Is It Normal to Have Intrusive, Disturbing Thoughts?

I have disturbing thoughts sometimes—thoughts I don't want to have and that aren't based in reality—and I'm worried about what that means for me. For example, although I would never, ever do this in real life, the thought has flashed through my head of me throwing my dog out of the moving car, stabbing my cat, or punching a friend square in the face for no reason whatsoever. Or swerving off the road intentionally. Or having sex with my sister. Or jumping off a bridge. Or pooping in the neighbors' yard. Seemingly random but disturbing things like that. Not all the time or anything. Rarely, in fact. I know these things sound crazy and awful, and I feel terrible when I think them, but they just pop into my brain sometimes without my permission and I can't help it. Is it normal to think dark thoughts like this? Does it mean something is wrong with me? —In the Dark
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Dear In the Dark,

Thank you very much for reaching out. It takes courage to write and ask questions about experiences you’re not sure are “normal.” You explain that you have disturbing thoughts sometimes, ideas that just pop into your brain and sound crazy and awful, and make you feel terrible for thinking of them. You’re worried these thoughts might be an indication something is wrong, since they appear in your brain without your permission. You sound like you want to understand their meanings.

First off, let me just say we all have strange, uninvited, or upsetting thoughts sometimes that seem to arise from nowhere and then simply pass through our minds. Of course, those ideas and images have to come from somewhere, and I would say they come from the unconscious. The unconscious is where dreams, feelings, emotions, and thoughts reside, in the background of our minds, but sometimes they break free of the unconscious and become suddenly conscious and it feels like they occur to us without warning. The unconscious can feel unusual, but remember it’s a source of creativity. We’re all free to imagine anything.

Often people feel afraid or guilty about their thoughts because thoughts can feel close to actions. But remember: thinking is not the same as doing.

We might see something that reminds us of something else, and a strange thought or feeling may arise. I’ll give you an example. The other day when I was in the elevator and the door opened, I saw a person standing in the lobby of my building and had a funny feeling. It was like I had seen this before, almost as though this had happened already—déjà vu, if you will—but the scene actually reminded me of a dream I had the night before. I had forgotten the dream until then, and remembering it made me feel strange. I was in the realm of my imagination for a moment, a bit out-of-reality while I remembered the dream. I was living briefly both in my imagination and in the real world around me. My unconscious mind and my conscious mind were seemingly in cahoots. It felt odd and scary.

Although you don’t say this directly, I have the suspicion you might not just feel odd but also guilty about what pops into your mind. Often people feel afraid or guilty about their thoughts because thoughts can feel close to actions. But remember: thinking is not the same as doing.

It is interesting to try to figure out how the human mind works. The examples you mention include violent actions—hurting others, hurting yourself. It might be helpful to consult with an expert in how the mind works to see what is bringing these types of thoughts to the foreground at this time. Is something happening in your life, something to do with work or love or friendship that is bothering you, perhaps even without your knowing it? Have these feelings been occurring to you for a long while? Weeks? Months? Longer?

Working with a therapist might help you understand your thoughts better and also feel comforted. You won’t be alone. You seem to feel alone in what you experience, and having someone on your side might alleviate your anxiety and help you get to know yourself better, too.

Thanks again for writing. I wish you luck, happiness, hopefulness, and most of all peace.

Take care,
Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
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  • Clint S

    Clint S

    April 1st, 2016 at 7:35 PM

    I realize that we are in the 21st Century, but does anyone out there still believe in the possibility that these unwanted thoughts are caused by outside entities (demonic).
    This is what the Bible teaches, that we are all under attack all of the time, and need to guard our thoughts and our minds from stuff like this. Demons like to play with a persons mind, and make them feel like they are a bad person. Then, the person often begins to doubt themselves, or turns to medication in order to try and quell the thoughts. Often making them worse. It’s sad that modern psychiatry can’t work more with Christian counselors. Spirituality a huge factor in in this. Voices or thoughts that tell a person to harm themselves or others needs to be investigated fully, and the spiritual world cannot be ruled out. In fact, it is likely he root cause.

  • PeMarie

    PeMarie

    April 2nd, 2016 at 11:44 AM

    I do think things like this too, and you are right, I feel guilty as h*** knowing how awful they sound but they just pop into my head and I can’t control that!
    I don’t think or I hope that I would never act on any of them and I never have, but there are those days when you start thinking so irrationally that it can be a little scary. I am actually glad to read this, knowing that I am not the only one who has thoughts like this at times. And believe me I would have NEVER been brave enough to bring something like this up without someone else doing so first.

  • Jo

    Jo

    April 3rd, 2016 at 10:38 PM

    This sounds like intrusive thoughts from OCD.

  • Celia

    Celia

    April 4th, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    If it were me having thoughts like this I think that I would be pretty scared. I guess you just never know when they could become a break from reality and you would want to start acting on them. I don’t think that you are at that point, but it is good to recognize that this might be something that is a little unusual and that you might want to talk to someone about. It wouldn’t hurt, and if you go and they tell you that this is all completely normal then it will ease your mind and allow you to see that this is something that many people go through from time to time in their lives.

  • lee

    lee

    April 8th, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    I do think that it was very courageous for you to write in, I am not sure that I could have been that open and honest. I do think that it might be a good idea to talk with someone especially if you think that this is interfering with other parts of your life. I would say that it is better to be safe than sorry.

