A Very Important Note: This post contains some imagery and information that you may find stressful or uncomfortable, especially if you experience thoughts like the ones referenced. Intrusive thoughts are only thoughts, and they do not reflect the wants and desires of the person who experiences them. If you have intrusive thoughts and they are disrupting your everyday life, I strongly suggest seeking the assistance of a trusted and experienced professional counselor in helping to deal with them.
I had an experience recently that started pretty innocently and spiraled into a sleepless night full of scary intrusive thoughts.
The whole story that started it is kind of silly and I won’t get into all the details.
What’s important to know for context is that I have a consistently occurring fear of someone (or something!) breaking into my house and murdering my dog, my husband and myself. I think about it a lot, mostly at night while I’m trying to sleep.
My Night of Intrusive Thoughts
The triggering event occurred, and around bedtime, I suddenly had an intrusive thought that my neighbor was secretly a serial killer and he was coming to murder us that night.
If this makes you want to laugh, I understand. It sounds ridiculous! It’s basically the plot of “Rear Window” and its many remakes, and I get how irrational it sounds.
But the thing about intrusive thoughts is that they aren’t rational.
My thought was real and scary to me. It spiraled out of control rather quickly too. I thought of a scene in the TV show “The Following” where two murderers got into their neighbor’s house by cutting a pathway through the closet and I pictured that happening to us. I thought of how I would wake up in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of him standing over me, holding an axe, ready to hack at me. My imagination conjured up an image of him coming through the basement window, killing our dog first, then coming after us. I thought of how he would tie us up and torment us by dangling the body of our dead dog in front of our faces.
Unfortunately I couldn’t stop the thoughts for several hours. I couldn’t close my eyes – I was afraid to fall asleep, thinking it would be my last night alive, and I came very close to a panic attack. My heart was racing, and I felt frozen in fear. I could only lie still and let the thoughts race through my mind. I eventually did fall asleep, but I woke up almost hourly to check around the room and make sure we were still safe.
It was a bad night, but it wasn’t the first time it’s happened and it’s likely not the last.
What Constitutes an Intrusive Thought?
The concept of intrusive thoughts is one that I think of as slippery because there’s isn’t a very specific definition. An intrusive thought is any thought that crosses your mind that you find invasive or uncomfortable or weird, and typically they are the ones that get stuck for any length of time.
They may be of a violent, sexual, religious, or socially unacceptable nature.
If you’ve ever stood on the edge of a cliff (literally, as in you’ve gone hiking or sightseeing) and thought about what would happen if you flung yourself off the side, despite not feeling suicidal, that could be an intrusive thought.
If you’re driving somewhere and think about swerving your car into a pedestrian, despite not wanting to physically hurt anyone, that could be an intrusive thought.
If you have a sexual thought about someone inappropriate like an adolescent or a family member, despite not feeling sexually attracted to them, that could be an intrusive thought.
If you’re sitting in church and have an idea of standing up to scream that you love Satan, despite feeling confident in your religious beliefs, that could be an intrusive thought.
Any thoughts we experience that we don’t want to experience and that go against our nature can be essentially categorized as intrusive.
Is There Something That Causes Them?
Intrusive thoughts tend to seemingly come from nowhere. You’ll be standing in the kitchen cooking dinner, then suddenly think about stabbing your spouse.
I can’t stress enough how irrelevant the thoughts are to your actual motivations and desires. Having the thought of stabbing your spouse does not mean you want to harm them. If it helps, you can think of it as a junk thought. It’s junk floating through your mind with no helpful purpose.
As a frequent haver of intrusive thoughts regarding situations of harm or danger, I’ve noticed some things can trigger them for me:
- An upcoming event or planned activity that gives me anxiety, like flying
- Consuming a large amount of media (specifically TV shows and movies) that include themes of violence, crime or sexuality
- Experiences or knowledge that make me feel unsafe in my environment (like hearing about a break-in in my neighborhood)
- Periods of excessive stress, whether at work or in my personal life
Every time I read a post on Nextdoor about someone’s car or house being burgled, there is not guarantee that I will instantly have intrusive thoughts about being murdered in my bed. But I do know that if I watch a whole season of a show about serial killers, then my thoughts will trend down a more anxious and undesirable path for several weeks.
If you have intrusive thoughts, I encourage you to examine if there are things occurring in your life that may cause them to increase in frequency or consistency. This may help you to lessen their existence by avoiding triggers.
However, we all experience intrusive thoughts – some more than others – and it’s not something you can cure yourself of. While understanding triggers can be helpful, it’s more critical to work on how you react when the thoughts arise.
How Common Are They?
