Nearly everyone experiences intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thinking takes many forms, such as a quitting smoker imagining putting a cigarette to his lips or a worker’s fleeting wish for her boss to be in a car accident. While these thoughts can be distressing for anyone, intrusive thinking sometimes develops into a clinical problem.
What is an intrusive thought?
To mangle a supreme court justice, “you know it when you think it.” Technically, an intrusive thought can be a verbal thought, an image, an urge, or other less clearly defined mental forms. While people’s intrusive thoughts may not share every quality in common, their mental experiences often have key similarities.
Intrusiveness and Distress
First, by definition these thoughts seem intrusive. They tend to pop into mind unexpectedly and capture your awareness. We can’t stop there however – if you pay attention to the typical ebb and flow of your thoughts, it turns out many of our thoughts work this way! All kinds of mental experiences constantly pop into our awareness, like waves of different sizes rolling through your view at the beach. Which brings us to a second quality: distress. Intrusive thoughts usually provoke particularly negative feelings compared to the other waves rolling through our awareness. Whether it is sadness, guilt, anger, fear, anxiety, or other emotions, intrusive thoughts stand out in their emotional impact.
Before we move on, indulge me in a quick experiment. Bring to mind a thought you want to have. Got it? Now generate a thought you don’t want to have. Observe your reaction to both. If you are like most people, you probably let the wanted thought remain in your mind. The wanted thought may have persisted for a time until it drifted away. In contrast, you likely tried to push the unwanted thought out of mind as soon as possible. Were you successful at pushing it away?
Wantedness and Controllability
Ok, experiment over. During this exercise you just encountered our two final qualities for today: wantedness and controllability. (Un)wantedness describes how much a thought is desired or considered to be acceptable. Wantedness is more complicated than it may first appear. Imagine a pleasant scene in which you are laying on a beach. Warm sun beats down on your skin while cool, soft water laps at your toes. A fairly wanted image for most of us, right? Now picture that you are in the last 10 minutes of focused, stressful work before an important deadline. How welcome would the beach image be? For most people, the same exact image can be welcome or unwelcome depending upon the context.
In terms of controllability, thoughts vary in how easy versus difficult they feel to manage. Our minds are funny creatures; in the experiment above, you may have had difficulty pushing your unwanted thought out of mind. It turns out that this approach, called thought suppression, typically isn’t very useful and can even backfire. I’ve even spoken to one reporter about how intrusive thoughts spurred by smartphone notifications could be worsened by thought suppression!
Don’t worry if the qualities I’ve described above don’t resonate with you or feel complicated. They are only one way of considering intrusive thoughts and not comprehensive. I share them because I find them helpful for getting more specific about the intrusive thoughts someone may be experiencing.
Intrusive thoughts are a part of many mental health struggles
From anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to depression, panic attacks, and a ton of other problems, people report struggling with intrusive thinking. Why are intrusive thoughts so common in these problems? One answer is that intrusive thoughts often revolve around topics that are highly important to us. When your brain tags a topic as important, it also tends to generate thoughts about those topics more frequently. In other words, the ebb and flow of thought ‘waves’ that are constantly passing through our conscious mind may include more thoughts revolving around that clinical problem.
At the same time, intrusive thinking is part of a cycle. It is only natural that you may accidentally respond to intrusive thoughts in ways that heighten your distress. In this case, your responses to intruding thoughts may look different than other people who have the same thoughts. Conveniently, this last point offers one key route out of intrusive thought struggles.
How you view your intrusive thoughts matters
Research suggests that the way you interpret your intrusive thinking matters. For instance, someone who interprets an image of a family member in a car accident as a sign of their immorality (e.g., “Maybe this thought means that I really want the accident to happen; I must be an awful person!”) may have an elevated risk of O.C.D.. Someone who dismisses the thought’s meaning (e.g., “This thought is just a thought, it doesn’t have any meaning about me.”) may not have the same degree of risk. A number of effective treatments target this common thread: altering your view (and relationship with) intrusive thoughts. Importantly, this therapy model is appropriate across a number of diverse problems and provides a way to begin addressing intrusive thoughts. I will discuss these treatments in more detail during a future post.
I hope this post is useful for learning basic information about intrusive thoughts. If you are interested in pursuing online therapy for a problem related to intrusive thoughts, please contact me for a free consultation. We can discuss whether counseling would be a good fit at this time.