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Intrusive Thoughts: What Are They And Why Do We Have Them?

Have you sometimes had a scary thought flash through your mind?

When you are standing on top of a tall building, there seemed to be a voice telling you to jump down. You can even imagine yourself lying motionless on the ground.

Or perhaps you are just having a usual day, either working or relaxing, and a disturbing thought appeared in your mind. It could be something that made you embarrassed in the past or a frightening thought of harming yourself or others.

If you had experienced it before, you are not alone. Research has shown that 94% of people across the world have experienced unwanted or intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses before.

That’s a great number of people! Well, thinking of how our brain generates an estimated 6200 thoughts per day, the figure doesn’t seem to be that surprising anymore.

What Counts as Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that randomly appeared in our minds. They may be accompanied by certain disturbing images, ideas, or impulsion. These thoughts are automatic which leads them to be uncontrollable.

Most of these thoughts could be violent, sexual in nature, or involve certain taboo behaviors you find unacceptable and abhorrent. The unpleasant nature of these thoughts would lead us to feel negative emotions such as fear, guilt, shame, anxiety, sad­ness, or disgust.

The thoughts that could bring us negative emotions usually fall into either of the categories according to Professor Daniel Wegner in his book White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts:

Types of Intrusive Thoughts

  1. Self-doubt
  2. Fear of social inadequacy
  3. Moral shame
  4. Shame about one’s physique
  5. Health worries
  6. Concerns about bodily functions
  7. Worry about death
  8. Fear of dirt and contamination
  9. Concern about possible harm to self or others
  10. Sexual thoughts
  11. Aggressive thoughts
  12. Concern with orderliness and cleanliness.

Why Am I Having Intrusive Thoughts?

As mentioned earlier, our brains generated over 6000 thoughts per day. Out of these 6200 thoughts, many could be helpful, and many could be just random and meaningless thoughts generated from our stream of consciousness.

These random thoughts are also known as the ‘junk thoughts‘. As the name suggests, these thoughts are meaningless and bring no good to us. If we do not pay attention to them, they will just come and pass.

Intrusive thoughts can be triggered due to many factors. One common reason is stress or anxiety. When you are feeling stressed and anxious, your nervous system is more alarmed. All the scenarios that could possibly go wrong or dangerous images start to pop into your mind uncontrollably.

woman having intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thought itself is not harming or concerning. Most of us would not dwell on these thoughts.

However, many of us would overly pay attention to these thoughts, worrying about the significance of these thoughts. Sometimes it could affect our lives so much that we lost track of reality. Getting all stressed from these thoughts leads to OCD or depression.

Are Intrusive Thoughts Dangerous? Are These Thoughts Real? What If I Act On My Thoughts?

These are the questions I have asked myself many times before.

If you have been troubled by intrusive thoughts, you know that they can feel so real at times. You associate yourself with your thoughts, and the feeling is just purely awful.

I remember the first time having intrusive thoughts when I was about 11 years old. It happened during an exam. I was overly stressed and intrusive thoughts appeared.

It felt so real and I can’t differentiate if it was a thought or an actual impulsion. I wanted to scream in the exam hall, and I feel I am on the verge of doing it. My palms were sweaty and I was feeling dizzy. I entered a deep frightened and panic mode.

Many years later, I still suffered from all these intrusive thoughts. As I was lacking the understanding and knowledge of intrusive thoughts and how my brain works, I was constantly in the fear that there is something wrong with me or I might be dangerous to be around.

These struggles and thoughts heavily impacted my life, and eventually, they developed into OCD. I can’t focus on anything besides having all the negative disturbing thoughts lining up one after another. I felt deep hatred towards myself and I was full of shame and guilt toward my loved one.

After many years of battling and trying to control my thoughts, I changed my relationship with my intrusive thoughts.

pinterest on battling with intrusive thoughts

Firstly, thoughts are not real. It doesn’t mean you will act on it even though you felt a strong impulsion. I had millions of intrusive thoughts before, and I can guarantee you that there were really disturbing things.

I have always felt the urge of acting on my thought, but the reality is I have never acted on any of those before.

As matter of fact, I am always doing the opposite of my thoughts. One time I was having really disturbed thought of pushing my close friend into the traffic while we are walking on the pathway. I was panic-stricken by the thought.

However, at that moment, I chose to switch positions with my friend and let her walk further from the traffic. Though the thoughts were harmful, my actions spoke otherwise.

Similar events happened a few times, which gave me a sense of relief and assurance that I am not a horrible person, and I am protective of my loved ones.

girl in nature

Many who have suffered from harm OCD might identify with me. In order to not trigger harmful thoughts, we might hide dangerous objects such as knives or scissors away from our sight.

The famous politician Winston Churchill was battling with all the intrusive thoughts for decades. He had to fight the urge to leap from balconies and into the path of oncoming trains. He avoids these thoughts by taking precautionary measures such as keeping a distance from the danger.

When people are acting on impulse, they do not realize what they are doing. The fact that we are taking all the precautionary measures and ruminating on the thoughts means this impulsion is under control.

The point I am trying to emphasize here is that having intrusive thoughts does not mean you will act on them, and it doesn’t mean you are an evil person.

How Should We Deal With Intrusive Thoughts?

Firstly, we need to remind ourselves that these thoughts are automatic and not up to us. If the formation of these thoughts is not up to us, it means they are not real.

Secondly, a reality we need to accept is that we can never stop our intrusive thoughts completely. In fact, the more you try to suppress and control them, you will find yourself getting haunted by them repeatedly.

So, the right way to handle intrusive thoughts is to accept them. Yes, it doesn’t sound like the solution you are trying to search for, but it is the best way to handle them.

Just think of this scenario. When you are working or studying, you might get distracted by some random thought that appeared in your mind. Of course, daydreaming always seems easier than dealing with an assignment or task. Regardless of what you are thinking of, you know that the assignment or work in front of you is still the reality you need to face and deal with.

The same goes for how you should handle intrusive thoughts.

Let me elaborate.

Just like daydreaming, your intrusive thoughts are just thoughts or fantasies. They are not representative of reality. So instead of constantly fixing your attention on your thoughts, you need to bring your attention back to reality, like the task or assignment on hand.

A way to train yourself to bring your attention back from your thoughts is to practice meditation. Mindfulness meditation trains your brain to be more aware of what is happening and brings your attention back to reality.

Don’t criticize yourself for having these thoughts. Just simply accept the fact that I was carried away by my thoughts, bring your attention back to reality, and get your hands on whatever you need to work on.

It’s definitely not that easy, but we need to train ourselves to change our perspective and relationship with our intrusive thoughts. Always remind yourself that:

1. The intrusive thoughts are normal

2. Accept the thoughts and do not try to suppress them

3. Keep moving forward daily and doing what you need to do

4. Be patient with yourself and slow down when you are feeling stressed or anxious

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2 thoughts on “Intrusive Thoughts: What Are They And Why Do We Have Them?”

  1. Thank you for the post and personal sharings. I have been struggling with my own intrusive thoughts for a very long time. I guess the best way is to accept the thoughts and move on with whatever I am doing. It helps me to get distracted from my intrusive thoughts for a while.

    1. Hi Sally, thank you. Glad that you find the post helpful. Yes, sometimes when I’m too overwhelmed with my intrusive thoughts, I will listen to music or watch a video to distract myself too. Once you are not paying attention to the thought and do something to help yourself relax, the thoughts will be forgotten 🙂

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