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Intrusive thoughts are normal

Have you ever had a thought, and wondered if you were a terrible person for thinking it? Chances are you have, because intrusive thoughts are actually normal and something that can happen to anyone.
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Have you ever had a thought, and wondered if you were a terrible person for thinking it? Chances are you have, because intrusive thoughts are actually normal and something that can happen to anyone.

A classic study by researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of New Brunswick found that 99% of their student sample reported that they had experienced at least one unwanted intrusive thought, image, or impulse. Some examples include swerving into oncoming traffic while driving, hitting a pet, stabbing a loved one, or inappropriate thoughts of a sexual nature. The point is, having intrusive thoughts like this is normal, while doing or wanting to do these things is not.

There is a big difference between thinking something and actually doing something. In the words of Taylor Swift, “There’s no such thing as bad thoughts, only your actions talk.” There typically isn’t some hidden meaning behind the thought, and they also don’t make you a “bad person” for having them. That’s actually why the thoughts are upsetting – because you don’t want to act on them.

Most of us try not to think about an intrusive thought when it pops into our heads. This natural tendency to avoid the unpleasant actually backfires and serves to keep the thought around for even longer. So next time just let it be, the thought will eventually pop back out.

Although having an intrusive thought is normal, it can become a problem when a person gets very distressed by the thoughts, spends a significant amount of time thinking about them, and goes to lengths to get rid of them or prevent them from occurring. Intrusive thoughts are more likely to escalate into an obsession when a person appraises the intrusive thought as having the potential to cause harm, and when they believe that they are personally responsible. This leads to an increase in distress, and to reduce this, the person many engage in some sort of behaviour or ritual (e.g., compulsive praying or checking) to try to neutralize the distress or prevent something bad from happening. This pattern of behaviour may be suggestive of a more serious problem, called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If this sounds like you and your thoughts are causing difficulty in your day-to-day functioning, you may want to talk to a professional.

The common intrusive thought, however, should not be over pathologized, and treatment is often not needed. You can think of these thoughts as brain hiccups or normal misfiring. Intrusive thoughts will subside if you allow them to pass without giving them too much attention or trying to push them away. As long as you keep giving the thoughts your attention, you’re adding fuel to the fire and it will keep burning, but if you stop throwing logs (attention) on the fire, it will eventually sizzle out.




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