I first learned about intrusive thoughts when I took a postpartum class a month after giving birth. It’s a common issue that many women can have intrusive thoughts about their baby, like: “What if I threw my baby down the stairs?”. It’s terrifying to think of something awful happening to your child, and these thoughts can be disturbing and isolating.
These thoughts can materialize out of nowhere, banging down the door to the party and cause such an uproar that it can induce more anxiety. Most of these thoughts focus on sexual, violent or socially unacceptable images. The people who experience these are afraid that they might commit these specific acts. It’s terrifying and confusing.
Your thoughts don’t equate to actionable items
The thing is, unwanted intrusive thoughts don’t just fall under pregnancy-related mood disorders. It can affect most people with Anxiety, OCD or PTSD. It’s estimated that 6 million Americans experience these thoughts. Still, most are ashamed and worried about them and therefore keep it a secret. They believe that something is deeply wrong with them, which causes them to fixate, blame and criticize themselves (Which causes more anxiety). This is not true; none of these are red flags, signals or warnings, despite how they feel.
Here are some other examples:
- Dropping an excessive amount of money out of your wallet
- Yelling obscenities in a Church/Mosque/Temple
- Shouting RAPE/FIRE in a crowd with no imminent danger
- Switching lanes and driving into oncoming traffic
- Hitting, causing harm or murdering someone you love
- Having a sexual encounter (violent or non) with a stranger, co-worker or family member.
There are so many more that I can layout, but I think you can get an idea.
Why do they feel so threatening and debilitating? Anxious thinking takes hold of them and twists them into something they are not. The harder you try to get rid of these thoughts fuels their intensity.
If you have a hidden desire to do ANY of these things, this is a different story. What you need to know is that these thoughts are standard. If you are bothered by these thoughts, you need to learn a new relationship with them to make it irrelevant and unimportant. Even though you can’t control when an intrusive thought pops into your head, you CAN control how you react to them.
How to Deal with Intrusive Thoughts
- Acknowledge the thought as being intrusive
- Remind yourself: the thought can’t hurt you and is not actionable
- Do not engage or fixate on it; accept it and allow it to flow through.
- Continue doing what you were presently doing before this thought appeared and focus on that task. If you cannot, try to ground yourself.
- Know that you are in control, and this thought is just a curiosity.
- If these thoughts persist and you feel like you aren’t in control or you can’t discern between an idea or an action, talk to your doctor immediately.
This approach will be difficult to apply since you’re trying to react to automatic thoughts. If you continue to do so, you may see a chance that they will decrease in frequency and intensity. If you need help in this approach, CBT is the answer.
As always, I highly suggest meditation and regularly exercising to keep yourself calm, present and centre.
The AADA suggests viewing these thoughts as if they’re clouds. As quickly as one will come, it’ll also float away.
For more information/resources, please find the following:
a free e-newsletter that answers questions about intrusive thoughts
Check out this video by professional graphic designer and animator J. Nordby on how he overcame his struggles with intrusive thoughts.
This article from Martin Seif Ph.D. ABPP & Sally Winston Psy.D.