus on any specific mental illness, I am writing about a topic that relates to human mental health at the widest level: intrusive thoughts (also known as repeated negative thoughts, unhelpful chatter, and so forth). 

It has been paramount to my parenting that my kids deeply understand that all sorts of thoughts will come into our brains. Even when we do not want them to come, they will come. I give them many examples. Things like, “We don’t want to have jealous thoughts about our friends, but we do,” or “We don’t want to experience thoughts about some element of our looks, but they still might come up.”

It is not uncommon for me to share my own brain’s concoctions with my kids. With an eye roll, I will say something like, “There goes my brain serving up crappy thoughts about how my friend Julia is not in touch because I must just be annoying to her.” 

In my early thirties, I began having intrusive thoughts on a more regular basis. Many types of negative thoughts ping me throughout the day. It could be long-standing regret, marriage issues, or comparisons to other people. One example is that for two full years after getting married, I got all sorts of negative brain pings about the size of my wedding. The wedding was perfectly great, yet my brain circuits kept feeding me “brain garbage” ( a term my friend uses and I’ve since picked up). 

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