What are unwanted thoughts?
Unwanted thoughts are intrusive, distressing thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere and cause significant anxiety. They are extremely common and most people experience them at some point. Examples of common unwanted thoughts include:
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of harming yourself or others
- Sexual thoughts that feel unacceptable
- Blasphemous or sacrilegious thoughts
- Thoughts that contradict your values
It’s important to understand that unwanted thoughts are just thoughts – they don’t necessarily reflect your character or true desires. But they can feel very disturbing.
Why do we get unwanted thoughts?
There are several theories as to why unwanted thoughts occur:
Overactive threat detection system
Our brains have evolved an efficient threat detection system to keep us safe. But sometimes this system gets oversensitive and detects “threats” that aren’t really dangerous. This causes anxiety and intrusive thoughts.
Some research shows that unwanted thoughts are just thoughts that get “stuck.” For some reason they grab our attention and then the more we try to suppress them, the stickier they become.
We all experience random “mind pops” – thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. These are usually just a byproduct of how our minds work. But if the thought really distresses you, it can turn into an unwanted thought.
Our brains are complex organic systems that can have minor glitches or hiccups. Some experts believe unwanted thoughts are just harmless brain glitches.
High levels of stress and anxiety seem to make people more prone to unwanted thoughts. Unresolved anxiety may find an outlet in the form of unwanted thoughts.
Are unwanted thoughts normal?
Yes, having an unwanted, intrusive thought from time to time is completely normal. In fact, studies show that around 94% of people experience them. Unwanted thoughts become a problem when they:
- Are very frequent (occurring many times a day)
- Are very distressing
- Lead to time-consuming compulsions or avoidance behaviors
- Severely interfere with daily life
If your unwanted thoughts have any of these features, it’s a good idea to see a mental health professional.
What disorders are linked to unwanted thoughts?
Two disorders are strongly associated with unwanted, intrusive thoughts:
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
For people with OCD, unwanted thoughts trigger highly distressing anxiety. To find relief from this anxiety, they engage in compulsive behaviors (rituals like counting or hand washing). Without treatment, this cycle of obsessions and compulsions can take over a person’s life.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
People with PTSD experience intrusive and disturbing thoughts related to their trauma. These flashbacks are one of the main symptoms of PTSD.
However, unwanted thoughts are not exclusive to OCD and PTSD. Many anxiety disorders can involve distressing, repetitive thoughts.
What should I do if I’m bothered by unwanted thoughts?
If you’re struggling with unwanted thoughts, these strategies may help:
Sit with the thought for a few minutes before trying to answer, push it away, or neutralize it. Tolerating the discomfort can help decrease the power of the thoughts.
Focus on your present moment sensory experience – what you see, hear, feel, etc. This can help anchor you instead of getting swept up in your thoughts.
Question the thoughts
Ask yourself: is this thought actually dangerous or threatening in any way? What evidence do I have?
Shift your attention onto a neutral external activity like cleaning, reading or exercising.
Verbally challenge the irrational or unhelpful thought.
Visualize letting go
Imagine yourself gently releasing the thought and watching it float away.
Observe your thoughts from a calm, non-judgemental space. Avoid engaging or arguing with them.
Seek therapy for severe symptoms
Consult a therapist if unwanted thoughts are severely disrupting your life. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is very effective.
The bottom line
Having an occasional bizarre, upsetting or frightening thought does NOT mean you are crazy, dangerous or out of control. While unpleasant, unwanted thoughts are just harmless products of our brains. With time, self-help strategies, and sometimes therapy, you can learn to manage them.
FAQs about Unwanted Thoughts
Are intrusive thoughts a mental illness?
No, occasional unwanted thoughts by themselves do not constitute a mental illness. They are only considered part of a disorder if they are very frequent, disturbing, and interfere with normal functioning.
What causes violent intrusive thoughts?
Violent unwanted thoughts often represent exaggerated fears rather than actual desires to harm. Contributing factors can include OCD, trauma, scrupulosity, anxiety, depression or stress.
Can intrusive thoughts be prevented?
They cannot be completely prevented as they are a common brain phenomenon. But reducing stress and practicing relaxation techniques can make them less frequent.
Why do I get blasphemous thoughts if I’m religious?
Even devoutly religious people get inappropriate thoughts about god, rituals or blasphemy. They represent fears rather than actual desires to blaspheme. Trying to suppress them often makes them worse.
Are intrusive thoughts a sign of repressed anger?
Not necessarily. While anger issues may contribute in some cases, intrusive thoughts are complex and often represent exaggerated anxiety rather than repressed emotions.
Should I confess inappropriate thoughts to others?
No, you should generally keep thoughts private, as voicing them can reinforce the obsession and cause others to misunderstand. But do seek help from a professional.
Are intrusive thoughts just OCD?
No, OCD involves a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Intrusive thoughts by themselves are not enough for an OCD diagnosis. However, they are a common feature of many anxiety disorders.
Should I just ignore unwanted thoughts?
Trying too hard to suppress them often backfires. But not engaging with the thoughts at all can be part of effective strategies like mindfulness, grounding and distraction.
Do violent thoughts mean I’m a psychopath?
No, psychopaths lack a conscience and empathy. Having an intrusive violent thought doesn’t make you a psychopath. These thoughts are very common and do not reflect who you are.
Will intrusive thoughts go away on their own?
Sometimes they fade over time, especially if you stop reacting strongly to them. But if they are severe and persistent, seeing a professional can help retrain your brain not to get “stuck” on thoughts.