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by Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are stuck thoughts that cause great distress. They seem to come from out of nowhere, arrive with a whoosh, and cause a great deal of anxiety. The content of unwanted intrusive thoughts often focuses on sexual or violent or socially unacceptable images. People who experience unwanted intrusive thoughts are afraid that they might commit the acts they picture in their mind. They also fear that the thoughts mean something terrible about them. Some unwanted intrusive thoughts consist of repetitive doubts about relationships, decisions small and large, sexual orientation or identity, intrusions of thoughts about safety, religion, death or worries about questions that cannot be answered with certainty. Some are just weird thoughts that make no apparent sense. Unwanted Intrusive thoughts can be very explicit, and many people are ashamed and worried about them, and therefore keep them secret.

There are many myths about unwanted intrusive thoughts. One of the most distressing is that having such thoughts mean that you unconsciously want to do the things that come into your mind. This is simply not true, and, in fact, the opposite is true. It is the effort people use to fight the thought that makes it stick and fuels its return. People fight thoughts because the content seems alien, unacceptable, and at odds with who they are. So, people with violent unwanted intrusive thoughts are gentle people. People who have unwanted intrusive thoughts about suicide love life. And those who have thoughts of yelling blasphemies in church value their religious life.  A second myth is that every thought we have is worth examining. In truth, these thoughts are not messages, red flags, signals or warnings--despite how they feel.

The problem for people who have these thoughts--and one estimate is that more than 6 million people in the United States are troubled by them-- is that unwanted intrusive thoughts feel so threatening. That is because anxious thinking takes over, and the thought—as abhorrent as it might be—seems to have power it does not.  People tend to try desperately and urgently to get rid of the thoughts, which, paradoxically, fuels their intensity. The harder they try to suppress or distract or substitute thoughts, the stickier the thought becomes.

People who are bothered by intrusive thoughts need to learn a new relationship to their thoughts--that sometimes the content of thoughts are irrelevant and unimportant. That everyone has occasional weird, bizarre, socially improper and violent thoughts. Our brains sometimes create junk thoughts, and these thoughts are just part of the flotsam and jetsam of our stream of consciousness.  Junk thoughts are meaningless. If you don’t pay attention or get involved with them, they dissipate and get washed away in the flow of consciousness.

In reality, a thought—even a very scary thought—is not an impulse. The problem is not one of impulse control- it is over control. They are at opposite ends of the continuum.  However, sufferers get bluffed by their anxiety, and become desperate for reassurance. However, reassurance only works temporarily, and people can become reassurance junkies. The only way to effectively deal with intrusive obsessive thoughts is by reducing one’s sensitivity to them. Not by being reassured that it won’t happen or is not true.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are reinforced by getting entangled with them, worrying about them, struggling against them, trying to reason them away. They are also made stronger by trying to avoid them. Leave the thoughts alone, treat them as if they are not even interesting, and they will eventually fade into the background.

Here are steps for changing your attitude and overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

  • Label these thoughts as "intrusive thoughts."
  • Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you.
  • Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away.
  • Float, and practice allowing time to pass.
  • Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency. 
  • Expect the thoughts to come back again
  • Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.

Try Not To:

  • Engage with the thoughts in any way.
  • Push the thoughts out of your mind.
  • Try to figure out what your thoughts "mean."
  • Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts

This approach can be difficult to apply. But for anyone who keeps applying it for just a few weeks, there is an excellent chance that they will see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of the unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Our book is “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts”. Selected in March 2019 as an Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Book Recommendation - an honor bestowed on outstanding self-help books that are consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles and that incorporate scientifically tested strategies for overcoming mental health difficulties.

Get the Spanish version of the book "Guía para superar los pensamientos atemorizantes, obsesivos o inquietantes" here. 

To sign up for a free e-newsletter that answers questions about intrusive thoughts, please visit this webpage: http://www.drmartinseif.com/

Additional Resources

  • ADAA invites you to view Dr. Seif and Dr. Winston's corresponding free webinar, Overcoming Intrusive Thoughts.
  • Check out this helpful video by professional graphic designer and animator J. Nordby on how he overcame his struggles with intrusive thoughts. 

Dr. Winston and Dr. Seif In The News: 


About the Authors

SeifWinston.PNGDr. Winston and Dr. Seif are both Founding Clinical Fellows of ADAA. They are co-authors of the books “What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders” and “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts” 

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.

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.