Anyone can experience intrusive thoughts, likely everyone does at some point in their life, and there’s no one specific reason they occur. However, you may be more likely to experience them consistently and/or obsessively if you have any of the following conditions:
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Any eating disorder, including anorexia or bulimia
- A Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Dementia, including Alzheimer’s
Aren’t Our Thoughts Just Our Secret Desires?
No. They really are not.
We call these types of thoughts intrusive for a reason. They do not reflect what you actually want, whether consciously or subconsciously. They intrude on your thought patterns in a way that is uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
Intrusive thoughts might make you think you’re a bad person, but it’s a myth to say we are always in control of our thoughts.
Having violent intrusive thoughts doesn’t make you a violent person. Having sexual intrusive thoughts doesn’t make you a sexual deviant, and having fearful intrusive thoughts doesn’t mean anything is going to hurt you.
How Do I Know if I’m Having Intrusive Thoughts?
Remember when I called the concept of intrusive thoughts slippery? This is the reason why.
There is no definitive way to tell that you are having an intrusive thought. It’s completely subjective based on your perception of the nature of the thought.
Yes, there are common types of intrusive thoughts that I’ve mentioned, but in reality, any thought can be intrusive if you:
- Don’t want to think it
- Obsess over it
- Feel afraid because of it
- Are deeply discomfited by it
- Want it to go away but it feels stuck in your mind
If you are concerned that you’re having intrusive thoughts and want help dealing with them, I strongly suggest talking to a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, social worker, counselor, or any trusted medical professional that you feel you can confide in and not receive judgement from.
Be aware that intrusive thoughts, especially of a violent or sexual nature, can be misjudged by others who either do not experience them, or who wrongly believe that they are reflective of your true nature. It’s important to confide in those who will listen and help you to see that your intrusive thoughts are not your character.
Because intrusive thoughts are common with OCD, you may want to seek the advice of a medical professional who specializes in it. You do not have to have OCD to experience intrusive thoughts, but many OCD professionals have experience working with them.
What Can I Do About Them?
I’m not a medical professional, nor am I an expert in psychology, so I have pulled in some techniques from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s (ADAA) article “Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts” by Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD. The following bullet points are excerpts directly from the article linked in the title.
“Here are steps for changing your attitude and overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts”
- Label these thoughts as ‘intrusive thoughts.’
- Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you.
- Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away.
- Float, and practice allowing time to pass.
- Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency.
- Expect the thoughts to come back again
- Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.”
“Try Not To:”
- Engage with the thoughts in any way.
- Push the thoughts out of your mind.
- Try to figure out what your thoughts ‘mean.’
- Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts”
The lists above are just a starting point. I’ve compiled a list of resources below as well. It may take time and practice to learn how to label and work through these thoughts.
The most important thing to know is how not-alone you are if you have them. They are unbelievably common, and a deep source of shame for many. But intrusive thoughts are just junk thoughts. They do not reflect what we want, feel, or believe. Your intrusive thoughts are not your identity.
Resources For More Information
Please be advised that I have not read, watched, or consumed all of the books and media below. Some are based on recommendations and reviews.
- “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts (A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts)”, Sally M. Winston
- “Brain Lock, Twentieth Anniversary Edition: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior”, Jeffrey M. Schwartz
Webinars and Videos
- “Overcoming Intrusive Thoughts”, presented by ADAA members Martin Seif, PhD, ABPP and Sally Winston, PsyD
- “What are Intrusive Thoughts? [& When They Signal Pure O OCD]”, presented by Kyle Kittleson and Dr. Jenny Yip
- “OCD3, Ep1: Living with Intrusive Thoughts, Pure O“, presented by Dr. Phillipson of MadeofMillions
- “What are intrusive thoughts?”, Aaron Kandola, medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP
- “Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts”, Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD
- “How Can I Stop OCD Thoughts?”, Owen Kelly, PhD, medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD
- “How To Stop Intrusive And Obsessive Thoughts”, Healing from Depression, Douglas Bloch
- “Aaron Harvey – Intrusive Thoughts”, The OCD Stories, Stuart Ralph
- If you have intrusive thoughts that cause you to experience shame, guilt or fear that you are a “bad” person, THIS is the honest interview to listen to
- Content warning: This interview includes many descriptions of violent and sexual intrusive thoughts, some of which may be considered graphic. There is also quite a bit of cursing. Please proceed with caution.
If you experience intrusive thoughts and feel really alone with them, it may help you to follow and interact with people who experience them as well – and are willing to talk about it. You may find it’s easier to talk about your experiences online than in-person.
I’m not a member of any Facebook groups specifically related to intrusive thoughts, so I do not have a specific recommendation. On Facebook you can search “intrusive thoughts” and you will find many groups specifically focused on them. On Reddit, r/intrusivethoughts is specifically dedicated to the topic at hand.
If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, want to share your experiences, or have questions, let’s chat on any of my social channels!