Note: This article mentions ideas involving self-harm and suicide. If you, or someone you know, are considering self-harm or suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255) or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 for 24/7 support.
The other day, I pulled a knife out to cut a yellow onion and imagined what would happen if I stabbed myself in the chest. The fear that generated instantly after the thought engulfed me like a tidal wave. Most of all, the thought disturbed me to the bitter core. Equally as the moment made me feel excruciatingly alive.
I know. That’s a lot to unpack. As I’m typing this, I feel crazy even admitting it. I’m not suicidal. I don’t want to physically hurt myself. The thoughts simply, show up. That’s not the only one. I have many thoughts like this.
Here are a few other intrusive thoughts I have on a fleeting basis:
- What would happen if I straight up dropped the baby I was holding?
- Imagining the repercussions if I slowly turned my car into oncoming traffic.
- Imagining, in excruciating detail, if I got a phone call that a family member was dead.
- What would happen if I shoved the q-tip so far into my ear that it bled?
- What would people think if I just put one…leg…over…this…bridge?
- Would people take notice if I just…slowly…lifted…my shirt…in…this…public bus?
- What if I threw my phone off this hotel balcony?
I never act on these thoughts. They induce a sense of fear and, in my brain, trigger like raging bad impulses. I can typically hush them instantly, following a brief voice in my head that screams, “Are you NUTS? Why would you come up with that?!”
These weird, semi-dark thoughts have always been a part of me, even when I was little, but they materialized even more in my thirties, and I wondered if I had this uncovered dark side I was unaware existed. I was embarrassed to admit the mind mishaps to anyone. But, in pure Brittany fashion, I brought the disturbing thoughts up to a girlfriend after a glass of wine (or three). To my surprise, she looked me dead in the eye and said, “You think about throwing babies, too??”
I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t the only one! Instantly, after years and years of stuffing these intrusive thoughts down a secret chasm of my soul, I had to know more about them. How do these intrusive thoughts start? Why are all of them about hurting myself or others? What do they mean? How can I fix them? Why am I such a goddamn crazy person?!
I had all of these questions, so I reached out to some local therapists and psychologists to gain some more insights that weren’t coming from Google. (PSA: Google is a scary place to search for health answers so I do not recommend it!) Lovely readers of Wit & Delight, virtually meet Jen Labanowski, co-founder and licensed marriage and family therapist at United Counseling and Wellness, Holistic PhD Psychologist Dr. Anna Roth, and Megan Johnson, mental health therapist at Lee Carlson Center for Mental Health & Well-Being. Human to human, I picked their lovely brains for everything I needed to know about my unwanted desires and thoughts.
First things first: I needed to understand where my intrusive thoughts were coming from and what/why they were. I had gone down a long and messy road believing that my brain was turning on me in a very dark way, and I was terrified of the thoughts I created. I didn’t want to feel like these desires were real. Something I learned right away? I wasn’t crazy.
First things first: I needed to understand where my intrusive thoughts were coming from and what/why they were. I had gone down a long and messy road believing that my brain was turning on me in a very dark way, and I was terrified of the thoughts I created. I didn’t want to feel like these desires were real.
Something I learned right away? I wasn’t crazy.
Jen Labanowski describes intrusive thoughts as…very normal actually: “Intrusive thoughts can come from a lot of different things, but having these thoughts does not mean you’re crazy, dangerous, damaged, or atypical,” she told me. “Sometimes, these thoughts stem from a form of anxiety that can relate to past experiences, current stressors, or future-focused worries. Other times, these thoughts are completely meaningless and they can be regarded as random and pointless.”
While that’s a minor relief, one of my main issues regarding my weird desires and thoughts is that they’re often about my family or pets. I imagine them dying suddenly, or harming themselves in front of my eyes. So, why am I choosing my own loved ones to be a core center of these thoughts?
Megan Johnson, a School Linked Mental Health therapist, explains why these intrusive thoughts are festered from deep, personal things we care about: “Intrusive thoughts are ‘uninvited thoughts’ that can secure on to the things that are important to you,” she said. “So, it makes sense that your disruptive thoughts can be about children or family members. You could have several uninvited thoughts, but most will go unnoticed. The ones that go against your core values, the ones that are about things important to you; these will stick out.”
