When I was thirteen, intrusive thoughts dominated my reality.
If I had a bad thought about someone in my life, I felt my relationship with them would become dishonest from that point forward, and until I confessed my thoughts, I’d be consumed by guilt.
I would constantly get hammered with ugly, arrogant, and cruel thoughts about my friends and family. I had no control over it, and it made me feel like a monster.
I didn’t realize until later in life how many others experience this.
Intrusive thoughts are a classic symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but they can happen to anyone struggling with anxiety. The more repulsed you are by your thoughts, and the more you resist them, and the more frequently they occur.
This is a strange mental quirk that causes a lot of suffering for those who don’t know how to handle it, especially if you’re a kid who doesn’t realize what’s happening. So let’s try to shed light on the thoughts that don’t seem to be yours.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted ideas, images, or urges that “invade” your mind at random moments. Intrusive thoughts can be aggressive, violent, sexual, or even existential.
Your intrusive thoughts are a direct reflection of things you care about, meaning a mother might get intrusive thoughts about harming her son, only because he’s her top priority.
It’s tough explaining this to someone who’s never experienced it. How could you not be affiliated with the thoughts in your mind? They’re in your head, right? Must that mean they’re yours?
Well, yes, and no.
Experiencing Thoughts That Aren’t “Yours”
I was watching an OCD reality show with a friend. The episode was about a man who was terrified he might be a serial killer and if he held a knife around someone; he was bound to kill them with it. To work on getting past this fear, the therapists had him hold a knife to a volunteer’s throat.
This looked unbearably painful for him. He may have been facing the worst fear of his life. But all my friend could say was, “What are they doing? Don’t let him hold a knife.”
He didn’t get it.
The two words at the root of every intrusive thought are “what if?”
This man was locked in a prison of “what if I am that?” To him, nothing was more awful than the idea of a serial killer. It’s the fear of it, not the impulse towards it, that drives obsessions like this.
The Origins of Intrusive Thoughts
Psychologists are unsure of the origins of these things. But there are three theories:
- They are sources of stress you’ve repressed throughout the day.
- They are natural hiccups in the brain’s thought-forming process.
- They result from a hyperactive brain being vigilant about perceived danger. Each intrusive thought is your brain setting off an alarm for you to pay attention to a threat. The threat comes in the form of a doubt. For example: “Am I a serial killer? Does God hate me?”
From experiencing intrusive thoughts for many years, I believe theories two and three are most on-point.
Intrusive thoughts have no purpose other than to warn you of some imaginary doom scenario; That you’re nothing but a pervert. Or a heretic. Or a monster.
If I wanted to help the man from the OCD reality show, I would start by giving his rational mind some ammunition. I would tell him:
Do you really think a serial killer worries about whether they might be a serial killer?
Rational understanding is where you have to start, but that alone won’t stop intrusive thoughts. Anxious individuals address their intrusive thoughts compulsorily, usually by performing some ritual that will convince them the thought isn’t true, or that it’s not them who believes it.
Addressing how you react to intrusive thoughts is where the work is done.
How to Beat Intrusive Thoughts
Here are several methods to address and overcome intrusive thoughts, backed by research:
- Understand that almost everyone has messed up, disturbing, and unsettling thoughts without an obvious reason. According to psychologist Ashley Butterfield:
Intrusive thoughts are not unique to people who are struggling with a mental health concern(s). They are also experienced by individuals who do not routinely struggle with anxiety. In fact, research has found that over 90% of the population experiences intrusive thoughts (Abramowitz, Deacon, & Whiteside, 2011).
Someone who isn’t prone to anxiety might take a sudden violent or disturbing thought in stride. They might say, “huh, my brain’s being weird today” and move on. But an anxious person becomes obsessed with their dark thoughts, and in trying to banish them from their mind, they become their slaves.
2. CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is a powerful tool against intrusive thoughts. According to OCD UK:
Research has shown that 75% of people with OCD are significantly helped by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, with some local IAPT services reporting recovery rates of up to 80%.
CBT is the process of identifying troubling thoughts, understanding what they are, and changing the meaning you ascribe to them.
3. ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) is a mode of treatment that involves directly confronting the fears that drive your intrusive thoughts. In a systematic way, you face your fears in a hierarchy from least to most scary, and then you resist the urge to perform compulsory behaviors that ease your anxiety.
ERP is known to be extremely effective. The idea is to remove the fearful element from your thoughts so they cease to bug you.
Tips and Insights From a Veteran (My Personal Experience)
- Intrusive thoughts and OCD fears are about prevention and preservation. Your brain is demanding you find certainty for a doubt you’re having. So let it feel uncertain and walk away. If intrusive thoughts keep barking at you, then let them bark and refocus on something else.
- Not giving intrusive thoughts your attention can feel like leaving a mess uncleaned, but you undermine them the more you ignore them.
- Sometimes, try thinking your intrusive thoughts all the way through to the hilt, voluntarily. Honestly entertain your scary ideas (Say, “hm, maybe I AM a serial killer. Let me imagine how that would feel”). Stepping into the shoes of your intrusive thoughts shows you how "true" they are.
- The more willing you are to have disturbing thoughts, the less you have them.
The Brain Is Weird, Isn’t It?
If you can approach intrusive thoughts with courage, self-compassion, and a healthy sense of humor, they won’t be a problem for you. Just remember that we’re all a little tweaked, and there’s nothing wrong with that.