Why Can't I Stop These Horrible Thoughts?

 
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We have thousands of thoughts every day. Some of these thoughts are pleasant, helpful, and important. They help us get through our day and make good decisions. Other thoughts are random, odd, and meaningless. We usually just brush right by them, filtering out the junk. However, at times the junk thoughts seem really important. We think the thought is a significant signal, a warning sign, which we must react to. We worry that the thought might cause something bad to happen or say something about us as a person. And ultimately we want to get it under control!

Intrusive thoughts are defined as any distinct cognitive event that is unwanted, unintended, and recurrent. Many research studies have shown intrusive thoughts are a common occurrence (Purdon & Clark, 1993; Rachman & de Silva, 1978; Salkovskis & Harrison, 1984).  Here is a small list of intrusive thoughts that normal, everyday people acknowledged having in Purdon & Clark’s study…

  • Hitting animals or people with car

  • Jumping off a high place

  • Hurting strangers

  • Stabbing a family member

  • Accidentally leaving heat/stove on

  • Sex with an unacceptable person

  • Getting fatal disease from strangers

 
 

“Human thought is frequently punctuated with unwanted cognitive activity.”

It is important to recognize that “human thought is frequently punctuated with unwanted cognitive activity” (Sarason, Pierce, & Sarason, 1996). Intrusive thoughts are just like our other thoughts, no more dangerous or powerful, they are just thoughts. But our interpretation or appraisal of these thoughts is what gives them fuel. If we see them as unacceptable or threatening, then that is what they become. And what do we want to do when we feel threatened? Fight or flight!

In this case, our basic instinct will be to try to control or get rid of these thoughts. Strategies of thought control might include…

  • Thought suppression: pushing thought away or down

  • Distraction: shifting attention to other things

  • Thought replacement: replacing the thought with a new thought

  • Thought stopping: snapping a rubber band or yelling stop

  • Avoidance: staying clear of anything that might trigger the thought

We are motivated to use these strategies when intrusive thoughts cause us distress, are inconsistent with our ideal selves, feel immoral or unethical, or when we fear they could cause negative consequences (Clark & Purdon, 2009). It makes sense that we would want these thoughts to go away.

But how well have these strategies been working? Do you feel like you are failing? Do you wonder how everyone else is able to control their thinking but you can’t? Do you try so hard, but ultimately end up having the thoughts anyway?

There is good news! You are not a failure! You are just trying to do something that is impossible. No one is able to control their intrusive thoughts. Thought control strategies are actually a big trap. We are lured into thinking if we try hard enough we will be able to make the intrusive thoughts go away, but we can’t. Even worse, thought control actually ends up doing the opposite of what we desire (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987). We think the thoughts more instead of less!

So let’s review. Everyone has intrusive thoughts. But no one can effectively control them. So what do we do? Ultimately, our relationship with our thoughts is what has to change, not the thoughts themselves. We free ourselves from the struggle with our thoughts when we can make room for intrusive thoughts and move away from control strategies.

If you are ready to have a new relationship with your thoughts, providers at BASE offer cognitive-behavioral therapy which specifically targets the appraisals and reactions you may be experiencing related to your intrusive thoughts.

For Further Reading

Purdon, C., & Clark, D, A. (2005). Overcoming obsessive thoughts: How to gain control of your OCD. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, Inc.

Hershfield, J. (2018). Overcoming harm OCD: Mindfulness and CBT tools for coping with unwanted violent thoughts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Winston, S., & Seif, M. (2017). Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts: A CBT-based guide to getting over frightening, obsessive, or disturbing thoughts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

References

Clark, D. A., & Purdon, C. (2009). Mental control of unwanted intrusive thoughts: A phenomenological study of nonclinical individuals. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 2(3), 267-281.

Purdon C. & Clark D. (1993). Obsessive intrusive thoughts in nonclinical subjects. Part 1 Content & relation with depressive, anxious & obsessional symptoms.  Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 713-720.

Rachman, S., & de Silva, P. (1978). Abnormal and normal obsessions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 16, 233-248.

Salkovskis, P. M., & Harrison, J. (1984). Abnormal and normal obsessions – A replication. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 23, 571-584.

Sarason, I. G., Pierce, G. R., & Sarason, B. R. (1996). Domains of cognitive interference. In I. G. Sarason, G. R. Pierce, & B.R. Sarason (Eds.), Cognitive interference: Theories, methods and findings (pp. 139-152). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5-13.

Andrea Umbach, Psy.D.