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URMC / BHP / BHP Blog / November 2023 / Intrusive Thoughts: Are They Problematic?

Intrusive Thoughts: Are They Problematic?

Author: J. MacLaren Kelly, MAPP, PhD

Have you ever been driving down the road and had thoughts pop into your mind of running the car off the road or swerving into oncoming traffic? How about walking down the street and suddenly picturing a stranger naked or saying something rude to them? Okay, what about suddenly having a thought that you left the stove on at home potentially causing a fire or that you left the door unlocked and now there is an intruder inside? Thoughts like these are examples of intrusive thoughts. And odds are you’d say “yes” to having a thought like this sometime in the past. In a study by Purdon and Clark (1993), a group of nearly three hundred college students were asked how often they experienced a list of about fifty different thoughts. The overwhelming majority of the group (99%) reported experiencing at least one intrusive thought listed. The thoughts that students most commonly reported were the ones mentioned above. This result has been more recently replicated in an international sample of nearly 800 college students; about 94% of the sample reported experiencing at least one intrusive thought within the past three months of similar content (Radomsky et al., 2014).

Having an intrusive thought can be upsetting and make you wonder if there’s cause for concern. Importantly, having thoughts like these isn’t inherently problematic. What distinguishes these benign intrusive thoughts from ones found in clinical diagnoses like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are how often you have them, how long they stick around in your mind, how upsetting they are to you, and how disruptive they are to your day (Berry & Laskey, 2012). Additionally, the intrusive thought may be at a clinical level if you notice having to do something specific because of the thought, like repeating a phrase to yourself until you feel “right”, repeatedly disclosing the thought to your partner, or returning home on several occasions to check appliances.

If you notice yourself having an intrusive thought, it’s best not to actively try to stop having the thought. Doing so can paradoxically lead to the thought coming back again (Abramowitz, Tolin, Street, 2001; Wegner et al., 1987). Instead, try some of the following:

Techniques for managing intrusive thoughts:

  1. Labelling. When you notice the thought occurring, consider labelling it as an intrusive thought and nothing more. Let it stay in your awareness just like any other thought or physical sensation (Ainsworth, Bolderston, & Garner, 2017).
  2. Stick with your plans. When you have an intrusive thought, it might seem like you need to stop what you’re doing and really pause to think deeply and critically about the thought. Yet, by doing so, you’re promoting the thought’s importance and interpreting it as relevant to your life. Instead, remain engaged with whatever you are doing at the time. No need to let the thought skip the line of your mental to-do list and get worked on before you write that email or go to the grocery as you’d intended.
  3. Thinking the thought is not equal to doing the thought. Your thoughts are not a reflection of you. They are a reflection of your imagination. If it did, many kids would be Disney characters. Similarly, having the thought does not make the thought more likely to occur. If it did, I’d have $5 in my hand right now.
     

If you notice having intrusive thoughts more and more often, starting to do things differently during your day because of the thoughts, or find that the thoughts disrupt what you are doing during your day, then consider giving Behavioral Health Partners a call at (585) 276-6900. Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety, and depression. Our team of mental health professionals can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment.

References

Abramowitz, J. S., Tolin, D. F., & Street, G. P. (2001). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression: a meta-analysis of controlled studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(5), 683–703. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0272-7358(00)00057-X

Ainsworth, B., Bolderston, H., & Garner, M. (2017). Testing the differential effects of acceptance and attention-based psychological interventions on intrusive thoughts and worry. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 91, 72–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2017.01.012

Berry, L.-M., & Laskey, B. (2012). A review of obsessive intrusive thoughts in the general population. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 1(2), 125–132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocrd.2012.02.002

Purdon, C., & Clark, D. A. (1993). Obsessive intrusive thoughts in nonclinical subjects: Part I. Content and relation with depressive, anxious and obsessional symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31(8), 713–720. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(93)90001-B

Radomsky, A. S., Alcolado, G. M., Abramowitz, J. S., Alonso, P., Belloch, A., Bouvard, M., Clark, D. A., Coles, M. E., Doron, G., Fernández-Álvarez, H., Garcia-Soriano, G., Ghisi, M., Gomez, B., Inozu, M., Moulding, R., Shams, G., Sica, C., Simos, G., & Wong, W. (2014). Part 1—You can run but you can’t hide: Intrusive thoughts on six continents. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 3(3), 269–279. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocrd.2013.09.002

Salkovskis, P. M. (1985). Obsessional-compulsive problems: A cognitive-behavioural analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 23(5), 571–583. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(85)90105-6

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter III, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5–13.

11/1/2023

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