Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

I’m taking a break from the mental illness series this week to talk about unwanted, intrusive thoughts.  This is something that most everyone experiences at one time or another, but the severity and frequency can play a role in how disturbing or disrupting the thought can be.  

What am I referring to when I say unwanted intrusive thoughts?  These are thoughts that pop into our heads seemingly from nowhere.  These thoughts can vary from something like imagining yourself speeding up and driving off the road, to suddenly thinking about standing up in the middle of a meeting and running around the table.  Some thoughts are violent in nature, such as stabbing someone, and some are sexually explicit. The common thread in the thoughts is that they are unwanted and distract and/or disturb you.

When I first had an intrusive thought, I was scared, I wondered “why did this thought come to me?  Why won’t it go away?” These types of thoughts are often described as a part of OCD, but those who do not have OCD can still have intrusive thoughts.  I have learned, thanks to my therapist, to acknowledge the thought, and then move on. Often when you are trying to push a thought out of your head, you are only fueling it’s continued presence.  For example, don’t think about your left foot right now. Remind yourself, don’t think about your left foot. I’ll bet your were not thinking about your left foot until I told you not to, but now you’re likely still thinking about.  Admittedly, there is a difference. An intrusive thought occurs without any obvious prompting. Once that thought is there though, whether it popped up on it’s own or I told you to think of your left foot, the more you try not to think about it, the more you’re thinking about it.

So, for me, the first step is to not try to stop thinking the thought, but rather to actually allow the thought for just a moment, say “hi” to it, and then gently guide my attention back to where it was.  This isn’t always easy, but it’s a good first step.

If for whatever reason the thought stays (for me this would often be a thought about drinking), then it is helpful to remind myself that a thought is just a thought and that I still have control over my actions.  If, for example, I keep thinking about sitting at a familiar bar and acknowledging that thought does not help, then I will remind myself that thinking it is not doing it. I have complete control over never driving to the bar and never ordering a drink.  This holds true for all thoughts; many people are disturbed over violent thoughts, but they can still be a non-violent individual.

Sometimes the thoughts are just goofy, a sort of blip of, “why did I think that?”  If this happens, I find laughter to be a good option. It’s hard for a thought to take control when you’re laughing at it.  The other day my husband and I were cooking dinner, I asked if he was done with the onion, and wanted me to “throw it”, we both knew I meant “throw it in the trash”, but after saying “throw it”, I imagined myself throwing the bit of remaining onion at him.  Rather than wondering why I had that thought or considering it as being a mean or violent thought, I just laughed. I actually cracked up, doubled over in laughter. He didn’t seem to find it that funny, but now I have it as a happy thought rather than allowing it to fester into something unhappy or worrisome.

Unwanted thoughts come in so many different forms.  For me, not allowing them to take control, while difficult at times, is the best way to regain my sense of calm and freedom from the thought.  Do you have unwanted thoughts? If so, how do you deal with them?


I will be back next week with the mental illness series and will be looking at Persistent Depressive Disorder.

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