Those thoughts we all have that come out of nowhere? Colin Thurston reassures us they’re a lot less threatening than we think.
Intrusive thoughts are the strange and often ridiculous things that pop into your head when you’re going about your life. Maybe you’re driving down the highway and, out of nowhere, you think about opening the car door and jumping out. You might be presented with an image of what this would look like, then seconds later forget all about it and carry on with your day. That’s an example of an intrusive thought. It doesn’t necessarily need to be about doing something dangerous; intrusive thoughts can cover a whole range of delightful topics from the violent or sexual, through to just plain silly.
As a long-term sufferer of depression and anxiety, it wasn’t until going through a course cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) last year that I really came to have any understanding of what intrusive thoughts are. This lack of understanding, though no fault of my own—I’m pretty sure I hadn’t simply missed that day at school—had led me to develop a mild form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). As it turned out, this OCD was keeping my depression and anxiety going—further complicating the already difficult task of breaking free from the vicious cycles of thinking, feeling, and behaving that I found myself in. During CBT there were very basic things that I learned about intrusive thoughts that really helped put me back on a good path. They were so basic that I exclaimed more than once: “I can’t believe no one has ever told me this before!” Although it might not come up in conversation often, here are four of the things I’ll be passing on when it does.
1. Relax: we all have them.
The first person to tell me this was my CBT therapist. I had made it to nearly three decades of living before I’d found out. There have been studies, and from speaking with friends and relatives it seems fair to say that we all have intrusive thoughts now and then. We just might not characterize them as such. One example from my therapist, at becoming impatient with elderly people crossing a road followed by the thought of running them down with the car—whilst unpleasant—might more commonly be seen as just anger, idle fantasy, or even a daydream. It is the level of impact these thoughts have on us that can change their nature from quite ordinary to abnormal or obsessive.
Once we begin to unwittingly cross that line, things can start to get uncomfortable; but a key thing to remember is that it’s only our reaction to the thoughts that changes. The thoughts themselves remain of the same kind: absurd, meaningless, and outside of our control.
2. You’re very unlikely to act on them.
That having these thoughts meant sooner or later I might act upon them was certainly one of my biggest fears. By not understanding that intrusive thoughts were normal, my already introspective nature made my having them all the more disturbing. As I spent more and more time examining my intrusive thoughts, they began to appear more meaningful (and only because I’d spent so much time on them). The more meaningful they appeared, the more I wondered what that meaning was. Eventually I took these thoughts as a sign that I would commit the acts they concerned—that they represented some kind of desire.
Whilst this felt credible at the time, the argument against the suggestion is contained within the problem already: these thoughts were incredibly distressing for me. This fear that they brought with them a compulsion towards acting them out was again born of lack of understanding. In reality, although there was a compulsion, it went in quite the opposite direction. It was a compulsion to avoid these kinds of thoughts, and any situations that triggered them or similar. Whilst the kind of self-imposed isolation that this leads to is still an unhealthy response to intrusive thoughts, it does demonstrate just how far I was willing go to avoid acting them out. It’s a far more natural reaction to escape the things that truly distress us than to push ourselves towards them.
3. They don’t make you a bad person.
Whether we believe we’ll act on them or not, doesn’t just having these kinds of thoughts damage your moral character? Doesn’t it taint you in some way, or make you a bad person? Ignoring that I already spoiled the ending (we all have them!) and that the aim of understanding this is to attempt to normalise intrusive thoughts, I can easily sympathise with this view—it’s one I held for a long time. It’s deeply rooted in our own ideas on morality, those ideas influenced in turn by any number of deeper things. These are tricky waters to navigate, filled with the personal and the subjective.
Ideas of good and bad form an important part of our lives as social creatures. Some might even see them as essential to the cohesion of our societies. In the film Minority Report, the authorities had access to all our thoughts, and could arrest anyone for a crime before they were about to commit it—the assumption being that if it can be determined who is seriously thinking about committing a crime, we can treat them as though they had actually committed it. This position is ambiguous at best—after all, the actual physical act of the crime itself had not been committed—yet it is this position we are taking with ourselves in regard to our intrusive thoughts. We’re saying, in essence, that acting out the things we’re thinking is equivalent morally to only thinking them. This just doesn’t ring true.
If you’re having intrusive thoughts and finding them unpleasant, the chances are high that you’re a good person. Most folks (no less good) just ignore them; and actual bad guys tend to actively enjoy them, seek them out, and indulge in them.
4. You can’t stop them from appearing, but you can stop them from bothering you.
If you can accept that you’re very unlikely to act on them, and that they don’t make you a bad person, you’ve taken two big steps in the right direction. These aren’t easy steps to make, and I doubt I would have done so without the help of a therapist. One final thing to remember: the purpose of better understanding intrusive thoughts is not to make them go away. They might reduce in frequency, number, and variety—and you might be less likely to notice or remember them—but we all have them, they are normal, and they will pop up from time to time.
The crucial last step is to find ways to reduce the stress that they cause when they do come along. One way to do that is with graded exposure to the kinds of thoughts that distress you. As awful (and counterintuitive) as it might feel, a really effective way to deal with these thoughts is to make them boring. You do this by choosing to think about them, keeping a record of what you’re doing (I used this worksheet) and monitoring how you are feeling. Over time, with repeated exposure to the kinds of intrusive thoughts you had been experiencing, in this more measured and controlled fashion, you should find your distress begin to decrease. Eventually, practising this, you’ll find intrusive thoughts rarely bother you at all.
If you’ve struggled with this for a long time this process can be quite the revelation. You’ll start to feel more in control, and your head will become a much less hostile place to be. As always, with any kind of health matter, I recommend you fully discuss what you’re facing with a doctor you trust. Self-help is absolutely possible, I recommend this website in particular, but if you can find the right professionals to help you, you’re giving yourself all the greater chances at feeling well again.
Photo credit: Viola’s visions/flickr