Emily Weems, LCSW
What the Hell Are Intrusive Thoughts and Am I Having Them?
Intrusive Thoughts 101:
Do you get repeated thoughts “stuck” in your head, like they’re in a loop? You try dislodging them by distracting yourself or trying to “figure out” the thought (e.g. why did I think this? What does this mean about me?). If you remember CDs, it’s like a scratch on your disc and it keeps returning to that exact spot. You are baffled that you can’t stop thinking the thought and start to attach importance to it. You may think , “My brain must keep bringing this up for a reason”. A hallmark of an intrusive thought is how contrary it is to your values/character (i.e. "I may push that person into traffic"). You have no intention of acting on the thought but it feels so powerful and real that doubt lingers. That’s what makes them so alarming, disturbing, and distressing.
Rose Cartwright, author of the memoir, Pure, writes, "For example, if a person wants nothing more than to be a parent someday, their intrusive thoughts may center around child molestation or other child abuse, or if a person is a devout Christian, they may struggle with the doubt that Jesus is really God.”
They Feel So Real.
Intrusive thoughts can be words, images and pictures flashing in your mind, too. An image of you cheating on your significant other (you’re in a blissfully happy relationship). An image of you strangling your dog (your dog is the center of your world). An image of you cutting your wrists (you are the farthest thing from suicidal). An image of sexually touching a child (you are disgusted and morally repulsed by this). It’s no wonder that intrusive thoughts lead a person to question their very sanity and morality. However, ignoring them feels irresponsible and they start to hijack a person's life. They are tortuous and a living nightmare for people who are suffering with them.
Worries vs Intrusive Thoughts.
How are intrusive thoughts different from your everyday worries? Worries can be thoughts or images that cause you distress but they align with your values. A string of thoughts about your child getting home from school safe. A repetitive thought about the lab results you are waiting to get. Worries do not feel bizarre and relate to a real-life problem (safety, health, career). Intrusive thoughts have themes that are quite far fetched, irrational, or with a magical thinking quality (“My bank account balance has to end in even numbers or a loved one may have a serious fall”). Here’s some examples:
Fears of “going crazy" (e.g. developing schizophrenia)
Fears of “wrongness” in any type of relationship
Fears of contracting a disease/illness
Fears of being a perpetrator of a hit-and-run
Fears of not knowing your true sexual orientation
Fear of harming yourself or others (indirectly or directly)
Fears of blaspheming or going against your religion
Wait, This Happens To Me!
We all have intrusive thoughts. Raise your hand, if you’ve driven across a bridge and thought, “What if I open my car door and jump out”, or an image of doing that flashes into your head. You think to yourself, “That’s weird and creepy”, and keep going on with your day. You can easily dismiss it. Intrusive thoughts are fleeting and they vanish as quickly as they came for most people. The type of intrusive thoughts that need attention and signal a serious disorder, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, are when a person is experiencing repetitive, persistent intrusive thoughts that feel all-too-real and fills them with anxiety, distress, or uncertainty. They have a “sticky” quality to them. A person is unlikely to share what is happening inside their brain because of the strange subject matter and, instead, silently suffer alone. If this is ringing true for you, more information and next steps can be found at madeofmillions.org and iodf.org