Invasive thoughts, also called intrusive thoughts, are ideas that pop into our minds seemingly out of nowhere that cause us to imagine absurd and terrible situations. Someone could be driving down a road and think of veering their car off course, or someone might think of committing terrible acts that they know are morally wrong and would never do in real life.
These thoughts come in many forms, and they can be very distressing. Most adults have the coping skills to recognize intrusive thoughts for what they are: Figments of the imagination that aren’t rooted in reality.
But teenagers, especially those who have experienced trauma, might not know how to handle these thoughts and could be especially troubled by them. Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder and OCD are particularly prone to invasive thoughts, although they happen to almost everyone at some point. When an invasive thought sticks around and causes someone to ruminate or obsess over something, or lead to compulsive behaviors like counting or checking things over and over again, it is time to seek professional help.
Denying intrusive thoughts, or pretending they do not exist, is a recipe for more stress. Instead, people coping with intrusive thoughts need to examine them and reframe them.
The first step to reframing these thoughts is to recognize that they are not rooted in reality. It takes humility to accept that not every thought we have is correct, and that sometimes, stress and anxiety cause our brains to lie to us. Several kinds of therapy can help teenagers train their brains to identify and handle intrusive thoughts so that they don’t disrupt their daily lives.
A professional will likely use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and/or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to treat the patient’s overwhelming invasive thoughts. These types of therapy are similar, but CBT works more on the connection between thoughts and feelings, and DBT works more on validating regulating emotions and behaviors to achieve balance in one’s own mind and in relationships.
In addition, mindfulness teaches people to examine thoughts, invasive or not, as our perception of a situation at any given time. Through mindfulness, we learn to be impartial observers of our thoughts and can use our rational minds to engage with them as we see fit.
Some invasive thoughts are so painful or strange that they can be very hard to articulate, so therapies outside of traditional talk therapy can be a great option for healing. Equine therapy, art therapy, and music therapy can all help teens express their feelings without words.
Lifestyle changes can make a positive difference as someone works on reducing the impact of invasive thoughts. Sound nutrition helps power the brain to operate in a healthy way, and exercise helps clear the mind and reduce stress. Professional help is still needed to overcome pervasive intrusive thoughts, but there are steps families can take to support teens on their mental health journey.
Even if a teen doesn’t tell his or her parents that invasive thoughts are happening, they may exhibit symptomatic behaviors. If your child is isolating from others, withdrawing from social situations, and seems to be constantly worrying, please reach out to a licensed health professional. Help is out there to help your child control their emotions, instead of having their emotions control them.