Thank you for a great article! I have struggled with OCD for as long as I can remember, and over the years it has morphed into different thoughts/patterns. Once I would conquer one "stage" of it, and finally realized that when those thoughts came i knew that they were not true, then it would move on to something a little more complex. I'm still dealing with it daily, but by the grace of God I have gotten married, had 4 children, and am still continuing to battle (and WIN) against this disease. We can do it, y'all!!! Get help. Talk to someone. I have a friend that I call or text, and she reminds me that it is my OCD. When we hold it all in (as I did for years) it truly makes it worse. We need a rational mind to reassure us that we are not alone. Prayers for all with this disease ❤

I have never understood my sudden panic and anxieties that pops out of no where. This really helped me understand it more and giving me hope to control or at least lessen it. Thank you.

I want to profoundly thank the authors for this article. This was a life saver for me. I felt I was on the verge of breaking down mentally. I cannot thank you enough for the insights and tools this article provides. You've done a tremendous service for people who suffer.

Sudha Priya Sh…

January 12, 2019

I have this kind of thought which makes me sick always.Reached to the suicidal point in life .I know what i think is not real .Reached hospital because of that.

Thank you for this information. It really answered the questions that's been going on in my head. I will be saving this information. Thank you agian

I suffer from this all the time. Reading this was like a jaw drop. I can't believe how succinctly it covered and expressed what I go through and how my brain works. Really feels liberating to understand and nice to know I'm not alone. I am also an alcoholic who goes to AA meetings and has been sober for over 3 years. I figured I just wasn't working the program hard enough. I never really felt like my friends went through this specific type of problem. It is freeing to realize that this specific issue has nothing to do with my alcoholism, and I am hopeful to see recovery and growth in this area of my life the same way I did with my alcoholism. Thank you very much.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for this article! I've been struggling with this for the last 5 years and I never even dared to look into it until now. That's because I feel so ashamed about it and I was scared that I would only find that there's something really wrong with me. I'm starting therapy for the first time soon and I'm terrified that the therapist is going to judge me and tell me that this isn't normal, that I'm a monster.. That's the anxiety speaking and on some level I know that, but that doesn't make it any easier. I'm on the verge of suicide but this article gave me some hope back and I haven't felt that in a long time, I can't thank you enough.

Why would you ever accept and let a bad though manifest its self??? Thats the craziest thing ever! Step #1 Your supposed to rebuke it with all your mental strength. Step #2 You strip it from any authority it thinks it has, then you push it out far, far away from you. Step #3 Once its out of your mind you imagine mentally sealing your mind from it so that it cannot enter again. Then you change your thoughts and try focusing your attention on something else completely different to take your attention and focus on that bad thought. You do that until it leaves you alone and if it tries to come back you repeat the steps again until it eventually leaves you alone because some bad thought can linger around trying to find a way back in.

Man, reading the comments made me tear up, because I was just so happy to see that we are all fine, we are getting through it. Yes guys! We got this

its not helping me at all tho. i dont understand myself anymore cuz of these negative thoughts tbh i dont even know if what im feeling rn is depression or what and plus ive been having suicidal thoughts more often than before

Salam everyone, is there any one who is having religious blasphemous thoughts and who is unable to understand and also questioning the nature and will of God. And one who is only looking at the debatable/questionable issues of the religion without looking at the positive aspects.!!! One who is not wanting to believe what he used to believe???

This article and the comments have been very helpful. It’s encouraging knowing that other people are suffering the same way I am. I have intrusive thoughts brought on by who knows what. Stress from work, anxious about wedding next year etc but my intrusive thoughts are typically cantered around my fiancé. I love her so much and the idea of not being able to spend my life with her is debilitating. I can’t breathe. But my thoughts tell me my feelings for her aren’t real and eventually we’re going to break up (again which makes me miserable) she is SO supportive and helps me though the worst of it but the knot is almost always in the pit of my stomach and the intrusive thoughts never that far away. I know I love her with everything I have so why is my brain trying to convince me otherwise. This has been going on for a relatively short amount of time although feels like so much longer. It started happening like a light switch, I’ve never had those feelings before with her. I’m so incredibly happy with my life with her.

I’m considering going to see a doctor but that also terrifies me because I’m afraid giving more voice to these thoughts will make it real. Which is not what I want at all, ever.