I haven’t really admitted to these unwanted desires before this year, after having lived three decades of my life trying to stifle their fleeting disturbances. After I came to terms with my health and anxiety, and talked to a doctor, I realized my anxiety could be a core driver of my thought-disaster train.
According to the CDC, uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) are symptoms of OCD. However, many anxiety disorders breed intrusive, unwanted thoughts. Labanowski explains, “OCD, GAD, and PTSD are all diagnoses related to anxiety, which means when they show up the brain is over-activating fear. The thoughts and symptoms appear with these diagnoses because the brain is trying to prevent bad things from happening like prior traumatic experiences, obsessive and irrational ‘what-ifs,’ or the worst-case scenarios of a given situation. The intrusive thoughts are related to fear, and they’re the brain’s way of trying to protect the person.”
All three women encouraged me to consider all the thoughts I have in a single day. People have a tremendous amount of them. Some are dreamy, some are intuitive, some are entertaining, and some are complete and disposable bullshit. “Not all thoughts are worthy of our attention,” Labanowski clarified, “So we have the power to choose which thoughts are worth our time and energy.”
All three women encouraged me to consider all the thoughts I have in a single day. People have a tremendous amount of them. Some are dreamy, some are intuitive, some are entertaining, and some are complete and disposable bullshit. “Not all thoughts are worthy of our attention,” Labanowski clarified, “So we have the power to choose which thoughts are worth our time and energy. We’re more likely to regard a thought as ‘intrusive’ or ‘disruptive’ if the content of the thought is negative. However, positive thoughts can also be ‘intrusive’ or ‘disruptive.’ We classify them differently because they don’t typically spur negative emotions such as shame, fear, guilt, or embarrassment. These uncomfortable emotions often cause us to get stuck on these negative, unwanted thoughts, which causes the thoughts to stick around longer or visit more frequently.”
I mull on a lot of things and worry about a lot of things. So it makes sense that I struggle with these intrusive thoughts more than others. Some people have them and they’re like, “Hmm, that was weird.” Some people (hi, me) are more like, “Great, now I’m probably a serial killer! Oh my god!”
Not so fast, sweet Brittany.
“This experience is different from person to person because the ‘uninvited thoughts’ will attack personal core values,” Johnson explains. “For example, a person could have the thought about harming their pet and experience an intense fear response. Another person may have a similar thought about harming animals and it goes fairly unnoticed for them, as they may have experience hunting or working on a farm or have had less emotional relationships with animals.”
Okay, perfect. So I can chill about the serial killer thing. So, when do you need the help?
Oftentimes, intrusive thoughts may intensify when we’re especially stressed. This quickly explained my reasoning for the increased unwelcome thoughts in my mind. For some, intrusive thoughts can be a sign of danger. Labanowski stresses the importance of noticing when the bad thoughts need help, “If a person is continually plagued by thoughts of harming oneself or another,” she noted. “It’s important to evaluate safety and risk. When violent thoughts turn to violent obsessions and the violent obsessions seem to be turning to violent plans, then a mental health professional should be consulted. That being said, the vast majority of people who experience intrusive thoughts (probably most human beings) are not dangerous in any way.”
Johnson stressed that the problem is not in the thought itself, but rather how we choose to respond to the thought. An important difference between an intrusive thought that appears in your head and then leaves, and an intrusive thought that is distressing, is how you respond to it. Your brain, like your physical self, must learn how to practice good habits and eventually wean out the thoughts with great focus.
Johnson stressed that the problem is not in the thought itself, but rather how we choose to respond to the thought. An important difference between an intrusive thought that appears in your head and then leaves, and an intrusive thought that is distressing, is how you respond to it.
In my case, I was intrigued by how my intrusive thoughts related to my empathy pains. I bottle up a lot of empathy. And by a lot, I mean I will literally start crying if I see a sad old man sitting in a bus alone. I’ve also heard a lot of stories about mothers feeling empathetic stabs of guilt when they envision doing something relatively harmful to their baby.
“In the same way that our brains work to protect us, they also work to protect the people for whom we feel love, compassion, and empathy,” Labanowski notes. “It’s very possible that intrusive thoughts (especially thoughts that involve harm to others) stem from our brains’ attempts to boost empathy for others.”
So, why do our brains create these horrific scenes in our heads?
