What Intrusive Thoughts Actually Are (and How to Overcome Them)

What Intrusive Thoughts Actually Are (and How to Overcome Them)
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It’s impossible for me to walk over a bridge without thinking “I’m going to chuck my phone into the water.” Luckily, I’ve never acted on this involuntary “intrusive thought.” And since I’m online all the time, I know I’m not alone in finding the humour in this sort of intrusive thought. It’s trendy to use the term to refer to any sort of wacky, unwanted, or inexplicable thought. (Here’s a video that captures it pretty well. And here’s another.) While the term gets tossed around to explain funny, weird, and ultimately harmless thoughts, many unwanted intrusive thoughts are part of a serious mental disorder. What can you do to overcome intrusive thoughts that are repulsive and upsetting?

I spoke with Dr. Sally Winston, a licensed psychologist, founder and executive director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, and co-author of Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. When I mentioned the “trendiness” of intrusive thoughts online, Winston recognised it immediately as the difference between “passing intrusive thoughts” and “stuck, unwanted intrusive thoughts.” While the former are a universal experience and often funny, the latter are no laughing matter and can be extremely frightening for the person experiencing them. Here’s what to know about unwanted intrusive thoughts, and how you can deal with them.

Anyone can get intrusive thoughts

Winston says that these thoughts — which intrude into your conscious thought seemingly out of nowhere — might be bizarre, unacceptable, taboo, absurd, and sometimes surprisingly creative.

Most intrusive thoughts are of no importance and are forgotten within moments. They’re a completely normal phenomenon, according to Winston.

Unfortunately, when an unwanted intrusive thought gets stuck and becomes repetitive, this “normal phenomenon” becomes a real issue. “These thoughts are abhorrent, shameful, or utterly out of character,” Winston says, “and they arrive with a ‘whoosh’ or jolt of emotion stuck to them.” These kinds of intrusive thoughts are instantly upsetting, and carry with them the strong urge to fight them off.

“Thoughts like this get stuck if you struggle against them, get entangled in what they might mean, or think that they need to be dealt with,” Winston explains. “The fuel that keeps them coming back is precisely these efforts to suppress or understand or banish them.”

A key point to remember is that intrusive thoughts are not necessarily urges, but the emotional “whoosh” that Winston describes might make them feel that way. So while the thoughts are powerful for the individual, they won’t necessarily lead to action.

You are not your intrusive thoughts

It’s unsettling to get a sudden thought to do something you would never consciously think to do. One intrusive thought easily leads to a mental spiral of wondering whether intrusive thoughts somehow reveal your true self and hidden desires. Winston uses the example of a new mother who gets the intrusive thought of “What if I drop the baby?” stuck in their head. This thought morphs into “What if this means I want to drop the baby?” “Why can’t I keep this thought from happening?” and eventually “Something is wrong with me.

Winston says this is not the case. The reason intrusive thoughts get “stuck” is because they “do not fit with you, your values, how you see yourself or what matters to you.” Intrusive thoughts are so upsetting precisely because they are not who you really are.

Overcoming and coping with intrusive thoughts

Winston says treatment of intrusive thoughts consists of first understanding what the thoughts are and what they are not. To recap: Intrusive thoughts are not revelations about your “unconscious” or “true desires.” They’re also not urges that will make you do anything against your will.

After understanding the nature of these thoughts, then comes a change in your relationship with them. As explained above, the struggle to banish these thoughts is what makes them stick around. In order to overcome them, Winston explains you have to learn how to disengage with thoughts, so that they run out of fuel on their own and fade out.

Let the thought intrude, then let it pass

Although it sounds counterintuitive, Winston says that “you have to allow the thoughts to happen.” The first step is to identify and label them as what they are. Winston’s advice is to think of the phrase “I am having the thought that…” right in front of the intrusive thought itself. It works because it’s your reminder to “pay attention to the process, not the content” of the thought.

Every person will have a different approach to attending to their intrusive thoughts without trying to fight or “fix” them. The takeaway is to recognise the difference between a thought and an urge, and that the instinctive desire to banish the thought will only make it intrude harder.

Recovery is possible

Once you tackle your relationship to intrusive thoughts, you have taken the first step to overcome them. If you are significantly suffering and feel threatened by these thoughts, Winston advises you seek a therapist who specialises in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), since they will know not to waste time exploring the “why” of these thoughts and instead focus on helping you disengage from them.

Remember that everyone gets passing intrusive thoughts. We all think up unacceptable images, unfortunate doubts, or inexplicable “what ifs.” The key is recognising these intrusive thoughts for what they are, and more importantly, what they are not.

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