Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts

July 11, 2022

As I was on vacation relaxing and resting, there were times things came across my mind that wanted to take me down a path that was not good or healthy. You have had that happen, haven’t you? What is that all about, especially in a day and age where everyone is talking about mental health?

Our thoughts are important. Our minds are never neutral—they are always working and creating thoughts, some intentional, some not intentional. Some of them are good and helpful, but sometimes we experience intrusive thoughts that can feel overpowering. Those are the thoughts that pop into our minds and can feel out of our control. How do we navigate them?

We need to be proactive with our minds and take responsibility for our unwanted thoughts. I read a very helpful article by Paul Tautges that helps us figure out what to do. Tautges says that for some of us, unwanted thoughts simply feel like an annoyance. Other people experience them as daily problematic interruptions, and still others would describe them as a brutal and invisible form of torture. Often we are afraid to own them. We feel the need to keep them inside. If you opened up about what went on in your head, no one would understand. Perhaps people would think you are crazy.

But no matter what your thoughts are, you are not alone. We all have thoughts we just can’t get out of our heads. Which of these are yours?

• Worried and anxious thoughts. Everyone experiences these from time to time. Mild worry over life circumstances, and anxious thoughts may cause heart palpitations and stomach pain. Full-blown panic attacks may make you feel like you are dying. “What if I don’t know what to say and look stupid? How will I pay these bills? Am I having a heart attack? Am I dying?”

• Self-deprecating thoughts. When we see ourselves differently from how Scripture describes us and our identity, we get into trouble. “I’m not good enough. I have to be perfect. I’m worthless and I hate myself.”

• Depressed, hopeless, and suicidal thoughts. Life circumstances, difficult relationships, our bodies and souls not working right can lead us to depression and hopelessness. “This is too hard. Nothing will ever get better. People would be better off without me. I just want to die.”

• Racing thoughts and mental chatter. Sometimes it’s hard to turn off our brains, even when there’s not anything wrong with our thoughts. Either way, we wish we could stop the constant chatter. “I should cook spaghetti for dinner. I gotta change the oil in the car. Ugh, what should I be doing with my life? I just want to leave.”

• Daydreams, fantasies, and mental pictures of the past and future. We can replay mental images of past events that we wish had gone differently. Sometimes we fantasize about the future as perfect or predict every disaster we can imagine. “I can’t believe I said something so stupid in that meeting. How much better would life be if I had a different family?”

• Irrational thoughts that don’t match reality. Sometimes our thinking becomes biased or impaired and we have a hard time seeing certain situations or people with clarity. Sometimes our thinking can become obsessive and delusional. “No one likes me. If I touch that doorknob, I will get sick. I am being stalked by the FBI.”

• Sinful thoughts. We can think judgmental, envious, and bitter thoughts. Other times our thoughts are lustful, angry, deceitful, and prideful. “I hate him. One lie won’t hurt. I’m better than they are. I’m gonna do this just one last time.”

• Thoughts that contradict what I say I believe. “Does God love me? Is heaven real? Am I even a Christian?”

• Intrusive thoughts and images that feel shameful. Thoughts that feel shameful to admit can appear out of nowhere. Often they are about sensitive things like violence, sexuality, and faith. “I could steal that so easily. I could murder someone and probably not get caught. I had a sexual thought about my pastor. I hate God. What if I jumped off this cliff?”

• Thoughts related to traumatic experiences. Trauma occurs when distressing events overwhelm our ability to cope. After a traumatic incident, it’s common for thoughts that fit into many or all of the categories listed above to fill our minds. Thoughts of shame, doubt, fear, anger, and sadness may linger just beneath the surface. It takes careful examination and humility to realize they are affecting our overall mindset far more than we realize. “I am dirty. God doesn’t love me. I’m going crazy. I never feel safe. Will the pain ever stop?”

• Unwanted thoughts about unwanted thoughts. That sounds crazy, but it sure happens. Sometimes our most painful thoughts happen when we start to feel bad, guilty, or ashamed that we are experiencing thoughts we truly don’t want. “God must be so disappointed in me. I’m a bad Christian for being depressed. Why can’t I just stop thinking that?”

Which category resonates with you the most? You may find yourself struggling with more than one category at the same time.

Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:8 that it isn’t enough to destroy false thinking, we have to create healthy imaginations. In Philippians 4 he says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In other words, actively create mental playgrounds of truth and goodness.

Many of us can expend so much energy trying to knock down destructive, intrusive thoughts that we leave no energy to build constructive thoughts. We begin to believe the lie that our minds are dangerous and need to be shut down. Your mind is a gift, and God intends that gift to be used for His glory. God’s desire is to reshape your mind to be a factory of God-glorifying curiosity.

God intends all of this to be done in community. James urges us to “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Can’t we just confess our sins to God? Why must I reveal the darkness of my mental life to someone else?

James tells us that as we confess to one another and pray for one another, healing will come. I’ve seen this again and again as a pastor. Sharing loosens the grip that our thoughts have over us. Confiding with a friend releases the power shame has over us. Very often those near us will identify with our struggle. They’ve had similar struggles. They can speak truth that no thought has the power to identify. Our adoption into the family of God identifies who we are. Bringing brothers and sisters alongside us in our struggles brings powerful spiritual partners in prayer.

Do not be deceived, the battle for our mind is no mere battle against brain matter. It is a spiritual battle. Your intrusive thoughts do not have the final say in your life. Jesus Christ has spoken a more powerful word on the cross. And He invites you to find that your mind is an ally, not an enemy, in your journey to conform to His likeness.