What are intrusive thoughts? I’m sure most of you have heard of the term, especially since TikTok is making it popular. Mental health experts define them as “unwanted and repetitive thoughts, images or urges” says Jessica Beadel, a clinical psychologist. They can be violent, sexual, or blasphemous. It’s usually anything that a person finds repugnant or incongruent with their values and beliefs. Sometimes intrusive thoughts can tell us to hurt ourselves. Thus you can see why I was alarmed about the TikTok trend. I want to point out that many people have these thoughts. It is really common. As a therapist what we focus on is whether a person understands that it is just a thought and will not act on it.
The TikTok trend of acting on intrusive thoughts is inconsistent with what intrusive thoughts really are. Many TikTok videos make it seem like people have no choice but to act on the intrusive thought - they are being commanded to do it. However, in reality, our intrusive thoughts alone can’t compel us to engage in behaviors that we don’t want to do. An intrusive thought is simply a thought. We can choose to follow through or not. On TikTok people who are acting on their “intrusive thoughts” are eating confetti that is sprinkling down or hitting the SOS button on their On Star button in their car when there isn’t a real emergency. These are NOT intrusive thoughts. Sure, you probably shouldn’t be doing them but they are not intrusive thoughts as they are not repugnant thoughts. It’s just things we really should be doing. I’m sure the On Star operator would agree with me.
Intrusive thoughts are when you standing on a balcony and think maybe I should jump, should I have sex with a close relative, doing something embarrassing, or driving a car and thinking what it would be like if I drove off the road? These are thoughts that are not good for us. I’m sure we have all had these thoughts. The key factor is that we don’t act on them.
Where do these thoughts come from? Research suggests that intrusive thoughts are due to lack of sleep, stress, and anxiety. Internal Family Systems (IFS parts) therapy suggests that this is a protector part that has taken on an extreme role to get us through an overwhelming situation. This protector part worries that we can’t handle the situation so we must do something severe to make it end. However, if we get some sleep, eat food, or take a moment to engage in a distressing activity (yoga, breathing, meditation) the thoughts will dissipate. You can also remind yourself that you are resilient and will make it through the difficult situation.
What is the best treatment for intrusive thoughts? Research suggests Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective model of treatment. CBT Exposure and Response Prevention technique involve confronting these thoughts and allowing them to occur without feeling the need to perform a compulsive behavior. This allows us to be able to say that a thought is just a thought there is no need to act not them. This objectivity allows the person to understand that their disturbing thoughts are actually safe and manageable. The person has control over the thought, not vis versa.
We just need to normalize these thoughts - this is the part that TikTok is right. Many people have these confusing thoughts from time to time. It’s about choosing to not act on them. These thoughts do not define a person, they are just thoughts. If you are struggling with these thoughts and feel that they are unmanageable please reach out to a therapist. As always, I’m here for you.