The intrusive thoughts are unconscious thoughts that disrupt normal attention or activity and obsessions can become difficult to remove.
These unintended ideas or visions are often aggravated by mental disorders such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
David A. Clark in his book Intrusive thoughts in Clinical Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment conclude that if human beings experience more than 4000 thoughts a day (Klinger, 1978, 1996) one can expect that many of them are involuntary.
In fact, it is scientifically proven that people who do not suffer from any kind of mental disorder may also experience some intrusive thoughts throughout their life. A review of several studies published in 2007 in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, recognizes this possibility.
However, these recurring ideas begin to take on clinical importance when they become obsessions that paralyze the normal life of the individual and cannot be controlled. In these cases, these thoughts may be symptoms of major mental disorders that need medical treatment.
Intrusive Thoughts and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Intrusive thoughts may have an internal origin or may be triggered by an external stimulus, such as the vision of an object or past experience.
The origin of these reasoning’s and their content depends on the mental disorder to which they are associated.
The most common syndrome to which intrusive ideas are associated is obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This disease consists of a series of obsessions and compulsions that recur in the mind of the individual and prevent him from carrying out, as normal, activities as simple as going to work or spending some free time with friends or family.
According to the International Obsessive, Compulsive Disorder Foundation (IOCDF) obsessions with this disorder are “involuntary, intrusive thoughts, images or impulses that trigger feelings of anguish.” On the other hand, it defines compulsions as the behaviors that the patient performs to reduce that anguish.
These obsessions usually have unpleasant content, which is the one that generates that anguish in the one who suffers them.
Next, you’ll see a ranking with the most recurring themes of intrusive thoughts experienced by people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Types of intrusive obsessions
According to a 1992 study published in the journal Behavior Research Therapy, there are two types of intrusive thoughts; Negative and positive.
The authors of this research, Reynolds, and Salkovskis showed that depending on whether the thought was negative or positive, could influence the influence that these reasoning’s expert on the individual’s mood.
This experiment concluded that negative involuntary ideas can deteriorate mood. They are those that occur when you suffer from some mental disorder.
Negative thoughts are those that people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder suffer. Within these ideas with negative content, you can distinguish several common themes.
Richard P. Swinson and others, in their book Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Theory, Research, and Treatment, establish three main themes that often contain intrusive thoughts. To elaborate on this classification, the researchers drew on real experiences from individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, collected in scientific studies. According to this typology, intrusive ideas can be blasphemous, aggressive or sexually oriented.
According to a research of Rachman and others published in 2007 by the American Psychological Association, the problem is that patients relate the topics, considered taboo by society, thoughts that are going crazy or dangerous. They interpret that they can hurt someone and therefore, try to escape the situation that causes them.
Next, I’ll explain in more detail what each category of obsessions consists of with some real examples.
Blasphemous intrusive thoughts
The role of religious beliefs is already important in the development of the obsessive compulsive disorder. There are several scientific studies that analyze the influence of a concrete faith in the course of this disease.
These beliefs can become obsessions in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
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A 2001 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research investigates the relationship between religion and intrusive thoughts. This experiment analyzed 45 patients with this mental disorder, of whom 42% experienced or experienced religion-related obsessions.
According to actual testimonies of patients with this syndrome, these mental images are often recurrent during prayer.
Some examples of blasphemous intrusive thoughts are:
- Obscene images of sacred figures such as the Virgin Mary (Swinson et al., 2001)
- Believe, in an irrational and continuous way you are possessed.
- Fear of not acting properly or correctly, according to what religious doctrines say.
Aggressive intrusive thoughts
Obsessions can also have aggressive content. Recurrent mental images in which the patient hurts his loved ones or himself, as well as anyone who sees in a situation of vulnerability on the street. For example, a child or an elderly person.
Some real cases are as follows:
- Feel the urge to attack violently and kill a dog
- Having the mental image of throwing yourself or throwing someone on the subway tracks
- Feeling the urge to harm a child or someone that the individual with the disorder considers being weaker than him.
- Sexual intrusive thoughts
- Sexual obsessions are also a common symptom of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
However, an experiment 2015 of Wetterneck and others shows that, despite being related to the unacceptable thoughts described above, there are many differences.
Real examples of intrusive sexual thoughts:
- The recurrent mental image of non-natural sexual acts. For example, bestiality or incest.
- Fear of experiencing a deviation from sexual behavior accepted by society or committing a sex offense such as rape.
- Experiencing obscene or sexually explicit images with strangers
In addition to these three major categories, classified within the group of autogenous thoughts. There may be other intrusive ideas with contamination, error, accident or disorder contents that are pigeonholed into the group of reactive thoughts, as they are often accompanied by compulsive behavior followed by the mental idea (Belloch, A. et al., 2006).
It is necessary to emphasize that the visions that give with this syndrome, also can occur in people who do not suffer any disorder. Only in the case of those who do, they occur more frequently and become an obsession of the patient.
In any case, those who experience these intrusive thoughts do not intend to bring these ideas into action. Moreover, the people who suffer them try to avoid controversial situations in which such mental images can emerge. For example, they try to flee crowded places or to care for vulnerable people.
Other mental disorders associated with involuntary ideas
These obsessions can also be experienced during the course of other mental illnesses or after traumatic experiences.
For example, people with depression may have ideas related to suicide on a recurring basis. Although in this case, they are more dangerous, since the patient can carry it out in reality.
Anxiety sufferers may experience an excessive obsession with their own death and the fear that they may come at any time.
People who suffer from PTSD also have involuntary mental images. In this case, they are usually related to traumas or past experiences.
Women with postpartum depression may also feel the urge to want to hurt their little ones.
Finally, in one research that is published in the year 2016 in the journal Psychooncology, shows that negative intrusive thoughts may appear in people who have just learned that they have been diagnosed with cancer.
Specifically, this research focuses on prostate cancer, but it is not surprising that such unintended ideas appear with other traumatic news.
Treatment of Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are treated similarly to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It consists of a combination of drug reuptake inhibitors (antidepressants and anxiolytics) and psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy should not inhibit intrusive thoughts. There are studies that have shown that suppressing thoughts is counterproductive.
In this sense, a group of researchers from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Maastricht carried out an analysis with people suffering from thoughts of concern.
It was shown that the suppression of these had short-term effects, but worsened symptoms over a longer period of time. Focuses on the cognitive behavior of the patient. The most common and effective method according to the International Foundation for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is Exposure and Response Prevention.
Through this technique, the therapist exposes the patient to the thoughts, images or situations that obsess and torment him so that he learns to control them without behaving compulsively.
Addressing these involuntary ideas that cause anxiety in those who suffer from them is necessary in order to treat them effectively.