Intrusive thoughts are the thoughts that invade your mind, causing you to feel like you’re losing control of your life.
They can be about anything from death to sexual thoughts. I spoke with three mental health professionals to learn more about intrusive thoughts and how they manifest in different people.
Megan Galante (@megangalante) created the artwork.
This article contains references to self-harm and suicide. Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273. if you or someone you know is thinking about self-harm or suicide. For 24/7 assistance, call TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741 to reach out to the Crisis Text Line.
I took out a knife to chop a yellow onion the other day and pictured what would happen if I stabbed myself in the chest. Fear swept over me like a tidal wave as soon as the idea entered my mind. Above all, the idea irritated me to my very core. Similarly, the occasion made me feel very alive.
I understand. There’s a lot to unpack there. Even acknowledging that makes me feel insane as I type this. I’m not a suicidal person. I don’t want to injure myself physically. The ideas just manifest themselves. That isn’t the only example. This is one of my numerous thoughts.
Here are a few more obtrusive ideas I have from time to time:
- What would happen if I dropped the infant I was carrying in my arms?
- Imagine the consequences if I turned my vehicle gently towards oncoming traffic.
- Imagining in painstaking detail what it would be like if I received a phone call informing me that a family one had died.
- What if I pushed the q-tip all the way into my ear and it bled?
- What would people think if I simply crossed this bridge with one leg?
- Would people notice if I just…slowly…lifted…my…shirt…on…this…public…bus?
- What if I tossed my phone off the balcony of this hotel?
I never take action based on these ideas. They elicit dread and, in my brain, act as a trigger for raging negative desires. Following a short voice in my mind screaming, “Are you NUTS?” I can usually quiet them immediately. Why would you think about that?!”
These strange, semi-dark ideas have always been a part of me, ever since I was a child, but they became more prominent in my thirties, and I began to wonder if I had an undiscovered dark side that I was ignorant of. I was ashamed to tell anybody about my mental lapses.
But, in true Brittany tradition, after a glass of wine, I confided in a friend about my troubling ideas (or three). She looked me in the eyes and asked, “You think about vomiting kids, too?” I was taken aback. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way! I needed to know more about these intrusive ideas after years of pushing them into a hidden abyss of my psyche.
What triggers these obtrusive thoughts? Why are they always about causing harm to myself or others? What exactly do they imply? What can I do to make them better? Why am I such a deranged individual?! I had a lot of questions, so I went out to several local therapists and psychologists for some more information that didn’t come from Google.
(PSA: I don’t suggest using Google to look for health information since it’s a frightening place!) Meet Jen Labanowski, co-founder of United Counseling and Wellness and certified marriage and family therapist, Dr. Anna Roth, Holistic PhD Psychologist, and Megan Johnson, mental health therapist at Lee Carlson Center for Mental Health & Well-Being, remotely. I picked their beautiful brains for everything I needed to know about my unwelcome wants and ideas, human to human.
First and foremost: I needed to figure out where my intrusive thoughts came from and what they were about. I’d gone down a long and winding path, certain that my brain was turning on me in a sinister manner, and I was frightened by the ideas I’d generated. I didn’t want to believe my aspirations were genuine. Is there anything I picked up straight away? I wasn’t insane.
First and foremost, I wanted to figure out where my intrusive thoughts were coming from and what/why they were there in the first place. I’d gone down a long and winding path, certain that my brain was turning on me in a sinister manner, and I was frightened by the ideas I’d generated. I didn’t want to believe my aspirations were genuine.
Is there anything I picked up straight away? I wasn’t insane.
Intrusive thoughts, according to Jen Labanowski, are “quite natural.” “Intrusive thoughts may stem from a variety of sources, but experiencing them does not imply you’re insane, dangerous, damaged, or abnormal,” she said. “These ideas may sometimes be the result of worry related to previous events, present stresses, or future concerns. These ideas may also be considered random and useless when they are totally meaningless.”
While this is a welcome relief, one of my major concerns about my strange wants and thoughts is that they often involve my family or pets. I picture them dying in front of my eyes, or hurting themselves. So, why am I making my own loved ones the focal point of my musings?
Megan Johnson, a therapist at School Linked Mental Health, explains why these intrusive thoughts arise from deep, emotional concerns: “Intrusive thoughts are ‘uninvited ideas’ that cling to the things that matter to you,” she said. “It’s only natural that your disruptive thoughts would be about children or family members. You may have a few unwanted ideas, but the most of them will go undetected. Those that go against your fundamental beliefs, or those that deal with issues that are essential to you, will stand out.”
