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Intrusive Thoughts | “My God, How Can I Be Thinking These Things?”

Obsession

“Tell me they’re obsessions. Tell me it’s OCD. Please, tell me it’s anything that might make sense. These intrusive thoughts are pushing me over the edge. I mean, what if I act on them?”

Imagine carrying your infant daughter or son as you’re on an escalator at the mall. Now imagine how you would feel if you suddenly had the urge to throw your baby over the handrail. Or how ’bout this? You’re preparing dinner for your family and grab a knife to slice some tomatoes. Out of nowhere, you feel compelled to stab everyone in the house.

Think those would spook you? Now multiply that spookiness by numerous times a day, day-in and day-out. Would you be pushed to the very edge of your perception of sanity? You’d better believe you would.

Welcome to the world of intrusive thoughts, and those who experience them – including me, some 30 years ago. I assure you, the feeling of terror is just as real as going eye-to-eye with that intruder above.

So what are intrusive thoughts – really? Well, they’re unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may actually become obsessions. Needless to say, they’re incredibly upsetting.

Intrusive thoughts can present in association with situations such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders, depression (including postpartum), eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and psychosis (go easy on thinking you’re psychotic, k?).

Now, lots of folks experience nasty or unwanted thoughts. And for many they’re nothing more than an annoyance. However, when intrusive thoughts occur within the context of an emotional/mental situation, they’re one heck of a lot harder to ignore. And they typically become more frequent – and all the more distressing.

Fact is, one’s reaction to intrusive thoughts may determine if they’ll become severe, turn into obsessions, or require treatment. Intrusive thoughts can occur with or without compulsions. For the record, carrying out the compulsion no doubt reduces anxiety. However, it makes the urge to perform the compulsion so much harder to resist each time it recurs. And that serves to reinforce the intrusive thoughts.

Is it any wonder an individual would be deeply afraid they’ll act on their intrusive thoughts? And, of course, buckets of guilt, anxiety, shame, and despair accompany. Thing is, though, the chances of one acting on an intrusive thought are lower than low. I mean, think about it. Do you think one who would act on, say, a violent thought would likely feel any measure of guilt, anxiety, or shame?

Intrusive thoughts are typically classified into three categories. I’ve provided examples for each…

  • Inappropriate aggressive thoughts: Harming a child, jumping from a tall building, violently attacking or killing someone.
  • Inappropriate sexual thoughts: Doubts of sexual identity, sexual contact with strangers, family members, children, animals, religious figures.
  • Blasphemous religious thoughts: Sexual thoughts about God, distressing thoughts during prayer or meditation, sinning or breaking a religious law.

Now that we have a handle on what intrusive thoughts are, perhaps we ought to take a quick peek at what causes them. No doubt, there are tons of theories. However, I’d like to present these thoughts from counselor Sheryl Paul, M.A. I found them in her article “The Architecture of Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts.” Cool and comforting perspective…

The irony about people who are prone to intrusive thoughts such as these is that they’re among the most gentle, loving, sensitive, kind, creative, and thoughtful people you’ll ever meet. The thought is so far from reality that it’s almost laughable, except that it’s not funny at all because my clients believe the lie which, of course, creates a massive amount of anxiety.

Or maybe it’s not ironic at all. Perhaps it’s precisely because of this high level of sensitivity and empathy that their mind has gravitated toward an alarming thought as a way to try to avoid the intensity of feeling with which they respond to life. Highly sensitive people were once highly sensitive children, which means their nervous systems were wired at birth to respond to the sights, sounds, and experiences of life at amplified levels. And because most highly sensitive children were raised by parents who had no idea how to teach their kids to value and feel their difficult feelings in a manageable way, they learned early in life to try to control the external world as a way to attempt to manage their inner one.

Intrusive thoughts: obsessions, OCD – in any context one could come up with. How terrifying! However, now that you know what they are – and you won’t act on them – perhaps you’ll feel soothed – relieved. And if you don’t experience them, maybe you can pass the info on to someone who does.

Know what? I need to post an article on what to do about intrusive thoughts. Look for it by Monday evening the 28th…

Mood and anxiety disorders: their psychology and biology – meds, supplements, devices. Check-out some Chipur titles.

  • Andrew Peterson

    This sounds like Pure O to me. I lost much of my life to it in my twenties, back in the 1980s. I called them my violent ideations. I saw therapists but I don’t think anyone had heard of ERP back then. Maybe it hadn’t been invented yet. I had one therapist tell me, “Ask God to take them away.” But as far as I was concerned it was God who implanted them in me, or made my brain vulnerable to them. No matter. Thank goodness there are medications (like Zoloft, which I take) and therapy modalities for this kind of disorder now. So the picture isn’t as bleak as it used to be. It’s a terrible affliction to have, but more is known about it and there is more we as sufferers can do about it than ever before.

