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Techly Explains: What are intrusive thoughts and are they normal?

Our brains tend to be a little disobedient at times.

Warning: In this article, we’ll be discussing intrusive thoughts, including mentions of violence and self-harm.

Imagine that someone has just given you a newborn baby to hold. You take it into your arms and rock gently. Maybe you make some funny cooing sounds and admire this cute little thing.

Suddenly a thought leaps into your head: “What if I just dropped this baby right now?” Of course, you have no intention of actually doing that but – like or not – this thought is in your head. Then, as quickly as the thought came, it leaves.

What just happened? And is that normal?

They are “intrusive thoughts”; unwelcome and involuntary thoughts that enter our heads and then are quickly dismissed by our rational brains.

The first thing you should know about intrusive thoughts is that you are not alone in experiencing them. In a 1977 study, psychologist Stanley Rachman administered a questionnaire to colleges and found that almost all of them had had such thoughts from time to time. Since then, follow-up studies have reached the same conclusion: almost all of us have intrusive thoughts.

The nature of these thoughts typically ranges from aggressive thoughts, which may include imagining harming yourself or others to sexual thoughts involving “unnatural” or “inappropriate” acts. In the case of religious people, their intrusive thoughts may include blasphemous religious thoughts.

Although acting out these thoughts would certainly be abnormal, it turns out that having them is normal. And while we don’t have a definite explanation, it is supposed that we primarily have these thoughts to remind us not to act in a certain way.

It’s like your brain is saying “Here is a terrible idea about something you should never do!” Thanks a lot, brain.

Writing for Psychologist Today, Dr Hannah Reese notes the very act of monitoring intrusive thoughts can actually make them occur more frequently. To prove this, Dr Reese cites a study conducted by researchers at Harvard University. In the study, they asked people to NOT think of a white bear. The problem was that participants’ minds would naturally want to know how they were doing… and Bingo! the white bear would pop back into their heads.

Informally, a similar experiment is played by people all over the world and is known simply as ‘The Game’. The rules are simple:

1. Everyone in the world who knows about The Game is playing The Game.
2. Whenever one thinks about The Game, one loses.
3. Losses must be announced, typically with phrases such as “I just lost The Game”.

OK, so now you know about the game you are playing, and you just lost. (If it makes you feel any better, I lost too).

You-lost-the-game

And you just lost again.

Psychologists believe that when people become overly distressed by intrusive thoughts it can lead to a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This may manifest itself in avoidance behaviours in which people refrain from certain activities in order to prevent intrusive thoughts.

Dr Reese’s advice regarding intrusive thoughts is that you do not attempt to push them out of your head. Instead, you should simply let them “pop in and roll right out again”. The most important thing to remember is that they are normal and, in most cases, are nothing to worry about.

For support on issues related to OCD, visit this site.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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