During a recent session, I was struck by something my client said. This client was highlighting how much emphasis goes into breaking the stigma of mental health and speaking up about certain topics like suicide, domestic violence and anxiety–but no one talks about intrusive thoughts. Boom, there it was. That hit me like a ton of bricks as I thought about the reality of what my client was saying. I’ve never seen a Public Service Announcement pertaining to intrusive thoughts. Why? Well, let’s be honest, anyone who has struggled with this phenomenon understands the world of intrusive thoughts is a dark, sordid place that no one ventures into willingly.
At this point, I hope you’re getting curious. What is an intrusive thought? Do I have such things in my life? Intrusive thoughts go something like this: “if I pick up that knife to butter my bread then I’m most definitely going to stab my loved one across the table from me,” or “vom!t” is the equivalent of a curse word because once you hear or read the word your thoughts tell you that you or someone in your household is guaranteed to begin throwing up within 24 hours. Some of the most distressing and shameful intrusive thoughts surround sexual behavior and thoughts that are abhorrent given the person’s moral convictions. Intrusive thoughts differ from sensible concerns or that annoying jingle stuck in your head because these thoughts don’t make sense and they aren’t easily dismissed. These thoughts won’t leave and the harder your try to silence them, the louder they become.
Maybe you’re starting to connect with some of this, you’re telling me to quit writing because while you’re curious, it’s almost too much to bear shining a spotlight on the inner workings of your mind. Well before you exit scene, I want you to hear one thing, “You are not alone!!!” Not only are you not alone, but people with intrusive thoughts share very similar thoughts to your own. It’s actually a universal experience among sufferers.
Here is a list of intrusive thoughts and examples adapted from Dr. Jeffery Schwartz’s work, Brainlock:
- Concerns about dirt, germs, and contamination: I feel myself breathing in the germs around me, I can’t get this syrup off of my hands, no matter how much I wash
- The need for order or symmetry: This looks out of place, I need to get these books aligned ‘just so’
- Hoarding, saving, or sentimentality: I may need this magazine from 1991 one day, I worry once I throw something away, I’ll need it
- Troublesome sexual content: I think of sexual acts with my religious leader during her homily, I worry I may molest my child while changing their diaper
- Illogical doubts about routine tasks: I forgot to unplug the straightener, I didn’t pay my utility bill
- Religious/Moral guilt: I cursed the driver in front of me this morning, now I’m doomed to Hell, Lying is a sin, did I lie by omission on my job application?
- Violent and aggressive behavior: I replay images of myself strangling my spouse, who I love dearly, I ran over that pedestrian two blocks back and left him lying in the street
- Superstitious fears: If I want to avoid bankruptcy, I can only grocery shop on even days of the month, If I wear underwear any other color besides white or navy, I may show up to work naked
If you’ve read this list and thought, “seriously, people think this stuff?!” Consider yourself blessed. If you’ve read this list and can relate to some of these items, I hope you can find solace in the fact that you are not alone. There are thousands of others out there—people you come in contact with daily—that are battling the same thoughts and fears that overwhelm you.
Beyond just not being alone, there are tools and skills to help quiet these thoughts and urges within your mind. If you’re wondering next steps, I encourage you to assess the severity of your intrusive thoughts. On a scale of 0 to 10 (0 being none and 10 being debilitating), how much time and energy do these thoughts take up in your life on a daily basis. If you’re in the 3-5 range, you may enjoy reading the rest of Dr. Schwartz’s book Brainlock to gain further insight and strategies to quiet the mind. If you put yourself at a 6 or higher, I would recommend you seek out a professional to walk alongside you in this journey. It is also important when seeking out a professional to find someone who has experience and knowledge with this specialized form of anxiety.