Hi Kat,

I had this too right before I got married. I had constant intrusive thoughts about my now husband and they were always the opposite of what I actually felt. I saw a therapist and went on an SSRI. It helped, but it has come back now 10 years later about other things due to extreme stress and burn out. See a therapist for sure. You are not your thoughts! You’ll be okay.

Your anxiety before marriage is very understandable. But don’t worship the ground she walks on, don’t be a groveling fool. Women don’t really want that. But hold yourself with confidence. Love is a choice; choose her, be strong and don’t quit. Mark my words, there will come a day when you don’t want to be with her because some stupid thing she said or keeps doing. Don’t quit. You make it through each rough patch together and each time your marriage is better than it ever was. The secret i’ve found so far is Just Don’t Quit. Choose her and stick with her, even when you don’t want to.

This has been happening to me off and on for about 4 years now. Most of the time each period I experience is a different subject and the most recent period started last year around New Years. I get so ashamed and think I will be thought of as the worst human in existence and it does a number on my self-confidence. I will pray for you and I hope you get better!

This is what I was looking for. Thank you. Good job and keep up the good work.

This article is seriously life-saving. I can't tell you how many times I've read it through when struggling with intrusive thoughts, and I always found so much relief in it. I've read countless forums, articles etc. while trying to understand my intrusive thoughts and get rid od them, but none were as helpful as this one. Thank you so much for putting it up.

Anyone ever have thoughts so opposite of your true self that your blood boils, flushed with instant fever like over heating, heart sinking/ skipping a beat, and or stomach drops when they come across you? This happens to me. My entire being does not accept these thoughts. The only way I can describe it is like if it was as someone was literally writing these thoughts for me. Yuck man. Anyway this article is definitely helping me and I appreciate you all for taking the time to comment because I am here reading each and every one of them ..
..working through yet another bad spiral of super evil tourette style thoughts that come out of no where!!!!! Its draining my entire soul and being because it's like completely opposite of who I am and what I believe in and or stand for.

These thoughts started about a month or two ago and they are driving me crazy. I used to be really into scary movies and now when i get these bad thoughts I start thinking of something awful happening to me or my family, even though I know it’s not real and can never happen and I hate even saying what these thoughts are because I feel like they make me sound insane and like an awful person. I pray every single night to try to make it all better but I always end up trying to fall asleep and the thoughts just pop up into my head and my heart starts beating so fast and my body always gets really hot and I feel crazy. I also wake up with the scary thoughts in my head pretty often and it just really sucks :( Reading this article has helped me out a lot though but I just really want to know if anyone can relate to this. Thank you and God bless!

This article helped me out in ways I cannot begin to explain! I was so scared of the random fleeting thoughts that I would get, and it was causing me so much anxiety. This article explains everything so well, and ever since reading it, I feel like I truly have nothing to worry about! :-) thank you from the bottom of my heart, this is a God send!

Dis article reali helped me,sumtimes I jst feel I Wil go mad d nxt mins I reali don't no wat sort of thought is dat I imagine mysef runnin mad ,d thought jst sticks to my head 24/7 m I reali ok? Or m jst anxious for nothing please help me,y do I alwz 've dis thougts

Thank god I'm not the only one who as these weird thoughts. I'm a normal guy go to work go out have friend but these thoughts are so annoying. They happen at the strange time but hopefully with the help of this page I can stop having them.

This article was exactly what I needed to read. I have experienced these intrusive, unwanted thoughts so much to the point that I broke down wept at the mear thought of such aggression. I am a caring and gentle person and your article set my mind free! Many thanks for your insights.

Damn, I've been doing everything wrong about these awful intrusive thoughts! No wonder they just don't want to leave and keep coming back to pester me, poison my thoughts and keep me up at night. This is so ridiculous, but my problem is that random movies, books or tv shows pop into my head and now I basically have a phobia about being interested in any of them. So this article saying that the opposite is true and that these thoughts actually mean I'm loyal to my favorite trilogy is quite reassuring.

I am going to see a therapist for these, I was wondering if it's a possibilty to get medication to handle them. (Like is it a thing)

A Curious Reader

February 19, 2019

I have found that intrusive thoughts were becoming more of a problem for, and while they aren't as mild as the examples given, this article has helped me know what to do about them. Some articles tell me that a counselor may be good, but i don't feel as if that is a needed step just yet, thank you for letting me know what I can do to help myself.

every day i think of one thing an then a mini little thing in my head thinks the opposite and what it is thinking is weird and bad do you think i need help

I’m reading all of these comments and I feel so relieved that I’m not alone! I have recently battled a deep depression and now my mind is plagued with disturbing intrusive thoughts and make me feel ashamed!! I know that I am NOT my thoughts, and this article helped me so immensely!!! Thank you!! And I hope all on here have found relief from the constant worry!

Thank you! I thought I was going crazy. I was about to go to medical and commit myself, my violent thoughts have been getting worse and I believed it was my heart at war and the good in me was losing.
I am grateful for what you said here and I will seek out your book for more understanding.
God Bless you and yours and your work.

I have suffered depression for many years which is making me have bad thoughts I lost both my children my husband and my all my siblings and have been left with all the bad things I was out with my granddaughter today and had a very bad one I don’t know how I coped with it but I did what can I do to help myself I have sat the rest of the wondering if it wii happen I fear if I tell doctors that they will put me away I am losing my mind

Now I know I am not the only one who have this problem. I didn't told that problem with anyone, even my parents and my close friends. I felt guilty because of my thoughts, I can't believe my thoughts, they are so scary. The more I tried to get them out of my head, the more they came back to me. I'm so scared.

I had this same problem!! The more I tried to not think of something the more it came back to me. ? I bought their book and read and re-read various chapters. It helped so much! I bought the book on my phone so I can reference it at any time. My thoughts were HORRIBLE! I am also seeing a counselor and she has been SUPER helpful. I also started taking Effexor 75mg and this has also helped my intrusive thoughts. I still get them, but between the book, counseling and medication I have been able to work through them and remind myself I am not my thought and they do not control me. Praying you find the answers you need.

I did not know how to express what I was feeling. When I came across this article with a quick search I realized this is exactly what I’ve been dealing with. I also realized this is something I’ve been working on since I was a child. The stubborn mind- don’t tell me not to think about something or I will. As a kid the mere reminder of “oh I’m thinking about it again” ( without actually even thinking about anything), I was creating associations. Would you say this is OCD?

I am so relived to see that there is so much more information and understanding about this condition that I’ve suffered with since childhood. Many of us think that we’re alone and I’ll never forget the moment when I realized that this was just a mental illness and that I could get better. Just knowing that it is an illness helps and gabe me relief from day one. Meds have helped me along with therapy, just know that you can improve and others should never be afraid of someone because of this illness, no one ever acts upon the urges or obsessions.

Please send me a msg showing how to share this with my friend this has gave my a great deal of relief. The thoughts I had I really thought they meant something I really thought want day i was going to snap and act on it and I would never do any of the things! It hurt my heart and head and it really freaked me out. That is my fb name if you could send me a link that be great

I have intrusive thoughts about my relationship. Every once in a while I wonder if I really love my boyfriend. They consume me. I want to be with him and I love him, so I don’t know why I feel this way. This article was really calming to me to know these are normal. I haven’t been diagnosed with OCD but there is a chance I have it. I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder a couple years ago and I obsess and overthink a lot of things. Do these thoughts seem real? Or are they just intrusive

Hello.

You are not alone, I get intrusive thoughts about my girlfriend from time to time, telling me I want to break up etc etc which are not true at all. I love her very much and I am ashamed of sharing this with her because I don’t want to hurt her feelings. It goes away with time but comes back in moments of stress, but it’s important you know they’re intrusive thoughts and don’t reflect your actual feelings.

I have always felt so alone in my thoughts and I've been crying a while now reading this article and all the comments, means a lot to now other people sometimes think what I think and that I'm another a monster

Same here, I hate watching scary movies or scary scenes because those thoughts would come in mind I I would have a panic attack. My anxiety has always been bad but this new phobia of intrusive thoughts takes the cake.. And the more I tried to rid of the thoughts the scarier it gets. Reading this article and seeing other people with the same issues makes me feel like I'm not a nut. We can get through this.

It’s good to hear and see that so many people are in the same place with these unwanted thoughts. They can truly take over your life and make it hard to go about your day. I’m 21, and I have been struggling for only one month, and it’s already been the worst month of my life. I love my life before this started happening, went through a hard breakup, and I developed awful anxiety with constant intrusive suicidal thoughts soon to follow. It scares the hell out of me, and because of the anxiety and how awful of a thought it is, I’ve been challenging my life, my values, and driving myself into a deep hole. The only thing that helps is my faith and by trying to always follow what I know my heart feels. If anybody else is experiencing self harm intrusive thoughts like I am, seriously let me know and we can talk. We can help each other. God Bless.

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