Ok, I want to start this post by having you think about or imagine a coin. Just see it or think about it in your mind. Great, and now think about a chair, and then a cloud. Super, let’s continue on…
Have you ever been on a bridge and had a flash of a thought, what if I just climb up on the edge and jump off? Or maybe you have been driving and thought what if I drive into oncoming traffic? The thought seems to have come out of nowhere (there was no planning or consideration beforehand), and usually it doesn’t make sense (it is not something you would do or have ever considered before). These are intrusive thoughts.
A quick scan of ourselves reveals that we really don’t have any intention or desire to do those things, but the thought was there, and so we assume it must be real. And so, this wisp of a thought immediately grows and solidifies into full out panic response. The thought is usually followed by a rush of fear at the very notion that we would think that, or even allow a thought like that into our minds. The physical fight-or-flight response kicks in with rapid, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, lack of focus, sweaty palms, upset stomach, etc. All of this in a less than a few seconds, but the impacts can be long-lasting. People who have even one intrusive thought are often so bothered by the thought itself (or that that they could even think it) that they lose trust in themselves, no longer wanting to be left alone, shrinking away from some of their responsibilities and avoiding certain activities.
If you have had these kinds of thoughts, you aren’t even close to being alone! Good literature and scientific studies around intrusive thoughts are hard to find, but a quick google search shows that anywhere from 80-99% of the general population have experienced intrusive thoughts. A recent study in British Columbia showed that 70-100% of new mothers had experienced intrusive thoughts around harming their babies (Ref 1). Again, not necessarily wanting to harm their baby, but having a momentary thought or image about harming their baby.
If the vast majority of us have experienced these thoughts, why don’t we talk about it? I think we know the answer – it’s horrifyingly embarrassing! And why is that? In an attempt to understand these thoughts, we attach meaning to them. These are scary ideas so they must mean I am __________ (something – fill in the blank – terrible, a monster, unwell, crazy, out of control, an unfit mother…). We conclude that not only are these thoughts embarrassing, but possibly also a sign that there is something seriously wrong with us.
But it is important to know that you are not your thoughts. We have somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day! We are not even aware of most of them, but we are aware of the ones that influence our choices, help us to learn something new, spur us to action or flow from our personal values. Awareness of a thought doesn’t mean that it is automatically important, but that’s how our minds interpret it. Awareness creates importance. Still, our thoughts are separate from us. It seems counter-intuitive though - our ideas, perspectives, thoughts and feelings seem so personal, a part of us, so how can there be separation between us and them? But it is true – thoughts are merely experiences, they are not a part of us. How we handle them determines how they impact us.
So, I am going to guess that you haven’t revisited the ideas of the coin, the chair or the cloud as you continued reading to this point. You were able to leave those thoughts, focus your attention elsewhere, and those thoughts certainly aren’t a part of who you are. There is separation between those thoughts and you. We can see this example more clearly because those thoughts were about mundane ideas that don’t impact our lives, but that is just our perception, the meaning we attached to them. So if we can do that with a coin, a chair and a cloud, can’t we do that with any thought? Easier said than done, I know.
Ok, but let’s consider darker subject matter. We could watch a scary movie with acts of violence and horror perpetrated by people and we would most certainly take in and think about what is happening on the screen. Most times, there is no significance attached to the fact that we thought about the subject material. It doesn’t mean we are bad people for seeing the violence or having those images in our minds. Thinking about the movie doesn’t mean we have a desire or intention to take those actions ourselves. The difference with intrusive thoughts is that they seem to come from us and they are about the people and the things closest to us, so they have greater impact.
But do intrusive thoughts really “come from us”? Why do they even happen? I have a theory (which is not based on scientific research or double-blind studies or years of gathering clinical anecdotes, but educated speculation):
I tend to think that our subconscious minds are constantly sorting through thoughts behind the scenes – some thoughts are filed and categorized, and some are thrown away in the garbage. So, how are thoughts thrown out in the garbage? Well, I believe that some thoughts are released through dreams, and others are released through our conscious minds (our everyday awareness). Thoughts aren’t always simple or logical, they may be a complex representation of many factors - stress, what we see on TV, what we are told. If we are awake as our subconscious minds are dumping these thoughts, they pass through our conscious minds and we try to apply logic to them. When an intrusive thought comes through, it seems so personal, so important, that we hold on to it by giving it attention. When the subconscious mind dumps thoughts through dreams, it is easier to dismiss them as a random parts of a dream with no meaning. Suppose you dreamed that you were about to drive into oncoming traffic, sure you may have a fear response, but the experience may not hold the same importance or meaning as if you had that thought while you were awake. We believe that if we think something while we are awake, it must mean something, but really it is as random as a dream (or the coin, or the chair, or the cloud). It is our conscious processing (what we think about the thought) that adds importance. The great news is that we can change how we process these thoughts! (Shameless plug – hypnotherapy is GREAT for this!)
Most importantly, if you have experienced intrusive thoughts you are not alone or crazy, and you are not your thoughts. There is help available to you to not only cope with, but conquer, intrusive thoughts.
Additional resource: A few years ago, I was searching on the internet for information around anxiety and intrusive thoughts and I came across Dr. Martin Seif’s website: http://www.drmartinseif.com/intrusive-thoughts.html
I loved what he had to say about intrusive thoughts, especially the following:
The content of your thought does not count. It is irrelevant. Your thoughts have no effect on what you will do. A thought – even a very scary thought – is not an impulse. You will not act on your unwanted intrusive thoughts.
He also provides steps for coping with unwanted intrusive thoughts, which is a great place to start:
Steps for coping with Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
· Label these thoughts as "intrusive obsessive thoughts."
· Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and you can safely ignore them.
· Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away.
· Breathe diaphragmatically until your anxiety starts to go down.
· Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought.
Try Not To:
· Engage the thoughts in any way.
· Push the thoughts out of your mind.
· Try to figure out what your thoughts "mean."
· Convince yourself that you would never do what the thoughts are saying.
· Change your behavior so that you avoid the possibility of acting on your thoughts.
· Label your anxiety level and watch it go up and down.
· Allow the thoughts to remain without hindrance. (They will go away on their own).
· Focus on managing your anxiety in the present. Diaphragmatic breathing is especially helpful.
1. Collardeau, F., Corbyn, B., Abramowitz, J., Janssen, P.A., Woody, S., Fairbrother, N. 2019 ‘Maternal unwanted and intrusive thoughts of infant-related harm, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression in the perinatal period: study protocol’, BMC Psychiatry, 19:94.