One reader asked if unwanted intrusive thoughts happen randomly, out of the blue, or whether they can be triggered by something in the external environment. Here is the question:
I have read a lot of the information on your website and found it to be very helpful but i have a question regarding intrusive thoughts. On many websites it says they happen randomly– “out of the blue”– but can you get an intrusive thought from something in the external environment? I’m asking because I saw something on the news and a thought came into my mind, like a reaction. But it wasn’t the reaction I wanted or feel is true–my reaction didn’t seem to go along with my values. So instead of feeling instantly repulsed by the thought for a second or two I thought about it in a curiosity sort of way. Then realizing this I quickly thought “what the hell am I thinking that for” and got on with my day. But now the thought has been bothering me. Why did I have that reaction as it was totally opposite of my morals? Can this happen or does it say something bad about who I am? I do suffer from OCD but this thought came when I wasn’t suffering badly so I feel like blaming my OCD is just an excuse. Any advice would be much appreciated.
This is an excellent question. It touches on a lot of issues that affects everyone with unwanted intrusive thoughts.
Let’s start at the very beginning: almost everyone–more than 90% of surveyed people– report that they occasionally have intrusive thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts seems quite benign, and other times the content of these occasional intrusive thoughts are sexual, aggressive, or otherwise shocking to us. These thoughts usually just come out of the blue, and are part and parcel of the busy flow of thoughts, ideas, sensations, and feelings that make up what is commonly called the “stream of consciousness.” ( I like to call it the “mighty river of consciousness.”)
These thoughts mean nothing: sometimes our minds just send out junk thoughts.
But the thoughts that stick around–that become unwanted intrusive thoughts–are precisely those passing intrusive thoughts that bother us. They feel bad to us, and we think that we shouldn’t be having them. They feel unlike us–they seem to challenge our notion of ourselves–and so we think about them, wonder about them, look to make sure they don’t return again. And–guess what!?–those are the exact and precise conditions that keep a thought stuck. So, we actually turn a passing intrusive thought into a stuck, unwanted intrusive thought by trying to make sure that it doesn’t come back.
Here is a very explicit example of effort working backwards!
The truth is that unwanted intrusive thoughts are those thoughts that feel most unlike us.
A lot of the time–maybe even most of the time–people start getting intrusive thoughts in reaction to something they read or hear about, or see on the news, or in a movie or TV drama. You hear about something, and then you get the very sudden thought–”Hey, could I do that?” You might get upset or frightened or turned off. Sometimes, you might hear about something horrendous, and you might think, “I could do that,” or “That seems interesting.” Right after that, you might say to yourself, “How could I react that way? That’s awful.” And then–here is the important part–your monitor yourself to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And, Bingo!, that makes it much, much, much more likely to get stuck.
And, if you have OCD, it is even more likely for this to happen. Because most of you with OCD place too much value on the content of your thoughts. Your thoughts scare you and bully you. Psychologists call this “overvalued ideation.”
Here is a very personal example, but first you should know that I record all my passing intrusive thoughts, to see how many of them I would remember if I didn’t write them down. I usually don’t remember them if I don’t write them down.
About a year and a half ago, a young female news reporter was interviewing someone live on TV, and a man came up to her and shot her during the live transmission. She was killed, and the shooter later committed suicide. You might have heard about it on the news. I saw the first reports of it, very early in the morning, and the accounts included both the shots and the reporter’s immediate (but brief) reactions. In later broadcasts, the news reports cut out the actual shooting.
Two days later, I was walking to my Manhattan office. My path crosses the concourse at Rockefeller Center where The Today Show is broadcast. As I was walking by, a young female reporter was interviewing someone live, and I immediately thought of the news report from a few days before. I had the thought, “I could shoot her right now…. If I had a gun… But I wouldn’t kill myself afterwards.”
That’s right, those are the thoughts that went through my head. That’s a passing intrusive thought. But–and this is the most important part– suppose I had believed that those thoughts meant something about my character, or my impulse control, or perhaps indicated an unconscious hatred of women? Suppose I agonized with myself that maybe I really wanted to be a murderer who committed an atrocity on TV? Wouldn’t that be terrible? The worst?
If I did, then I would watch my thoughts carefully, hoping that they didn’t return, and perhaps make sure that I didn’t walk past the Today Show concourse again. And I would probably avoid watching TV newscasts. And, according to the “ironic effect”, (See the newsletter, Why Is the Content of Intrusive Thoughts so Awful? Part 2) the more that I try to keep the thought from my mind, the more the thought will return, become stuck, and turn into an unwanted intrusive thought.
But I have no such beliefs. I wrote my thought down as a passing intrusive thought, continued on my way, and forgot about it until I read my notes for the week.
In the next newsletter, I am going to review some of the myths about thoughts that contribute to unwanted intrusive thoughts.
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP