Am I Normal?

The fine line between health and disorder.

Intrusive Thoughts: Normal or Not?

Am I a terrible person for thinking that?

Anger, fantasies, fear, despair, and obsessions -- what is normal and what is not? Is your husband drinking too much? When does sadness become depression? What do those thoughts about your best friend's wife really mean?

By writing this blog we hope to open the door on private worries, and provide informed answers to commonplace questions about what is normal, what is wacky, and what is pathological. Our purpose is to provide an antidote to shame and worry by providing accurate information. If you have a question or something you have been wondering about-write to us. We want to hear from you and would be delighted to post on the topics you most want to hear about.

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I'll begin with a topic near and dear to my heart: intrusive thoughts. I am a new mother. I adore my son. He is beautiful and sweet and playful. And, when he was younger, I couldn't stand at the top of my stairs without imagining myself dropping him down the stairs and seeing his tiny, helpless body writhing in pain. Scary image? Yes! Normal? Yes!

These are called intrusive thoughts. They happen to everyone and they can take many forms. Perhaps you've suddenly had the image of pushing someone off a train platform, kicking a dog, yelling in church, jumping out of a moving car, or stabbing someone you love. While doing or wanting to do any of these things is not normal, having intrusive thoughts like these is normal. Sometimes thoughts like these come to us precisely because we do not want to act in this way; they are simply the most inappropriate thing your mind can imagine.

It turns out that trying not to have such thoughts by pushing them out of your mind, can actually make them stick around. This effect was nicely shown by researchers at Harvard University. In their study, they asked people to NOT think of a white bear. Participants were allowed to think about anything they wanted, except a white bear. The problem with taking on this challenge is that our mind wants to constantly check to see how we're doing. We check to see if we are succeeding at NOT thinking of that white bear, and then, oh no, there's the bear.

The very act of monitoring your thoughts for the absence of a thought can make it occur more frequently. When someone becomes very distressed by their intrusive thoughts, goes to great lengths to get rid of them, and prevent them from occurring, this can become a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). People with this "bad thoughts" form of OCD often avoid things that could trigger these thoughts or being in situations where they might be at risk for acting on a thought. So, for example, someone might avoid taking the train, avoid using knives, or avoid holding a baby. In situations in which they can't avoid, they may turn to rituals, such as repetitive counting, or compulsive prayer to prevent anything bad from happening. If this sounds familiar to you, you might have OCD. To find out more, check out www.ocfoundation.org.

If you think you experience the more garden-variety form of intrusive thoughts-rest assured. They're normal. Next time they occur try to remember that there is a difference between a thought and an action, and don't waste your time trying to push the thought out of your mind. Just let it pop in and roll right out again. And don't hesitate to share the thought with a friend. They can be pretty entertaining (my husband tells me his all the time) and by sharing our experiences we take one more step toward figuring out what's normal.

Copyright: Hannah E. Reese

 

Hannah Reese, Ph.D., is a Clinical and Research Fellow in Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

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