The Psychology behind Intrusive thoughts

Michaella McCollum
15th August 2016
The Turmoil of being a Teenager
28th September 2016

The Psychology behind Intrusive thoughts

What are intrusive thoughts?

We know from psychological research findings that we all men and women at some time or other have intrusive and disturbing thoughts.They are associated with anxiety and anxiety disorders but more of that later. Clients often ask me are these normal as they are disturbing? Am I going mad or insane? At the outset they seem pathological wacky but nevertheless worrying.Physical anxiety symptoms like these drive people to seek help form psychologists psychiatrists because of the potential frightening nature of the thoughts. Some of my GP referrals.. young women tell me about intrusive thoughts of being harmed by their boyfriend, or being in a car crash, or drowning on holiday in the Carribbean or wherever.

Are they triggered off by anything? It is the intrusive thoughts of anxiety that acts as a trigger for an anxiety disorder if they are frequent and debilitating. Each disorder has its own type of intrusive thoughts and they can in fact destroy you emotional stability and emotional intelligence. Intrusive thoughts consistently enter your mind against your will. You did not consciously invite them but they come virtually automatically and can be real memories of very real past events that were traumatic for you. They are called intrusive because you feel that you cannot erase them form your daily mental functioning.They can pop in when you are with fiends enjoying a nice meal in a restaurant, or whilst in the leisure centre working out. The underlying factor is they cause you psychological distress that is uncontrollable.

Why do some people have them? We do know that both genders experience them , but research studies inform us that those high on emotional resilience can cope with them more adequately and erase them within minutes while other personality types who are orientated towards pessimism have more difficulty trying to control them and eradicate them altogether. Optimists tend to have that emotional resilience so can weather the storm of intrusive thoughts. However, it’s the intensity of the content of the past event that is the real issue. A young woman in my psychological clinic told me of her uninvited sexual encounter with her boyfriend that was aggressive unwanted and hurtful physically and emotionally. She explained it to me as a virtual rape followed by acts of aggression by her boyfriend, She was ina love hate relationship, but the intrusive thought was linked to a previous real event. In some women and also men, I find the intrusive thoughts were scary to the extreme but not associated to previous real time events.

There is a fine line between having an overactive imagination and intrusive thoughts. Men and women with specific personality types may have a tendency towards overactive imagination which we know is socially learned from parents or grandparents but they are not usually associated with historical or real traumatic events .   Intrusive events fall into several categories. There are the unwanted memories though not considered intrusive thoughts in a medical or clinical sense,. I see many people who have had PTSD associated with perhaps a sporting event such as a horseriding accident, or a young female soldier traumatized form serving in Afghanistan, or a young high achieving woman who has just lost her career and so on.   Other types of intrusive thoughts are of violent thoughts . Thoughts of violence and aggression may also be seen as common in those with anxiety especially obsessive compulsive disorder. These clients of mine often have some sort of daily rituals which influence their lives negatively such as an OCD with buying shoes, or expensive lingerie, or very expensive winter coats on the credit card. Some GP referrals I see have intrusive thoughts associated with exposure to social media especially meeting male s online and on cyberdating sites which have led to violent or aggressive experiences.These become extremely intrusive and can affect the woman’s self esteem self confidence and future relationships.   The other category are sexual thoughts and like violent thoughts unwanted sexual thoughts are associated with profound acts of aggression or scenarios where the woman might feel guilty as having been the trigger for the sexual encounter and its horrific consequences. Those men and women with phobias may randomly experience a flash of the object that is upsetting such as spider phobia when you are just arrived at your luxury apartment in Greece. Enough to cause low mood or anxiety for all of your holidays.

Those with panic attacks have very different types of intrusive thinking patterns. Their thoughts are usually about the panic attack or their health, such as overworking at the gym, or being terrified by what seems like bullying from my male boss. Some constantly think about their panic attacks so are in a constant state of hypervigilance which reinforces the anxiety and produces a series of intrusive thoughts of fainting or dying.

Those with intrusive thoughts can overcome them with professional help from Clinical Psychologists, Health Psychologists or CBT Cognitive behaviour Therapists.Do ensure that they are Chartered which gives you the public a cast iron guarantee that you are seen and treated by an appropriately qualified health professional. CBT helps you to challenge your negative thinking pattens and break the cycle of negative automatic thoughts and find relief for the long term. A trendy intervention currently is Mindfulness. This innovative approach helps you to come off your daily thought rituals which include intrusive thoughts, and focus on self awareness Its pretty effective for those who can sustain the weekly exercise and associated reading.CBT wil help you to control your intrusive thoughts and improve your tenacity to build up emotional resilience and increase your ability to remain calm enjoying peace and happiness.

Arthur Cassidy, Ph.D C.Psychol, AFBPsS