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Busting Myths that Keep Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts Stuck

Busting Myths that Keep Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts Stuck

Sally Winston, PsyD

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Dr. Sally Winston is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. She is nationally recognized for her expertise in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Winston has been active with ADAA for over 30 years. She has served as chair of the ADAA Clinical Advisory Board and was the first recipient of the ADAA Jerilyn Ross Clinician Advocate Award.

Martin Seif, PhD, ABPP

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Dr. Martin Seif is a master clinician who has spent the last thirty years developing innovative and highly successful treatment methods for anxiety disorders. He helped found ADAA and has served on its Board of Directors and Clinical Advisory Board.  Dr. Seif has offices in Manhattan, NY and Greenwich, CT. For the last 18 years, he has been Associate Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center. He also trains therapists and psychiatric residents at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Busting Myths that Keep Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts Stuck

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Myth: Our Thoughts Are Under Our Control 

Fact: Many of our thoughts—perhaps most of our thoughts—are not under conscious control. There are times when we welcome the spontaneity of thought. An insight or inspiration can help solve a problem. Or provide a funny moment. Or produce the lyrics to a song. 

While we can pivot our attention at least temporarily, this myth can lead to the unhelpful suggestion to replace negative thoughts with positive ones to help you control what you think and change how you feel.  But thoughts you are trying to replace, suppress, or distract from usually return even more forcefully. The more distressing the thought, the stronger the rebound (Wegner, 1994). 

Myth: Our Thoughts Indicate Our Character: bad thoughts must mean I am sick, bad, or weird. 

Fact: Thoughts have nothing to do with character, which is a reflection of how you lead your life and what you choose to do. Thoughts – and the feelings they evoke – are what passes through your mind. Character is about the choices you make in life, not what pops into your mind.   Everyone has pop-up weird, repugnant or disturbing passing thoughts they do not approve of.  This means that just about everyone you know, including friends, colleagues, teachers, doctors, and even Mother Teresa. (Teresa 2009). 

Myth: The Unconscious Mind Can Affect Actions 

Fact: Analyzing the meaning of Freudian slips and dreams are popular but misleading attempts to understand it.  However, the unconscious mind does not have the capacity to leap forward and make you do things you do not want to do. The momentary thought of dropping your baby does not reveal any unconscious wish to do harm.  And the sudden thought that you could jump off the balcony because the railing is low does not reveal hidden suicidality. These thoughts are not wishes or urges. A moment of doubt about sexual attraction or identity is not a “signal from below” that you are ignoring latent tendencies.   

Myth: Thinking Something Makes It More/Less Likely to Happen 

Fact: Psychologists call this myth thought-action fusion (Rachman 1993, Salkovskis 1985) or magical thinking. A thought is not a message about what is going to happen. Similarly, a thought is not a prediction or warning of an awful future action or occurrence. Thoughts do not foretell plane crashes, automobile accidents, or natural disasters. And our thoughts cannot make actions or events happen. Thoughts do not change probabilities in the real world. They do not move objects, nor can they hurt people.  

Imagining something that could possibly happen does not make it more likely to happen or make you responsible for it. This is called inferential confusion and makes you ignore ordinary perception and common sense. (Aardema, O'Connor, Emmelkamp, Marchand, and Todorov 2005)  

Myth: Every Thought is Worth Thinking About 

Fact: We have many different channels of thought going through our minds at the same time. It is impossible to think about them all, and some channels are just full of junk (like the infomercial channel or the local high school announcements). But when an intrusive thought arrives with a whoosh—no matter the content— if you believe that all thoughts are worth thinking about (i.e., no junk channels), you might choose to focus on that thought and grant it meaning and attention it does not deserve. Your attention may be hijacked by junk. 

Myth: Thoughts That Repeat Are Important  

Fact: Thoughts repeat if they are resisted or pushed away, not because of how important they are. Any thought that you attempt to squash is more likely to keep repeating, like “Don’t think about that itchy spot,” or “Stop noticing the piece of food in her teeth.”  When we invest energy in any thought, it makes the thought more likely to happen (Pittman and Karle 2015). Attempts to keep certain thoughts from coming into your mind are what makes them come around again and feel stuck.  

Believing even some of these myths can be responsible for ordinary intrusive thoughts becoming stuck.  

Check out Drs. Seif and Winston’s book:  Overcoming Intrusive Thoughts

Sally Winston, PsyD

headshot

Dr. Sally Winston is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. She is nationally recognized for her expertise in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Winston has been active with ADAA for over 30 years. She has served as chair of the ADAA Clinical Advisory Board and was the first recipient of the ADAA Jerilyn Ross Clinician Advocate Award.

Martin Seif, PhD, ABPP

headshot

Dr. Martin Seif is a master clinician who has spent the last thirty years developing innovative and highly successful treatment methods for anxiety disorders. He helped found ADAA and has served on its Board of Directors and Clinical Advisory Board.  Dr. Seif has offices in Manhattan, NY and Greenwich, CT. For the last 18 years, he has been Associate Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center. He also trains therapists and psychiatric residents at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

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