“When our brains ask us to visualize or conceptualize harm to others, our brains also ask us to experience pain on behalf of the other person,” Labanowski says. “This is empathy. When we feel empathy for someone, we are more likely to work to protect them. For example, a mother who has intrusive thoughts about her baby’s stroller rolling into oncoming traffic might be horrified by these thoughts and fear that she’s a bad mom. However, it’s likely that these thoughts are actually a sign that she’s a GREAT mom, whose brain is on overdrive to fiercely protect her child.”
Acknowledging I was having these thoughts, and realizing they were normal and could be worked on, gave me a sense of control I hadn’t felt in a long time. Intrusive thoughts have the ability to spiral downward, creating a senseless internal battle. I’m still working on finding a therapist that specializes in anxiety that can help me define them and treat them. But now that I know how they’re built and why they show up, I almost feel a sense of relief.
Dr. Anna Roth clarified to me that these unwanted desires and thoughts could also be a sign of an internal imbalance. “Oftentimes,” she explained, “those types of thoughts are a signal that things are off balance. Let’s say you haven’t been getting good sleep for a long time, or you’re under chronic stress. Intrusive thoughts are a signal that something needs attention. It can be a tell. And you should be paying attention to that.”
Dr. Anna Roth clarified to me that these unwanted desires and thoughts could also be a sign of an internal imbalance. “Oftentimes,” she explained, “those types of thoughts are a signal that things are off balance. Let’s say you haven’t been getting good sleep for a long time, or you’re under chronic stress. Intrusive thoughts are a signal that something needs attention.”
Most importantly, intrusive thoughts require treatment. “There are all different types of ways anxiety disorders manifest so, if you’re noticing your thoughts are intrusive and getting in the way of your ability to live, I would definitely get help,” Roth encourages.
All three women stressed that it is important to have these thoughts examined by a professional, however, so a person can monitor if the thoughts turn into motivations and actions. Some people can let the thoughts be fleeting and others can muddle on them for too long, and they can be a sign of underlying mental disorders. Everyone needs the help. That should not be shameful.
In the interim, ways to ease their frequency are available to you. I picked up tips from each woman, and provided them below.
Healthy Tips to Hush Intrusive Thoughts:
Find a therapist. Don’t be afraid to get help. Be sure to find a therapist that specializes in anxiety and can help you learn/practice skills to experience thoughts differently. Although these intrusive urges and thoughts are common symptoms of anxiety-related disorders, it can also be a result of an underlying mental health condition. Assess how the thoughts are impacting daily functioning and learn if they’re exacerbated by other deficiencies and stressors.
Read a book and learn as much as you can. Here are some books that will help combat stress and anxiety, or give some transparent insights on the subject.
Eliminate caffeine and have a consistent diet. If you talk to a therapist, they’ll give you insights on how turn self-care into a healthy way of life. Caffeine is a no-go if you have anxiety, and removing it from your diet entirely can help alleviate stress.
Get some vigorous cardiovascular exercise.
Make time for adequate sleep.
Have a proper self-care routine. The key here is to redefine self-care and what it means to take care of ourselves. Find time to be alone. Allow yourself to rest. Read a book for pleasure. Spend time with a friend or family member. Cook yourself a meal. Make your bed. Organize personal items at home. Practice something you enjoy. Enjoy a cup of coffee. Practice gratitude. Volunteer. Learn something new. So many options are out there. We are more likely to commit to a self-care practice when we are inclusive of the things that we enjoy.
Schedule regular acupuncture.
Practice meditation, mindfulness, and acceptance. This is a great way to give some distance between what you are currently thinking and what you are feeling. The therapists I chatted with stressed that the thought is not the problem. Rather, the problem emerges in what you do with the thought; how much you feed the thought or give attention to it. Once you have an unwanted thought or desire, especially one that strikes your core values, it’s best to teach your body how to leave it alone. Paying attention to it, thinking about it, and analyzing it will only result in the thought becoming stronger.
Lastly, these thoughts are nothing to be ashamed of. If they are consistent and causing distress and impairment in functioning and your quality of life, they are reason to seek out support, potential diagnosis, and treatment.
*If you’re still interested in learning more about intrusive thoughts and unwanted desires, check out the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and The World Health Organization for helpful information and statistics.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.