Mind & Body

Nearly Everyone Experiences Intrusive Thoughts — Here's How To Handle Them

You know those dark or completely inappropriate thoughts you have? Like, what if you jumped off the bridge you're standing on? Or you stood up and shouted in the middle of a wedding ceremony? If you've ever had an inexplicable urge to do something totally unacceptable to yourself or to society, then you're not alone. In fact, "intrusive thoughts" happen in 94 percent of people with no diagnosed mental illness.

The Sinister Urge

You might have heard of the "Imp of the Perverse," which is both a nickname for intrusive thoughts and a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the story, a man stands looks into the abyss on the edge of a precipice and wonders what it would be like to jump off, despite knowing it would kill him. "This fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it," he writes. Sounds dark, but doesn't it also sound familiar?

In a series of studies published in Behaviour Research and Therapy in 1978, two UK psychologists had 124 healthy, non-clinical subjects fill out a questionnaire on the topic. Virtually all of them said they occasionally had intrusive thoughts. This included thoughts of aggression and violence, religious blasphemy, and "unnatural" sexual acts, among other socially inappropriate or even illegal actions. And many included vulnerable parties, such as babies, the elderly, and family members. Dark stuff.

In his book "The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts," psychologist Lee Baer summed up intrusive thoughts: "The Imp of the Perverse will try to torment you with thoughts of whatever it is you consider to be the most inappropriate or awful thing you could do." He wrote that these thoughts result in one of two possible outcomes: "(1) We give the thoughts little attention and no credence and go on with our lives, or (2) we are strongly affected by the bad thoughts, so that the thoughts occur frequently during the day and interfere with our functioning socially or at work."

Out of My Head

While we all experience them, intrusive thoughts can become especially hard to cope with in patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Postpartum depression can also trigger intrusive thoughts in new mothers: A 2006 study of 89 new parents found that nearly 90 percent of them experienced intrusive images of their newborns being harmed.

Science hasn't figured out exactly why we have intrusive thoughts, but researchers have at least found ways to cope with them when they start to seriously drag you down. Similar to OCD treatments, exposure and response prevention therapy can help. Patients can also learn to identify and control these thoughts using cognitive behavioral therapy in mild cases, though drugs are sometimes prescribed in more severe cases where therapy is ineffective.

If you're looking for a few tips to start managing your own intrusive thoughts, then start by accepting them. According to Northpoint Recovery, running away "never works." Sometimes, the very fear of having these thoughts is what might trigger them, akin to how being told not to think of an elephant leads you to think of only that. Don't be afraid of your intrusive thoughts or take them personally, but be mindful and accept that you have them. It's also helpful to remember that these thoughts have nothing to do with your reality. We pretty much all have them, after all — the only thing that really matters is how you respond to them.

If you're looking for more ways to effectively treat your mind, then check out "Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: 7 Ways to Freedom from Anxiety, Depression, and Intrusive Thoughts" by Lawrence Wallace. It's free with your Audible trial, and if you make a purchase using the link, then Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Cody Gough July 13, 2018

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