Intrusive Thoughts:Normal or Not?

Thoughts are just thoughts however, most people have experienced the unsettling feeling of an intrusive thought at some point. An intrusive thought is a random thought or image that just pops out of nowhere and scares you for having thought it. It’s unwelcome and alarming and may cause you to think of yourself in a different way, perhaps as a person that could cause harm to someone or yourself. Some may think of themselves as a bad person, psychotic or “not normal” in some way and over time the intrusive thoughts can eat away at a person’s sense of self, especially if the thought becomes obsessional. 

“I’m having bad thoughts” is often how they are described in the therapy room. The thoughts or images are clearly abhorrent to the person and often they feel ashamed for having thought them. Some examples would be; the religious person who experiences blasphemous thoughts despite their deep faith; the doting mother who experiences a sexual image whilst dressing her baby and then questions whether she is an abuser; the daughter who helps her Mum chop vegetables and then has a thought/image of hurting her with the knife despite loving her dearly.

Consequently, the person may begin to question their identity and wonder what the significance of the thoughts are. Questions such as, what if I am this person, what if I am capable of doing this thing I’ve just thought about, what if I embarrass myself, what if I break the law? The bottom line is they don’t trust themselves and fear grows over time. In therapy, the relief is apparent when the person discovers that these type of thoughts are called “intrusive thoughts”. 

“Much suffering, much unhappiness arises when you take each thought that comes into your head for the truth.”

Eckhart Tolle

You may have heard the expression, “You are not your thoughts”. Thank goodness because I’d be in prison by now along with crime writers such as Stephen King. If he was his thoughts he would have been arrested years ago! He relies on his thoughts to manifest ideas for his books. He doesn’t fear his thoughts but welcomes them knowing they could provide material for his latest novel. Many of the thoughts might be warped perhaps but that doesn’t make him a bad person or psychotic. He’s an imaginative individual with a talent for writing and clearly he’s not scared of his thoughts. It’s the significance we give to our thoughts that has the capacity to disrupt our wellbeing. 

The therapeutic approach is to learn to treat these thoughts lightly and not place too much significance on the content of the thoughts. Therefore, it’s helpful to understand that we do not have too much control over our thoughts and that a distasteful thought can land uninvited into the inbox of our minds at any time. In other words, we don’t have any censorship filter for our thoughts. World News, media, conversations, the latest book one reads all have the potential to occupy our thoughts never mind the subliminal stimuli all around us. Moreover, the billion pound advertising industry cleverly try to influence our thoughts on a daily basis to increase their market share.  

Our imagination can be incredibly powerful and many of you reading this will recognise the annoyance of the “what if” thoughts. What if I go home tonight and l find my house burgled and the dog gone because I forgot to close the door properly this morning? What if my partner leaves me and…..what if that ache in my body turns out to be cancer? Scary thoughts? Yes. Normal? Yes.

Years ago I came across some interesting research regarding intrusive thoughts where 293 students (198 female, 95 male) took part, none of whom had a diagnosed mental health problem. It lists 52 intrusive thoughts and shows the percentage of students that have experienced them. I share a few below:

Thought/image/impulseFemale %Male %
Running car off the road 6456
Fatally pushing a stranger1734
Hurting family4250
Holding up bank632
Causing a public scene4743
Sex in public4978

“Obsessive intrusive thoughts in nonclinical subjects. Part I. Content and relation with depressive, anxious and obsessional symptoms”:

Intrusive thoughts and/or images can feel difficult to manage or eliminate but professional help and support is available. There could be an underlying cause such as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) or PTSD however it’s important to know that intrusive thoughts can just happen without any underlying issue.

Remember, like so many other thoughts you have in a day, they are just thoughts but if they have become obsessive, scare the life out of you or impacting your wellbeing in any way then it’s important to reach out and get support. You’ll be glad you did.

For compassionate, non-judgemental, confidential and competent therapy please contact me, Hilary Dixon, BACP Accredited Therapist. Please be assured that you do not have to disclose the content of your intrusive thoughts and no-one will push you to do so. To be honest it’s likely that I’ve heard them before.

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