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  • Writer's pictureStacy G. Smith, MS, LPC

Intrusive Thoughts: What Do They Mean?

Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts. Nearly everyone has them - the ones that come out of nowhere, elicit distress, and feel hard to control. Ever look down from a balcony and imagine yourself falling? How about being pushed off a subway platform? or dropping your newborn baby?

Certainly these are chilling thoughts, but what causes some individuals to become preoccupied with them, while others are able to let them go, just as quickly as they enter? This is a common question of most clients, especially those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Let's break this down and think about the function of our mind. It's job is to think. It has countless thoughts running through it all day long - some happy, some sad, some funny, some nerve-wracking, and some mathematical, such as when calculating how much tip to leave the waitress. We usually don't flinch at the happy and positive thoughts. It's the sad, frightening, and angering ones we don't like, and want to change. Unfortunately, we don't have a switch that can shut off our mind at will. We can't tell our minds not to think something.

I have found that many clients often strive for complete mental control - wanting to find the successful treatment or coping skill to rid themselves of unwanted thoughts and images. The more they try, the more they experience perceived failure, and the worse their anxiety and inner uncomfortable feeling becomes. They begin to believe something must be wrong with them, or that these intrusive thoughts must be a sign, a message... a warning!

Here's an at-home experiment to test this phenomenon of mental control:

Set a timer for one minute and try not to think about an elephant. Don't think about it's grey color, the elephant's long trunk, big feet, floppy ears. You are free to think about anything else you choose, but remember, no elephant. Ready....go!

What did you notice?

Would I be correct in that no matter how hard you tried, some aspect of that big, grey, floppy-eared elephant came through? The same applies with thoughts we don't want to have. We can't simply tell ourselves not to think about them. What we can do is learn to give those thoughts less power, less meaning, and less control over our present moment.

So...How do we do that? Here are a few points to consider:

1.) Recognize that not all of our thoughts are a reflection of our true self.

Just because you have the intrusive thought of jumping in front of a train, does not mean you secretly, deep down, want to jump and end your life. Just because you have an intrusive thought or image of dropping your baby, does not mean you are an awful parent who wants to do harm. All that thought means is that, was just a thought!

2.) Understand that just because we think something, does not mean it is automatically true.

I have several clients who, when driving, hit a bump in the road, and feel compelled to drive around the block to make sure they did not accidentally hit a pedestrian. They often say that the thought they might have hit someone was so strong, that it must be an important thought - that it must be true. However, all that thought means is that, well... it was just a thought!

The same way we feel convinced a social outing is going to be boring, awkward, and long, when it actually turns out fun! The same way we feel convinced we're going to get in trouble by our boss, when we actually get praised for how we handled the situation. Remember, just because we think something, does not mean it is true.

3.) A vivid intrusive thought/image is not a premonition, or a warning.

Here's an exercise: Take a moment and have a nice, long daydream about winning the lotto. Think about all the millions of dollars that could be yours, and the new house you would buy. Think about every detail of that experience. Now, let me ask: Can thinking about that experience alone make it come true? Even if we are able to visualize every detail, as if it were real?

The same applies for frightening, intrusive thoughts. Just because we can visualize and feel every emotion of a negative, unwanted situation, it does not mean it is any more likely to happen than if we didn't visualize it. All it means is that our minds are thinking, imagining, and working.

So to answer the question: "What do intrusive thoughts mean?"

They mean absolutely nothing.


DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website. Furthermore, commenting on posts does not mean a treatment relationship has been established with Stacy Smith.

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