Intrusive thoughts are defined as “mental events that interrupt the flow of task-related thoughts [despite] efforts to avoid them” (American Psychological Association, 2020), and range in severity from easily manageable to intensely disruptive. Any unwanted thought, image, impulse, or urge that seems to appear out of the blue and does not align with one’s actual desires can be considered an intrusive thought, and, to some extent, intrusive thoughts are completely normal and very common! The majority of people occasionally experience intrusive thoughts that do not align with what they know about themselves and, beyond mentally noting that the thought stood out to them, go on with their day quickly forgetting the thought ever occurred. For others, the same intrusive thoughts can become “stuck” in their mind and become incredibly disturbing for the individual.
Having intrusive thoughts get “stuck” can be very concerning and confusing for the person experiencing them, and can often leave people questioning their values, morals, and desires. Instead of being able to notice and then let go of the thought without paying too much mind, people experiencing intense intrusive thoughts become consumed by the recurring thought and attempts to figure out where it came from, how true it could be, and the implications of having the thought. This line of thinking becomes cyclical as they search for answers only intensifies the distress which, in turn, creates a natural desire to investigate and understand.
Some common intrusive thoughts include:
- Inappropriate thoughts or images of or relating to sex
- Thoughts that you may commit a violent or illegal act (when homicidal ideations are not present)
- Thoughts that you may do something embarrassing or inappropriate
- Thoughts that you may not love your partner as much as you think you do
- Thoughts that your religious faith may not be as strong as you think it is
- Thoughts of harming yourself (when suicidal ideations are not present)
- Fear-based thoughts about one’s sexuality or gender identity
The above list is by no means exhaustive, but rather an attempt to normalize the fact that intrusive thoughts tend to be of an unpleasant and/or shocking nature. As a matter of fact, one of the main reasons intrusive thoughts become “stuck” is because they are unpleasant and/or shocking…let me explain.
Intrusive thoughts that cause a marked disturbance are most commonly associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and appear among the symptoms of other forms of anxiety disorders, and the difference comes down to how the original intrusive thought is appraised. Individuals with clinical anxiety are more likely to judge intrusive thoughts as “good” or “bad” and attempt to assess what having the intrusive thought must mean about them. There are several common myths or assumptions about intrusive thoughts that these individuals often fall victim to:
- Myth: Our thoughts are reflective of our character
- The truth is that our thoughts are not indicative of our character, our actions are. Our character is reflected in our behaviors: how we choose to treat others, how we decide to go about handling various circumstances, and the values and morals we select to guide us through life. Character is not reflected in our thoughts but rather in what choices we make.
- Myth: Our thoughts are reflective of our true inner self and/or unconscious desires
- The fear in this myth stems from the idea that there is an inner self that is reflective of who we “really” are and that everything else is just a falsified illusion that we blissfully accept—and intrusive thoughts, no matter how incongruent they seem or how much we disagree with them, must be indicative of our true self. The truth is that everyone has passing bizarre, unorthodox thoughts from time to time that can be categorized as aggressive, impulsive, immoral, or weird. Think of all the disturbing stories you have read or movies you have watched—all of those ideas and storylines were thought up by normal, creative people.
- Myth: The more prevalent a thought, the more important it must be
- The truth is that the prevalence of a thought has little to do with its importance. However, when we try to repress or avoid a thought, you can bet that it’ll come back up tenfold. In grade school, there was popular a game called “The Game” and the entire objective of The Game was to not think about The Game; doing so would mean you had lost. It was a virtually impossible game to “win” simply because we attempted to avoid thinking about it. The more one tried to not think about The Game, of course, only made it more difficult to forget. The importance I place on winning The Game (i.e. avoiding the thought) has since dwindled and I have stopped trying to avoid thinking about it. In turn, I seldom think about it, and when I do I forget about it and move on from the thought almost immediately.
- Myth: Our thoughts are under our control
- Wrong again. For the most part, our thoughts are not under our conscious control. In some ways, this can be beneficial: coming up with new ideas, seeing a situation from a different perspective; musicians, novelists, and creatives alike will frequently say their ideas just came to them. We can control how we interact with and respond to our thoughts, but we do not have a say over whether or not we have the thought to begin with.
- Myth: Thinking something makes it more (or less) likely to occur
- The fact of the matter is that thoughts do not have any bearing on what happens in the real world. Thinking about something is neither a prediction it will happen nor a way of protecting against something happening; thoughts cannot warn of future events nor can they stop something bad from happening. Thoughts do not change the probabilities of events happening in the real world, good or bad.
- Myth: Every thought is worth examining
- As humans, we have many, many thoughts occurring all at once. It is impossible to think about all of them all of the time and, for the most part, the brain does a good job of filtering relevant thoughts from irrelevant ones. However, if a thought—no matter how irrelevant—makes a big entrance into our conscious awareness and we are under the assumption that all thoughts are worth examining, then we may get stuck trying to understand the relevance of it. The thought isn’t relevant—it was never relevant—but it was shocking enough to catch our attention and the assumption became that it must be important. When thoughts pop into our minds that feel off-kilter, it is worth pausing to ask ourselves if the thought is actually relevant or if it is an irrelevant thought that just got through…it happens sometimes!
When dealing with intrusive thoughts, knowledge can be power. Simply knowing that the above myths are, in fact, myths can help individuals begin to break the cycle of examining, assessing, and judging their thoughts to no avail. The ultimate goal is to strip away the artificial importance we have given such a thought by disengaging with it. This means not Googling about it, not avoiding triggers of it, and not exhausting ourselves trying to make sense of it. (Seriously, it holds the same importance of a little kid asking, “What if my head was a snowball?”).
Of course, this is easier said than done. Intrusive thoughts are, by nature, disturbing and distressing to the individual experiencing them and can become quite consuming. If you’re finding it difficult to stop the cycle of judgment, assessment, and worry, you’re not alone and you may find it helpful to reach out for professional support.