I hadn’t truly confessed to these unpleasant impulses until this year, despite spending the previous three decades of my life attempting to suppress them. I recognized that anxiety might be a key driver of my thought-disaster train when I came to grips with my health and anxiety and spoke to a doctor.
Uncontrollable, recurrent thoughts (obsessions) and/or actions (compulsions) are signs of OCD, according to the CDC. Many anxiety disorders, on the other hand, generate intrusive, unwelcome thoughts. “OCD, GAD, and PTSD are all anxiety disorders, which means that when they show up, the brain is over-activating fear,” Labanowski says. These illnesses induce thoughts and symptoms as the brain tries to avoid terrible things from occurring, such as previous traumatic experiences, obsessive and illogical “what-ifs,” or the worst-case scenarios of a circumstance. The intrusive thoughts are a result of worry, and they represent the brain’s attempt to protect the individual.”
All three ladies urged me to think about all of my ideas in a single day. People have a large number of them. Some of it is dreamlike, some of it is intuitive, some of it is amusing, and some of it is total and utter nonsense. “Not all ideas are worthy of our attention,” Labanowski explained, “so we have the ability to select which ones are.”
All three ladies urged me to think about all of my ideas in a single day. People have a large number of them. Some of it is dreamlike, some of it is intuitive, some of it is amusing, and some of it is total and utter nonsense. “Not all ideas are worthy of our attention,” Labanowski explained, “so we have the ability to select which ones are.” If the substance of thought is unpleasant, we are more likely to label it as “invasive” or “disruptive.”
Positive thoughts, on the other hand, maybe “invasive” or “disruptive.” We categorize them differently because they seldom elicit negative feelings like shame, fear, guilt, or humiliation. These unpleasant feelings often lead us to get hooked on negative, undesirable ideas, causing the thoughts to linger longer or return more frequently.”
I think about a lot of things and am concerned about a lot of them. So it’s understandable that I have a harder time dealing with intrusive thoughts than others. Some individuals have them and think to themselves, “Hmm, that was strange.” Some individuals (like myself) think to themselves, “Great, now I’m definitely a serial murderer!” Oh my god!” said the speaker.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Brittany.
“Because the ‘uninvited ideas’ target personal fundamental beliefs, this experience varies from person to person,” Johnson says. “A person may, for example, have the idea of killing their pet and feel a strong terror reaction. Another individual may have a similar idea of hurting animals and it passes undetected because they may have had fewer emotional connections with animals or have hunted or worked on a farm.”
Okay, that’s great. So I’m not worried about the serial murderer. So, when do you need assistance?
When we’re anxious, intrusive thoughts may become even more intense. This immediately clarified why I was having more unwanted ideas in my head. Intrusive thoughts may be a warning of danger for certain people. “If a person is constantly tormented by ideas of hurting oneself or another,” she said, Labanowski emphasizes the significance of recognizing when harmful thoughts need assistance. “It’s critical to assess danger and safety.
A mental health professional should be contacted when violent ideas develop into violent obsessions, and the violent obsessions seem to be evolving into violent plans. That said, the overwhelming majority of individuals who have intrusive thoughts (perhaps the majority of humans) are not in any way dangerous.”
The issue, according to Johnson, is not with the idea itself, but with how we choose to react to it. The way you react to an intrusive idea that comes in your mind and then departs vs an invasive thought that is upsetting is a significant difference. Your brain, like your physical body, must learn to develop healthy habits and ultimately wean away distracting ideas.
The issue, according to Johnson, is not with the idea itself, but with how we choose to react to it. The way you react to an intrusive idea that comes in your mind and then departs vs an invasive thought that is upsetting is a significant difference.
In my instance, the relationship between my intrusive thoughts and my empathic aches piqued my interest. I have a lot of empathy stored up inside of me. And by a lot, I mean that if I see a sad elderly guy sitting alone on a bus, I will start weeping. I’ve also heard a number of tales of moms experiencing sympathetic pangs of guilt when they think about doing something potentially damaging to their child.
“Our brains work to protect us in the same way that they work to protect the individuals for whom we feel love, compassion, and empathy,” Labanowski says. “It’s conceivable that intrusive thoughts (particularly those involving damage to others) are the result of our brains’ efforts to increase empathy for others.”
So, why do our brains conjure up these gruesome images in our minds?
