Are Intrusive Thoughts Normal?

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Having thoughts that are not in line with our values can cause us concern.

Are intrusive thoughts normal? We have no control over the thoughts that come into our minds. So, it’s very normal to have thoughts that are not in line with our values or our intentions. However, our reaction to these thoughts are important. And our reactions to the thoughts are what make them intrusive or not. 

Defining “intrusive thoughts”

The term “intrusive thoughts” is a little misleading. The term implies that the thought itself is what determines whether it’s intrusive or not.

But what really makes a thought intrusive? Is it just the thought or is it our reaction, perception, and meaning we link to the thought?

Take for example a mother in the kitchen with her 5 year old son. A thought pops into her head of stabbing him. Her reaction is nothing. She doesn’t doubt herself. She knows she would never act on it. As a result, the thought exits just as quickly as it pops into her head. A minute later, she forgets she even had the thought.

I don’t see this as a problem. And it doesn’t seem intrusive. It didn’t impact the mom or son at all.

Let’s take a different mother who has the same exact thought. Her reaction is much different though. Her self-talk is racing and begins to question her intentions and her values. Even though she’s never harmed anyone before, she starts to wonder if this thought means she’s a murderer. She becomes anxious, she puts the kitchen knife away and immediately exits the kitchen with her son. Even though she has no intention of hurting her son, she lies in bed that night debating with herself if she is the type of person who could do such a thing.

This is definitely intrusive.

The same thought, but completely different results and impacts on the household.

Why is getting clear on the definition important?

Why is defining “Intrusive thought” important?

By not getting clear on what “intrusive thoughts,” are, in therapy or within our own self-talk, we create problems and perpetuate those problems.

For example, imagine that we define an “intrusive thought” as any thought that is inconsistent with society’s standards and laws. If that’s the case, then all of the thoughts below would be considered intrusive:

  • Having a thought of killing someone
  • Having a thought of hitting someone
  • Having a thought of ramming your car into another car

But, are these thoughts actually a problem? I would argue that they, alone aren’t a problem.

There are two types of thoughts: thoughts we put in our heads on purpose and thoughts that pop into our head randomly, 100% out of our control.

Most of the thoughts we have are the latter. And they have no real value. They aren’t a reflection of who we are or our values. And whether we admit it to anyone or not, sometimes (or often), these thoughts get really dark and scary. If anyone knew we had them, we probably wouldn’t have any friends.

These incontrollable thoughts are 100% normal. No matter how dark they get. 

We do ourselves a disservice if we quickly label these incontrollable thoughts intrusive. By labeling them intrusive, we engage with them and judge them as a problem. As I’ll explain later on, this creates a feedback loop. In short, by labeling them intrusive, they become intrusive. It’s self-fulfilling.

As a clinician, I would only consider the thoughts to be a problem if one of two things are present

  • The person has intent or curiosity on following through with those thoughts.
  • The person has no intention, but the the person has thoughts about those thoughts. The person starts to doubt themselves, their intentions, or they negatively judge themselves for having such thoughts.

If a person has intent on these type of thoughts, there’s no doubt are definitely problem, but they aren’t necessarily intrusive.

Perhaps for one person, there is intent, but they know they shouldn’t, and they are debating and wrestling with this thought. I would consider this intrusive, because the person doesn’t want the thoughts there.

Perhaps for another person, they have intent and they aren’t wrestling with the thoughts. Definitely a problem, because someone is going to get hurt, but not intrusive to the person having the thought. They want they thoughts. This is a whole different category, something that is beyond this article. 

How we define intrusive thoughts influences are reaction to them. If it’s broadly define them as thoughts that are not consistent with our own values, then we will forever have intrusive thoughts. Because it’s impossible to stop our thoughts. And even more importantly, these uncontrollable thoughts will always be a problem for us, because in our head we judge them to be a problem.

On the other hand, if we say intrusive thoughts are “thoughts that we don’t want to have,” well, we have a lot more power over that. We can control our desire.

In short, how we define it, either puts us in the driver’s seat or keeps us feeling completely powerless and stuck.

It’s very subtle, but it’s important.

What is rumination

Rumination is the opposite of uncontrollable. Dr. Michael Greenberg, a specialist is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder defines rumination as follows:

Rumination is making a choice to engage in mental problem solving, which includes analyzing, mental reviewing, mental checking, visualizing, monitoring, and directing your focus toward the problem.

