Most intrusive thoughts (but not all of them) fit quite neatly into one of two basic categories. There are thoughts about things that you might have done in the past, (and it would be awful if you actually did those things), and how can you know for sure that you didn’t do them? And then there are the thoughts about what you fear you might do in the future. And it would be terrible if you actually did what you think about, and how can you know for certain that you won’t do them? This second category of thoughts are the ones we are going to speak about in this newsletter.
Many readers ask why their intrusive thoughts feel so much like impulses? Your worry, of course, is that you might actually act on the thoughts in your head. So if you are thinking “F*** God” in the church or synagogue, how can you be sure that you won’t yell out the blasphemous thought? And if you thinking about slicing up your wife with a carving knife, how can you be sure that you won’t do that? You therefore fight against these thoughts, and they begin to feel like impulses. And that really scares you, because you say to yourself something like, “I really don’t want to hurt my wife, but what if I have impulse to hurt her and it gets the better of me?”
The culprit is what I like to call anxious thinking. Anxious thinking is the altered state of consciousness that occurs when your amygdala sounds the alarm bell in response to a non-dangerous trigger. (If you don’t know about the amygdala, go back to my website and read about it.) When your thinking changes that way, your relationship between thoughts and actions also changes.
Here is what I mean. When you are relaxed, thoughts and behaviors seem totally separate. You can think about something and “rehearse” it in your mind without any consequences in reality. But as you get more anxious, your thoughts feel more and more like call to actions. Psychologists call this thought-action fusion, and it can scare the heck out of you. You feel like you have to fight the thought, and put real effort into not doing the things you are thinking.
This sets up a situation in which you are struggling not to think something. And it just doesn’t work, because effort works backwards when you are involved in anxious thinking. The harder you try, the more you have the thoughts. Then, you fall for the Myth about thoughts that says, “If I am thinking about something a lot, it must mean that I have some deep desire to do it.” Or, “If I am thinking about something repeatedly, it is then more likely to happen.” Both statements are just plain false, but they add to the mistaken belief that these are impulses that need to be held in.
This maximizes the three elements essential to all intrusive thoughts: entanglement, sticky mind, and paradoxical effort. We will explain what these mean in subsequent newsletters, but for now, here is all you need to know.
Despite how they feel, unwanted intrusive thoughts can’t be more different that impulses or urges.
In the next newsletter, we’ll address intrusive thoughts that center on things you worry you might have done in the past.
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP