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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.

He has crazy bizarre thoughts that just pop into his head, he can think he is a tree, wanting to hurt me, or our grandson, or he now has a thought that cars can talk, the thoughts can change ever day, it consumes him, some very unwanted thoughts that I cant comprehend. Do you think that this medication is making matters worse? whenever talks to his Doctor, he seems to increase or decrease the same meds. He has been in and out of institutions for his thoughts, and he's not getting better, there are times that the thoughts don't bother him, but then they can come on strong. What would your import be on this, I am at my ends. I keep my bedroom locked at night, for I don't know from one min to the next if I will be ok, for he says there is times he wants to act on the thoughts, but he feels he can control them. Please any advice would be helpful

Thank you for this article can you recommend a therapist in the Springfield MA area trained
In treatment of this.?

OMG! FINALLY!!! I only talk to my husband about this.. I’ve been thinking that I’m just crazy and somethings wrong with me... awful thoughts that I will just obsess over and torment myself with.. it’s like two sides of my brain arguing all day debating weather or not I’m a terrible human... I’m not, I’m a loving mother and wife that wouldn’t hurt a bug... yet one terrible thought gets stuck in my brain and then spindles out of control.... thank you so much for writing this article... I just bought the book.. so glad I’m not alone!!!

I've been struggling with unwanted intrusive thoughts lately and it's been driving me crazy because I know I'm not that person. After searching the internet on ways to stop thinking intrusive thoughts, I found this to be the best article. I'm confident this will work, thank you, guys!!!!

Thank you for this article! So comforting and refreshing to know that I am not alone in having what I call "Mickey Mouse" thoughts. My question is I say affirmations or an affirmation to quieten my mind. Does doing that reinforce the thoughts.
Thanks
Roy

This article really helped me. It helped me to know I’m not alone. It’s going to get better, and that the intrusive thoughts are not things that I want to do! Thank you

This article explains perfectly what I am going through. Started therapy last week. Hopefully these thoughts will dissipate soon with the help of therapy and fluoxetine as I am depressed and very anxious all the time.

I'm thankful for the article however my mind works in strange ways I feel like the thoughts will stick and won't go I'll just keep reading articles it keeps me distracted hold on that's it! To keep me from my intrusive thoughts I'll read articles to keep me busy and educated!!

Thank you for that helpful article I never had these thoughts before i am learning about anxiety I am recovering I am so pleased that this can be cured without meds using self-help books vitamins and therapy counselling and talking to others support groups have been most helpful I take a medication three times a week only when needed to help me relax and sleep and I am recovering well nice that this can be cured thanks for giving me hope with this article This works for me i hope it does for others and I wish everyone a speedy recovery

Thank you so much for your helpful article that I found casual it, this was my problem but everybody just had told me: "do not pay attention to them"... Of that see I'm not alone, I'm very happy, I wish this article be helpful for any other people like me... god bless and goodluck my dear friends!

I have bipolar 1 disorder, which has lead to many diagnosis including OCD, general anxiety disorder, dpdr disorder, cptsd and some others, but between the cycles of the bipolar moods and the bear constant suicidal ideation my intrusive thoughts have begun to get more disturbing. I was having a good new years with my sister and brother and out of the blue I just think "enjoy it, you dont have much longer." I've had borderline suicidal intrusive thoughts before but this one has been the most unnerving and I'm not looking for validation or reassurance, I just want to know if it's time to seek help from my psychiatrist so I dont have to be hospitalized for suicidal tendencies again. Warm regards, Lilith.

Lilith, I can really relate to what you’re going through. Mental health problems run in my family but I am experiencing constant suicidal thoughts after a traumatic experience with my gf. These thoughts have screwed with my feelings, and have taken over. If you want to talk about them I’m all for it

DistressedDisaster

January 5, 2019

This actually helped alot. My brain tends to do things such as think about 'Wish this person was dead' or a manner of other horrid and disturbing ideas that leave me afraid and triggers my anxiety against myself. this article really puts things in perspective and I plan to save this page to re read whenever I need a reminder that I'm not insane, nor am I desiring such events to occur or happen.

I am so glad I googled this tonight. Thought I was alone in this. Sometimes I can't believe my own thoughts and I thought I was going crazy!! I've been suffering for so long now. Nice to talk to people who actually understand what I am going through.

The person I love the most has every symptom you describe. He is crying out for help. We have had a genetics test. He goes to a therapist weekly; and he doesn’t feel as if is getting the help he needs. He suffers severe fear driven anxiety. He has too much dopamine. He cannot continue to have these thoughts. He says he is losing his mind; and I don’t know what to do next. Is there a specialist in Colorado?

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???

I keep having these hateful thoughts about God in its driving me crazy praying reading my Bible morning and night getting people to pray for me and I also went on a prayer line and the thoughts still coming what should I do

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.

Funny thing is I didn't even know what to search to find out about what was going on in my mind. After a horrible thought about my daughter came into my head suddenly I decided to search for "intrusive thoughts". Just look at the definition of the word intrusive. "causing disruption or annoyance through being unwelcome or uninvited." This article and more importantly all of the comments made me realize that these thoughts are unwanted as in I don't want them so in a way these racing thoughts don't even belong to me. One trick I've learned is you can't feed these thoughts because they grow. If you can learn to starve these thoughts by letting them exist but not hold power they should die right? I've been dealing with this or a form of this for 30 years but this article and comments made me feel joy for the first time in a while because I know that we are not alone and there is hope for all of us even the worst cases where it feels like there is no light in site. There is a light and we can overcome these uninvited intrusive thoughts. God bless you all! Sending prayers for this forum from now on.

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.

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