You’re driving along with the windows down, belting out “I can buy myself flowers,” when suddenly you think about veering into oncoming traffic.
You’ve settled in for season 2 of New Amsterdam when—plot twist—a sexual thought about your brother (YOUR BROTHER) (!) hits.
You’re on guess three of Wordle when, for a split second, you imagine harming your baby.
Your next thought: Am I a monster?
No. But you’re experiencing the monster known as unwanted intrusive thoughts, the kind that don’t just make you wonder, What did that mean?—but can make you question the very humanness of your being.
Experiencing intrusive thoughts can be so disturbing, chances are you’ve never told anyone about them. Not your partner. Not your best friend. Not even your therapist. While we encourage talking to the latter—’tis, after all, their job to help with this stuff—we wanted to get you answers, stat.
Here, psychologists share the 10 most important things to know about negative intrusive thoughts—starting with the one you probably need to hear most.
1. Disturbing intrusive thoughts are totally normal.
Perverse images of your dad, violent flickers while chopping onions: They’re as common as they are alarming. According to a study published in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, more than 99 percent of subjects reported having occasional intrusive thoughts, with 13 percent experiencing them frequently.
Or, as clinical psychologist Sally Winston, Psy.D., puts it: “Everybody has intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. They’re just part of life.”
(Yes, even the super weird ones.)
2. There are different types of intrusive thoughts.
While the term “intrusive thoughts” typically brings to mind the most upsetting variety, not all intrusive thoughts are unwanted.
“Everyone has thoughts that just come into their mind that are outside the regular flow of thinking,” says Dr. Winston, co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. (You know, like when you’re trying to finish a presentation but those LPA sandals you saw on Insta keep flashing before your eyes!)
As you might guess, it’s the unwanted intrusive thoughts people tend to get hung up on on because they’re exactly as their name implies—unwanted. They’re also the ones that can cause stress and anxiety and depression.
These negative intrusive thoughts can span the gamut: thoughts about violence (either in relation to yourself or others) that are inappropriately sexual, connected to death (yours or someone else’s), or something that goes against your religious or moral beliefs.
3. You can’t prevent disturbing intrusive thoughts.
Regrettably, unwanted intrusive thoughts also summon another “un” adjective: unavoidable, says David Carbonell, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety and the author of The Worry Trick,
Take this example: A friend tells a story that involves a dragonfly. You start seeing the insects everywhere. In the park. Infused into museum paintings. On social. As earrings! They were always there, you’re just noticing them more now that they’re on the brain. The power of suggestion is, well, powerful.
And, as Dr. Carbonell explains, people who think they can control their thoughts often experience a catch-22: “They’re liable to have more intrusive thoughts,” he says.
4. The best way to manage intrusive thoughts is to let them pass.
It’s natural to want to push away disturbing brain whiffs. But the best way to handle an intrusive thought is to acknowledge it, then let it pass—just as you would random thoughts that aren’t troubling. That’s the most effective way to diminish the intrusive thought anxiety that often results.
“The more you fight to suppress the thought, the more intense and repetitive it becomes,” Dr. Winston says. (It’s the dragonfly thing again.)
What if negative intrustive thought doesn’t pass? Actively focus your attention on something else—call a friend or watch another episode of New Amsterdam.
If that doesn’t work and disturbing intrusive thoughts are cropping up on the regular, it’s probably time to book a therapy appointment to see if there’s something deeper at play. It doesn’t mean you have a mental health condition. However, consistently having intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), says Dr. Winston.
If this turns out to be your situation, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to have intrusive thoughts for all eternity. Working with a therapist can truly help you deal with intrusive thoughts until they subside.
5. There’s also a connection between persistent intrusive thoughts and OCD.
Same thought on a ticker-tape loop around your mind? It could be a form of OCD. “OCD obsessions are repeated, persistent unwanted thoughts,” Dr. Winston says. Look for a therapist who specializes in OCD (check out the provider directory from the International OCD Foundation) to help you work through things and figure out the best course of treatment.