    “The Imp of the Mind” by Lee Baer is a good book on this topic, Fred Penzell has written many good articles on it, and Steven Phillipson is another expert I’ve read. Thanks, Bill, for writing about it here. We need to raise more public awareness about Pure O. Thanks for the other articles you post too. Chipur is a wonderful resource.

  • Leslie Ferris

    Bill, you have the most incredible talent of putting people at ease about what they are feeling or experiencing, that is a gift! Wonderful information about intrusive thoughts here, this maybe something that many people have but dismiss and never really talk about. Question – do most people have some intrusive thoughts, yet maybe not to the point of it actually being OCD or whatever else? :)

    • Thanks for your kind words, Leslie. It’s one of my goals to help my readers feel at ease regarding their shtuff. I recall all too well how I felt when I was stuck out in the woods all those years ago. It was comforting – soothing – when I learned about what was going on. And I felt even better when I came to know others shared my misery.

      You’re darned right intrusive thoughts are something many people experience, but (try to) dismiss and not talk about. In addition to embarrassment/guilt/shame, there’s always the fear that if someone finds out they’ll report it – and off to jail or a psych hospital they’ll go. By the way, under-reporting is a major issue when it comes to OCD and its treatment. I suspect lots of folks experience intrusive thoughts outside of the realm of a diagnosable OCD. And the presence of intrusive thoughts – only – wouldn’t meet diagnostic criteria for OCD. Let’s just say if someone is being tormented by intrusive thoughts it’s time to seek some help.

      Glad you continue to visit and contribute, Leslie. Always appreciated…

      Bill

  • Patricia Miller

    Thank you for taking something so frightening and making it seem like maybe, just maybe there is hope for it to become less so. You always find a way to normalize things that in secret seem so dark, so shameful and without any promise of redemption. Thank you for lifting the darkness and the despair with words of optimism and genuine truth that healing is REAL and something anyone of us can have.

    • Ah, Patricia, thank YOU for your visit, comment, and kind thoughts. Guess I got pretty good over the years at “normalizing” the bleak and icky. Actually, it was a means of survival. ‘Course, we can’t pretend troubling issues aren’t at hand – fact is, they may be. However, we sure can gain insight into what we’re enduring and seek those silver linings – perspective. I mean, it’s all there for us. Oh, and when we can share with one another – well, that makes things all the more comfy. Thanks again, Patricia. And please keep coming back…
      Bill

  • Emily Schumann

    great article Bill!

    • Well, thanks, Emily. Glad you stopped by, and enjoyed the read. Hope you come back for a visit (or two), k?
      Bill

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh

    Thanks BIll for clarifying. Unwanted thoughts I would imagine, affect many of us on occasion. Your article explains it beautifully, which is helpful information. It’s nice to know that these thoughts are normal unless, of course, we obsess about them. I find that once I understand something, it seems so much easier to let go of being overly concerned.

    • No doubt, Cathy, coming to understand our circumstances brings so much comfort and relief – as does sharing. Sure appreciate your visit and ongoing participation…
      Bill

  • Great post, Bill. The image of the intruder is just so right on. I was immediately transported back to some of the intrusive thoughts that shaped my life in active addiction. It’s an absolute trip to “look” back and sense those “neural nets” still on board, but like the bully on the playground, they just get ignored or I already kicked their asses.

    The other place I went was thinking about the bitchin’ Buddhist practices where monks spend a lifetime training and disciplining their minds for just this reason. A lifetime…

    As thoughts are the ancestors to all things, you’ve helped me detach a little more today and observe my own thoughts. I very much look forward to your forthcoming, “what to do” article. I’m gonna keep this thought in my top drawer, however: You Rock.

    • Thanks for your comment and visit, Dr. H.B. Stay tuned for the “what to do” piece. Coming in the next few days. Hey! “You Rock,” as well…
      Bill

  • You’ve done it again, Bill – made something scary – scary because it involves our mind, our thoughts and our fear we may lose it – into something understandable and therefore treatable – something a person can actually change and move on from to live a wonderful life. Thank you for all you do to clarify the concepts of anxiety, depression, bipolar, intrusive thoughts, etc. – you are truly helping so many, as well as their family members, to better understand what’s really going on and that help/change is possible.

    • Well, thanks for your kind words, Lisa. Glad my style is condusive to calmness, understanding, and healing. Sure got used to thinking that way when things were all out of sorts “back in the day.” And thank YOU for all you do to help so many when it comes to alcohol abuse, prevention, addiction treatment, and secondhand drinking. Readers, be sure to check-out Lisa’s site: breakingthecycles.com

      • Harman

        Can u help me. My e mail is beautifulmind.rai@gnail.com

      • Hey, Harman. Stay tuned – will email this evening. Thanks for visiting and commenting…

        Bill