Have you ever had an intrusive thought that seemed odd, strange or disturbing, like imagining pushing a stranger in front of a train, hurting someone you love or an image of doing something that you find morally wrong? Don’t worry – research tells us that almost everyone else in the world has intrusive thoughts too.
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted or unpleasant thoughts or images that you find distressing and or disturbing. When these unwanted thoughts cause feelings of unease, anxiety or disgust, repeatedly come to mind and are hard to dismiss, professionals sometimes call them ‘obsessions’ or ‘obsessional thoughts’. They can be about all kinds of things, like extreme worries about cleanliness, concerns about hurting others even though you don’t actually want to, needing to be sure about something, or feeling like something needs to be perfect otherwise something bad will happen.
If the intrusive thoughts that you have are memories of a particular distressing event, or are worries that a similar thing could happen in the future, these intrusive thoughts may be related to post-traumatic stress disorder. To read information related to this, click on the ‘Trauma’ box on this website. Click here to read more.
Intrusive thoughts can also result in ‘compulsions’ or ‘compulsive behaviours’, which are the things that people do to help them to cope with the unwanted thoughts – either to prevent something bad from happening, or to manage the anxiety that comes as a result of just for having the thought. Examples could be repeated washing, checking or ordering, replaying something over in your mind, or doing something to prevent harm, even if others would consider it to be unnecessary or irrelevant.
Although we all have intrusive thoughts from time to time, if you believe that they are a sign that something bad will happen, or that they mean something bad about you as a person, then this can lead to worry and increasing efforts to counter or get rid of the thoughts. This can gradually lead to interference with daily life, and if the distress and interference starts to make you feel out of control, the problem may have developed in to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The good news is that OCD is entirely treatable, and it does not have to control your life.
People who experience intrusive thoughts are sometimes reluctant to seek help because they feel ashamed or embarrassed. There's nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about; having intrusive thoughts doesn't mean that you're "mad". Furthermore, having intrusive thoughts pop in to your head does not mean that you want them to be there, or that you are going to (or have to) act on them.
I have worked in a specialist anxiety disorders clinic with the psychologists who developed the psychological treatments that are now widely used across the world to successfully treat OCD. I have helped many people to beat their intrusive thoughts; examples include working with people who have intrusive and repetitive thoughts about the need to check, lock, clean or order, as well as people who worry about hurting others or having images that they find morally wrong.
For more information about how to deal with intrusive thoughts or OCD, contact Dr Alex.