There’s a key difference between rumination and actual problem solving though. Actual problem solving has a solution at the end. After that, it’s over and done with.

Rumination on the other hand is the illusion of problem solving. We’re replaying the problem in our head over and over again without resolution.

Rumination is just busy work. That causes us a lot of pain.

Examples of ruminating thoughts:

  • “OH! I just had a thought about hitting that person in the crosswalk. Would I actually do something like that? Have I done something like in the past? What does this mean? Should I be trusting myself to drive right now?”
  • “I need to get rid of that thought. I don’t want to hurt someone. Why can’t I stop thinking about that? Shoot, there it is again.”
  • “Why is this always popping into my mind? When is it going to stop”

You can see that ruminations are thoughts about the initial thoughts. They are thoughts on top of thoughts.

We have zero control over the first layer of thoughts. However, we do have control over the second layer of thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts vs ruminating thoughts

So, is there a difference between intrusive thoughts and ruminating thoughts? I would argue that there’s not much difference.

I would argue that the only way to make a thought intrusive, is by adding the second layer of thinking. The thinking about the thinking. Which is rumination.

Intrusive thoughts = ruminating thoughts.

Do I need to be concerned about intrusive thoughts?

Often what drives the question of “Are intrusive thoughts are normal,” is concern for the thoughts. So, maybe another way to ask the same question is, “Do I need to be concerned about intrusive thoughts?”

The short answer is yes.

But, again, let me be clear.

I don’t think you need to be concerned about the odd, bizarre thoughts that automatically pop up into your mind. Though we don’t go around talking about these weird thoughts with others (that’s why we go to therapy), we all do it. It’s part of being human.

We do need to be concerned about how we engage with those thoughts. The rumination. Which makes them intrusive.

We need to be concerned, because we sometimes can ruminate for long periods of time without much awareness to it.

When we ruminate it can cause a lot of trouble for us:

  • Pre-occupation
  • Anxiety
  • Self-doubt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Disconnecting from others
  • Low energy
  • Low performance

The list is long. In short, rumination is taking up a lot of our energy that could be spent more productively concentrating on some other task or activity. Or free us up to enjoy activities.

So, what can we do when a weird thought does pop into our head?

Observe and don’t engage

We’ve established that you can’t stop the odd thoughts. If you try it will just make it worse.

The only other choice you have is to be an observer rather than a participant. And the best way to do that is to simply make a conscious choice to not engage with it.

I don’t mean to imply this is easy necessarily though. Some of us have an easier time not engaging, while others of us are more sensitive to the thoughts that pop up. It’s a simple concept, but it does take practice and seeking therapy for your rumination can make it easier.

One way to think about this observing process is by thinking of watching your thoughts like a passing weather system. The clouds come and go. The storms come and go.

When it’s mostly sunny, this is easy. When there’s a hurricane, it will be harder to not engage as there will be more motivation to attempt to relieve it.

The only thing we know for certain is this: weather systems will come and weather systems will pass. And then they will come again and they will pass.

Acceptance

Another concept to consider is acceptance. Logically, when we have thoughts that we don’t like, it makes sense to try to stop them.

With anxiety and rumination, however, the more energy we put out, usually the worse it gets.

The alternative to trying to white knuckle the thoughts away is to accept them. This is not to be confused with complacency, however.

Complacency is not trying anything. We have thoughts of the past, we get sucked into them, they negatively impact us, and we don’t try anything to reduce the negative impact.

Acceptance on the other hand is noticing the thoughts, giving up on trying to get rid of them, and giving up on the judgement we place on ourselves for having the thoughts.

Acceptance is understanding the reality of our thoughts: they are going to pass like weather systems. Sometimes it’s sunny all day. Other times it’s intense thunderstorms.

Some weather systems are predictable; others come out of nowhere.

Even though there may be a level of uncertainty around how intense and when our thoughts of the past come, we do know one thing for certain: the weather systems will come and they will pass. And after they pass, they will come again. And after they come again, they will pass.

This is what I mean by acceptance.

I hope this article was helpful.

 

 

About the Author

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

Brian O'Sullivan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist dedicated to helping people overcome their social anxiety. Brian uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help clients better understand the role our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions play in either maintaining and calming anxiety.

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.