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People returning to work during outpatient treatment or continuing care may face unique challenges. The lingering effects of substance use disorder (SUD) sometimes cause concentration or productivity issues, leading to increased stress. Stress is one of the most common causes of relapse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.” Experts at West Coast Recovery Centers help clients manage intrusive thoughts and reduce stress at work.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted mental images or ideas that cause emotional distress. According to the 2024 article “Managing Intrusive Thoughts” by Harvard Health Publishing, “Disturbing thoughts that pop into your mind unbidden may make you feel uneasy, but they are common — and there are strategies you can use to manage them.” Workplace situations or locations may trigger unwanted thoughts. West Coast Recovery Centers provides clients with the tools to manage them successfully.

Individuals with SUD may experience the following intrusive thoughts while at work: 

  • Mental images, memories, or thoughts of abusing substances 
  • Remembering the sensations or feelings associated with being under the influence 
  • A strong desire to abuse substances accompanied by intense thoughts, memories, or mental images of relapse

Intrusive thoughts may cause everyday activities to bring up memories related to substance abuse. For example, if someone makes a breakthrough at work, the euphoric feeling might trigger vivid memories of euphoria experienced while under the influence of substances. Chronic substance abuse changes the physical structure of the brain, affecting how people respond to certain stimuli or situations. People in recovery reduce their risk of relapse by learning to manage their intrusive thoughts and any related feelings or sensations. 

4 Ways to Manage Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts cause emotional distress and may stop people from being able to function at work. Below are four ways people manage intrusive thoughts. 

#1. Use Grounding Techniques to Address Intrusive Thoughts

Grounding techniques can break a cycle of intrusive thoughts and help people feel more in control. Some common grounding exercises include:

  • Listing items in the vicinity and describing them (e.g., “small, white plastic cup filled with orange juice”)
  • Using all five senses to notice details of the environment (e.g., seeing a dog, feeling a tabletop, hearing music, smelling flowers, or tasting food)
  • Creating and utilizing a self-care box with items meant to deliver a calming effect

Individuals in early recovery benefit from creating crisis management strategies with their care team. A clear set of instructions to follow moments after being triggered makes it easier for people to avoid a negative headspace. Intrusive thoughts are harder to stick around if the person focuses on other activities, thoughts, or feelings. Staying grounded in the present allows people to manage their condition in the workplace. 

#2. Practice Breathwork and Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises, including breathwork, automatically relieve tension in the body and help people ground themselves in the present moment. Some popular breathwork and relaxation exercises include: 

  • Mental imagery and meditation: Focusing on a calming mental image or meditating on a positive thought. 
  • Repeating affirmations and mantras: Mentally or verbally repeating positive phrases or focusing on specific calming words. 
  • Box breathing: Inhaling for a count of 4, holding breath for a count of 4, and exhaling for a count of 4.
  • 4-7-8 breathing: Inhaling for a count of 4, holding breath for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR): Starting with one muscle group, gradually relaxing all muscles in the body.

West Coast Recovery Centers teaches relaxation techniques to clients, ensuring they have the tools to calm down safely while experiencing intrusive thoughts at work.

#3. Reach Out to Someone in Your Support System

Support systems may include a wide range of individuals, including: 

  • Family 
  • Friends 
  • Colleagues 
  • Therapists, counselors, or psychiatrists 
  • Crisis lines 
  • Doctors or other medical professionals

Intrusive thoughts may dissipate more quickly if a person reaches out to someone in their support system by phone, video, text, or in person. Individuals who experience intrusive thoughts at work may take a quick break to contact someone from their support system. Often, speaking with a loved one or trusted friend only takes a few minutes to reduce intrusive thoughts’ effects significantly.

#4. Prioritize Self-Care to Help You Manage Intrusive Thoughts at Work

Self-care lowers stress, improves mood, and stabilizes emotions. People benefit from making self-care a regular part of their routine at home and work. Some individuals find it helpful to stop what they are doing to practice self-care if they begin to experience intrusive thoughts. The change of focus can redirect anxiety or stress and stop unwanted thoughts. 

Examples of how people practice self-care at work include: 

  • Taking advantage of all work breaks
  • Staying hydrated 
  • Managing time effectively to reduce deadline pressures 
  • Monitoring stress levels and using coping skills 
  • Setting appropriate boundaries with coworkers and management 

The experts at West Coast Recovery Centers provide insights and guidance to clients returning to work. Clinicians help clients create self-care routines and practical strategies for managing workplace triggers or intrusive thoughts. 

Intrusive thoughts are a common symptom of withdrawal. Some individuals continue to experience intrusive thoughts throughout treatment and continuing care. Stress and reminders of substance abuse or past trauma are common triggers of intrusive thoughts. Many people encounter challenges during the transition back to work after participating in treatment programs. Intrusive thoughts may cause added stress or reduced productivity at work. People manage or avoid intrusive thoughts by utilizing the skills they develop in treatment. West Coast Recovery helps people prepare for the return to work by teaching them to manage stress, anxiety, and symptoms of SUD. To learn more about our programs and services, call us today at (760) 492-6509.