6. Experiencing intrusive thoughts doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
We live in a society of shame, so it’s not hard to see why disconcerting thoughts can send you spiraling. “Many people wonder, What does this mean about my mind? Is it a signal? A warning? Does it say something about my character? Does it indicate that there’s a hidden part of me?” Dr. Winston says.
But the answer is a definitive two letters: N.O. In fact, part of the reason why people find an unwanted intrusive thought so upsetting is because it’s the complete opposite of who they are and what they believe, says Dr. Winston.
Granted, we also live in a world where bad people do bad things—and intrusive thoughts may have you stressing about your humanity. But that’s not how it works. Thoughts are thoughts. They aren’t controllable, and they don’t exist in a vacuum.
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It’s important to consider your whole being, including your mental health and past behaviors. There is a Nile-wide difference between a person with a history of deviant acts who has a violent intrusive thought and a generally gentle, kind human who experiences the same type of thought.
“When someone tells me they are ashamed of an intrusive thought, I ask them to tell me about their actions, because that’s what we evaluate when we want to form an assessment about a person,” Dr. Carbonell says. “We evaluate people based on what they’ve done, not what they think. If we evaluated people based on their thoughts, we’d all be in jail.”
7. Some people are predisposed to having intrusive thoughts.
You knew this was coming, right? What issue doesn’t have a genetic component? And such is the case for intrusive thoughts.
While everyone has them from time to time, certain *lucky* folk have genes to thank for more of ’em. “Some people have a biological predisposition to have a ‘sticky mind,’ where it’s easier for some things to get stuck; thoughts can loop around and around,” Dr. Winston says. While having a “sticky mind” and OCD are both genetic, they are not the same, she says. Again, a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in OCD can help you pinpoint which one (if either) you may have.
There’s another hereditary trait associated with intrusive thoughts: Called anxiety sensitivity, it means having strong reactions to the experience of anxiety and a fear of anxiety. In other words, you’re scared of becoming anxious, Dr. Winston says.
“We all have a brain that’s primary purpose is to keep us alive, but some people have what you might think of as an overprotective brain,” says Dr. Carbonell. “It’s the kind of brain that says, It’s cold out, so you might want to bring a sweater. And you might want to bring an extra sweater just in case the first one gets ruined.” If this is all too #relatable, you may be more likely to have intrusive thoughts more often.
According to one study, anxiety sensitivity ups your risk of developing an anxiety disorder, but it’s also a risk factor for obsessive-compulsive symptoms (OCS) during the teen years and vice versa: Experiencing OCS increases the chances of developing anxiety sensitivity.
8. Intrusive thoughts don’t serve a purpose.
You had a vexing thought—and you’re worried it might be trying to warn you. Indeed, both Dr. Carbonell and Dr. Winston have had clients who view thoughts as signals to avoid seeing someone or going somewhere. For instance, an intrusive thought of dropping a child down the stairs gets interpreted as a blinking “stay away from the staircase today!” sign. (If you’ve also got the type of OCD that comes with magical or superstitious thinking, this can feel all the more true.)
But intrusive thoughts do not serve a purpose, confirm our docs. They are not omens. They are not harbingers. They are, in fact, meaningless.
And, so, Dr. Winston says to refrain from assigning meaning to the thought. “If you believe it’s meaningful, it becomes very hard to let it pass,” she says.
9. Intrusive thoughts are not urges.
You’re in a work meeting and suddenly picture yourself getting carnal with your boss. Ruh-roh: Is this somehow evidence of a deep-down desire?!?
Read that meaningless bit again, four sentences up. One rando thought doesn’t mean you secretly want to take things from business to pleasure. Context matters. Look at the whole picture. Unless you’ve been feeling an attraction building or consciously know you’ve got a crush, this thought simply doesn’t have significance.
10. Therapy can help if intrusive thoughts are really getting to you.
Even if you don’t have OCD or an anxiety disorder, therapy is an option if unwanted intrusive thoughts keep bothering you. A therapist can teach you how to let these thoughts pass over you, acknowledging and accepting them before moving on.
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