Breaking Free from the Prison of Intrusive Thoughts

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Intrusive thoughts are the unwelcome, uninvited ugly thoughts that skitter through our heads now and then. Everyone has them. Think about a time when you stood on a balcony and thought, “What if I jump?” That’s an intrusive thought. (Note: Other than this example I won’t be listing other intrusive thoughts because folks who are sensitive may be triggered by them so I’m going to stick with the balcony throughout.)

These thoughts get problematic when they don’t skitter through. Instead of a passing thought, “What if I jump?” the intrusive thought keeps the thinker frozen on the balcony replaying the possibility over and over. People struggling with intrusive thoughts become afraid that they want to jump or that they will jump or that they’re meant to jump. Is the thought telling a truth they don’t want to confront? They wonder if they’re going crazy.

Intrusive thoughts are common in new moms, particularly those dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety. Again, it becomes problematic when those thoughts get stuck and we feel unable to function.

Sometimes in postpartum the intrusive thoughts are ones of us doing harm to our children and this can be terrifying. I haven’t met a new parent yet who hasn’t thought, “Let’s hit rewind. Let’s not do this. Let me get more sleep first. I’m not ready.” But when we couple those super normal feelings along with intrusive thoughts, it’s terrifying. Visions of news stories rocket through her head — what about those moms who did hurt their children? — and it’s no wonder that her anxiety spirals even further out of control.

Children have intrusive thoughts, too, and because kids tend to be very black and white in their thinking, they may think that bad thoughts mean that they are bad people. Many of our intrusive thoughts are embarrassing or shameful, many of them are about hurting ourselves or others or may be sexual in nature. Kids who are trying to figure all of this out — bad feelings, angry feelings, sexual curiosity — may be too ashamed or scared to tell parents.

Intrusive thoughts can be part of a Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The thoughts are the obsession and the compulsion is whatever the child or adult needs to do to make the thought stop.

How do you know if you or someone you love is having intrusive thoughts?

  • The thoughts come out of nowhere. You’re unpacking at the hotel, in a good mood because your vacation’s started, and suddenly you’re thinking about jumping off the balcony. The thought is disconnected from your mood and your actions, it may be triggered by a passing piece of the landscape or when someone walks into the room.
  • The thoughts are upsetting to the thinker. The thinker does not want these thoughts and starts to avoid triggers (won’t go near the balcony, for example).
  • There is ritual tied to the thoughts. The thinker has to do something to get the thought out of their head — sing a song, wash their hands, tense their jaw three times. A child continually comes to their parent for reassurance (a sign that their compulsion includes action on the parent’s part to help them turn the thoughts off).

So what can you do?

  1. First of all, know that intrusive thoughts are treatable. Anxiety is treatable. We do not have to be imprisoned by bad or scary thoughts.
  2. Do not try to stop the thoughts because, ironically, that’s what makes them stick around. (It’s that old, “Don’t think of an elephant” joke. Say that to someone and they won’t be able to NOT think of an elephant.) Remember that we all have intrusive thoughts but as long as they come and go quickly, they’re not an issue.
  3. Recognize the anxiety that comes up when the thoughts come up. Practice relaxation techniques — deep breathing, gentle movement, visualizing the thought washing in on an ocean wave and receding with the wave. Help your body relax so that your mind will be able to release the thought.
  4. Remember what I said about not stopping the thoughts? Not stopping them, letting them come and go will help us get used to having them, which will reduce our anxiety about them. When they show up we can learn to say, “Oh look it’s you! That unwelcome, uninvited thought!” Getting used to them will reduce our sensitivity to them.
  5. Another way to reduce our sensitivity is to tell someone about them. This is where a counselor can come in handy because counselors are bound by confidentiality, which means you can trust that they will never ever ever tell anyone what you say in the office. Note: Some people are afraid to tell a counselor because they know that we are also bound by ethics that say we have to alert authorities if someone is going to hurt someone. But we are also trained to recognize intrusive thoughts. (This concern can be especially present for new moms who may also have intrusive thoughts about someone taking their baby from them.) If you’re unsure, ask them. Say, “I think I’m having intrusive thoughts but I’m afraid to tell you about them.” That’s OK; learning to manage anxiety is a process.

It’s easy to get stuck in intrusive thought traps — thinking that there is meaning behind them (there isn’t! They’re just brain blips!), thinking that you have to make sense of them (you can’t! because they don’t make sense!). It does not mean we want to hurt ourselves or someone else. It does not mean we want to perform that sexual act that showed up unbidden. It does notmean that we want to do that embarrassing thing that just occurred to us. Our brains are capable of putting together some weird ideas but having a thought is in no way shape or form the same as acting on it.

Dealing with intrusive thoughts isn’t easy and it’s definitely a place where I think counseling can make a huge difference. A neutral person to hear your thoughts, to help you learn to manage your anxiety around them, to support you and to believe in your ability to heal is a big, big deal.

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