Intrusive thoughts can sometimes make a person feel like they are going crazy! They can make you wonder, “Am I a violent person, or a potential pedophile??” Depending on the nature of the intrusive thoughts, they can cause a certain amount of alarm. Does having “bad” thoughts make you a bad person?

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that are unwanted and often disturbing, and that sometimes aren’t easily dismissed in our minds. Especially with OCD, intrusive thoughts can be extremely difficult to force out of your mind. They are sudden and involuntary, and despite what you might think, they often say nothing about the inherent nature of the person having the thought.

What most people don’t know is that intrusive thoughts are quite common and happen to almost everyone. Some just have a harder time moving past these thoughts. Here are a few examples of common intrusive thoughts:

  • Veering a car off the side of the road
  • Dropping a baby
  • Stabbing someone with a knife
  • Jumping off of a ledge
  • Poking oneself in the eye with a sharp object
  • Thoughts about running over an animal
  • Leaving a stove on and causing a fire
  • Having sexual thoughts about an unacceptable person
  • Thoughts about spreading illness or disease

Many people are bothered by their intrusive thoughts and think that these thoughts make them a bad or dangerous person in some way. It can be comforting to know that everyone has these thoughts– some just more than others. And these thoughts do not connect to actually DOING these things. If you have intrusive thoughts about stabbing someone with a knife every time you hold a knife, the chances are that you will never do this. The fact that these thoughts bother you so much means that you don’t ever want to!

It can definitely be helpful to know that you aren’t the only one in the world having these disturbing thoughts. The real question is, when I have these thoughts, what should I do? Ironically, the more we try to push away intrusive thoughts, the more they plague us. It is actually more helpful to accept them.

You may have heard of this exercise before: take a moment and make sure to NOT think about a white polar bear for one minute…

Let me guess– you thought about a while polar bear many times in those sixty seconds! Certainly a lot more than in the last few hours when you weren’t trying to not think about it. It is the same concept with intrusive thoughts: if we put a lot of mental energy into avoiding them, then they show up more often!

Here are a few tips to help you deal with your intrusive thoughts:

  • First, acknowledge that you are having an intrusive thought.
  • Say or think something like, “Huh, there’s that intrusive thought again.”
  • Remember that the nature of the intrusive thought does not “mean” anything, and it doesn’t say anything about you as a person. These thoughts say nothing about your character or inherent nature.
  • Remember that you aren’t alone! Everyone has had an intrusive thought in their life.
  • Notice any urge within yourself to engage in a ritual or neutralizing strategy to get rid of the intrusive thoughts.
  • Accept the intrusive thought, and do not alter them in any way.
  • Notice what is happening in your body: “My hands are shaking”, “My breathing is shallow,” etc.
  • Counter any urges to ritualize by focusing on the breath. Make room for the experience you are having.
  • Mindfully breathe, and wait for the thoughts and urges to pass on their own

Intrusive thoughts are often associated with OCD, but can also be present with PTSD and other mental health disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling with disturbing intrusive thoughts, reach out to a mental health provider! They will know how to help you cope with these thoughts. Your provider can also let you know if Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) could be helpful for you. If you tend to get stuck with your bothersome thoughts, then pursuing therapy could be very helpful.

The most important thing to remember is that your intrusive thoughts of harm do not make you a bad person; you are not alone; and there is help!

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.