When our brains urge us to imagine or conceive damage to others, they also ask us to feel suffering on their behalf, according to Labanowski. “This is what empathy is. We are more inclined to try to defend someone whom we feel empathy for. A woman who gets intrusive ideas about her baby’s pram rolling into oncoming traffic, for example, may be terrified by these thoughts and believe she is a terrible mother. These sentiments, on the other hand, are most likely an indication that she’s a fantastic mother, whose brain is working overtime to passionately defend her child.”
Recognizing that these ideas were common and that they could be addressed gave me a feeling of control I hadn’t had in a long time. Intrusive thoughts may spiral downhill, resulting in a pointless mental struggle. I’m still looking for an anxiety-specific therapist who can help me identify and treat my symptoms. But now that I understand how they’re made and why they appear, I almost feel relieved.
These unpleasant urges and ideas, according to Dr. Anna Roth, may potentially be a symptom of an interior imbalance. “Those kinds of ideas are often a warning that things are out of balance,” she said. Let’s suppose you haven’t had enough sleep in a long time or you’re dealing with chronic stress. Intrusive thoughts are a warning indication that something needs to be addressed. It may be a red flag. And it is something you should be aware of.”
These unpleasant urges and ideas, according to Dr. Anna Roth, may potentially be a symptom of an interior imbalance. “Those kinds of ideas are often a warning that things are out of balance,” she said. Let’s suppose you haven’t had enough sleep in a long time or you’re dealing with chronic stress. Intrusive thoughts are a warning indication that something needs to be addressed.”
Above all, intrusive ideas must be addressed. “Anxiety problems present in a variety of ways, so if you notice your thoughts are intrusive and interfering with your capacity to live, I would certainly get help,” Roth advises.
However, all three ladies emphasized the need of having these ideas evaluated by a professional so that one can track if the thoughts develop into motives and acts. Thoughts may be transient for some individuals, while others ruminate on them for too long, and they might be a symptom of underlying mental problems. Everyone needs assistance. That is not anything to be ashamed about.
In the meanwhile, you may find methods to reduce their frequency. I gathered advice from each lady and have included it below.
Healthy Ways to Silence Intruding Thoughts:
Make an appointment with a therapist. Don’t be scared to ask for assistance. Find a therapist that specializes in anxiety and can teach/practice techniques to help you perceive ideas differently. Although intrusive impulses and thoughts are typical indicators of anxiety disorders, they may also be a sign of a deeper mental health problem. Examine how your thoughts are affecting your everyday life, and see whether they’re being worsened by other issues or stresses.
Read a book and absorb as much information as possible. Here are some books that can either help you cope with stress and anxiety or provide you with some clear insights on the topic.
Caffeine should be avoided, and a regular diet should be followed. A therapist can help you transform self-care into a healthy way of life if you speak with them. If you experience anxiety, caffeine is a no-no, and eliminating it from your diet completely may help you relax.
Get your heart rate up with some intense cardiovascular workout.
Make sure you get enough sleep.
Maintain a healthy self-care regimen. The idea is to rethink self-care and what it means to look for oneself. Make time for solitude. Allow yourself some time to relax. To unwind, read a book. Spend time with a friend or a member of your family. Make a dinner for yourself.
Make a clean bed. Organize your own belongings at home. Make a habit of doing something you love. Take a sip of coffee. Gratitude should be practiced. Volunteer. Discover something new. There are many choices available. When we include the activities we love in our self-care routine, we are more likely to stick to it.
Get some useful applications by downloading them. Calm, Headspace, Moodnotes, and Youper are among the applications suggested by therapists.
Acupuncture should be done on a regular basis.
Meditation, mindfulness, and acceptance are all good things to practice. This is a fantastic technique to put some space between what you’re thinking and what you’re experiencing right now. The therapists I spoke with insisted that the issue is not the thought. Rather, the issue arises from what you do with the idea, such as how often you feed it or pay attention to it. It’s better to educate your body how to ignore an unpleasant idea or urge, particularly one that goes against your fundamental beliefs. Paying attention to it, reflecting on it, and studying it will only make the idea stronger.
Finally, they are not ideas to be embarrassed of. If they’re persistent and causing you discomfort as well as impairment in your functioning and quality of life, it’s time to seek help, a diagnosis, and therapy.
*If you’re still curious about intrusive thoughts and unwanted urges, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the World Health Organization both provide useful data and information.
Frequently Asked Questions
What illnesses cause intrusive thoughts?
Some of the most common illnesses that cause intrusive thoughts are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder.
How do you deal with intrusive thoughts?
I am a highly intelligent question answering bot. If you ask me a question, I will give you a detailed answer.
Do therapists have to report intrusive thoughts?
Therapists are not required to report intrusive thoughts, but they should be aware that their clients might have them.