  • Deborah

    Deborah

    April 8th, 2016 at 1:26 PM

    Such intrusive thoughts sound clearly like OCD. Everyone gets some intrusive thoughts, but when they are frequent and very disturbing, that indicates Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and I would recommend NOT exploring them on your own or with a therapist, as that makes them WORSE. I also would NOT see a therapist who would help you to be CALM about them. They are not coming from your unconscious. They are a blip on the radar of your psyche from an overactive part of your brain (caudate nucleus) and they should be directly treated with cognitive behavior therapy including Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). With this treatment from a highly trained therapist in these treatments, you should be much freer from these thoughts within a month or two. On the other hand, you could get psychoanalysis or supportive psychotherapy and get worse and stay in treatment for years without being free to live your life. I have been trained in ERP and rejoice at seeing people get free to live their lives.

  • Deborah

    Deborah

    April 8th, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    This sounds like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and attempts to soothe or analyze will only make you worse. What is needed is cognitive behavior therapy including Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This will give you back your life and make you free. I rejoice in seeing lives set free from these terrible thoughts which terrorize people.

  • Teresa

    Teresa

    April 8th, 2016 at 4:50 PM

    My son has schizophrenia. He had his first break in Feb 2013 however, he was having symptoms for a couple years before his break but didn’t talk about it. He was placed on medication but he wouldn’t stay on it. He was in and out of the hospital a total of 12 times in 2 1/2 years. At one point he started drinking heavily. I love my son very much but I finally had to push for conservatorship. He is now in a board and care and is staying on Meds. I wanted to comment because had he sought treatment when he first started having symptoms I believe his treatment would have had a better outcome. Early treatment is important. That is what the professionals suggest. My son’s symptoms began with obtrusive thoughts. He said he would think about things he didn’t want to. He said they were horrible things and he couldn’t get these thoughts out of his mind. He was in the Air Force and was worried if he told anyone he would be discharged. I know I’m not a professional but I’ve do have a child with schizophrenia and from the moment he was diognosed I learned everything I could about the illness. Don’t hide this and think it will go away. Be proactive and see someone as soon as possible. Perhaps it’s just a stressful time for you and it may not be anything to worry about but, please see a professional. The treatment for psychiatric issues is always moving forward. Many people are having amazing results with Cognative Behavioral Therapy. I think it’s something everyone should learn to use. I was on depression Meds for 22 years and didn’t have luck tapering off of it. I had heard CBD was a very good treatment for depression so I decided to watch a few videos. I’ve been medication free for 2 months. I continue watching because I feel there is more I can learn but it improved my life in so many areas. I’ve lost weight, I more positive and much happier and I’ve learned to be more asertive. My son would most likely benefit from therapy however, he is considered treatment resistant and although doing much better he can’t seem to control the delusions well enough to understand they are actually delusions it all is real to him. Good news is there is treatment and the sooner the better. Also, I’m thankful that my son eventually got the help and is now being treated. He is a very caring man and has a true concern for others he is also very generous. I’m a very lucky mom and I accept him as he is. Please have this check out. You’ll feel much better.

  • Linda S.

    Linda S.

    April 9th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    I have worked with this presentation before—obsessive thoughts related to a Dx of OCD

  • Jim

    Jim

    April 9th, 2016 at 9:06 AM

    I have intrusive thoughts like these, and I have OCD. It was years before I made the connection between the two. This happened when I got the courage to mention the thoughts to my therapist. He got me a book called “Brain Lock”, which covered OCD in general, including these intrusive thoughts. The book and my therapist told me not to worry about them, the fact that they horrified me meant that I’d never carry through with any of them, nor did I want to. He instructed me to observe the thoughts as they came and left, and not to pay any other attention to them. Sort of like you are instructed to do in mindfulness practice. This has helped wonderfully, I don’t have the thoughts nearly as often, and when I do, they just drift away without my paying any attention to them or worrying about it. He helped with my OCD in many other ways as well.

  • Janice

    Janice

    April 9th, 2016 at 6:09 PM

    I hope this site is not run by a rational-emotive clinician, as s/he will likely not agree with my comments. When I was l6 I began having intrusive thoughts (just like the ones described here). They horrified and terrified me. I pushed them away and buried myself in being a good adolescent. At college the thoughts worsened, but when I got my B.A. in English and Psychology I left to live in Boston, Massachusetts. I got a good job, loved the city, and was happy to be away from a very conservative family. I finally consulted a psychiatrist I forget exactly what he said, but it only scared me more and I stopped. Since I was so afraid I might act on these thoughts, I took myself to an Emergency Room and literally begged to be put in an inpatient ward for help. They felt I was okay for outpatient and resisted admitting me.

    This was fifty years ago and I still have an insurance with unlimited mental health coverage. I went, on my own, to a very good hospital (I got a ‘scholarship’ as surely could not afford the fees even with insurance.) I was in therapy twice a week for six months. I then said I thought I was ready to try things on my own. I had been on no medication.

    I left, got another good job (I’m good at interviewing,). I was a thousand times better than I had ever been and had, thank God, self esteem just starting to grow and a belief that with therapeutic help, I could grow. I tried four therapists before I found one I felt good with. I wanted to feel like me/human being and not just a case of anxiety disorder, OCD, or whatever diagnosis DSM said I had to have for reimbursement. (BY the way, many people doubt the validity of DSM now, including me, and many therapists who can work without taking insurance don’t use it as an ultimate guide to diagnosis. It is very, very helpful for our field in breaking apart various problems because many have the same symptoms. For example, schizophrenic patients usually have intrusive thoughts (voices in their head). However, so do most people. They range from terrifying and violent as mine were or simple annoyances people just ignore.

    I asked to take a minor tranquilizer after about two years. (I was seeing a PH.D. psychologist. He readily referred me to a colleague- psychiatrist.) I have taken this med for about 48 years. Most doctors hearing this are shocked. But it was the difference in my being able to move into two graduate degrees and a career as a clinical social worker. I have worked in hospitals, clinics, and in private practice. I have no need nor desire to up my 5 mg times 3 a day dose. Well once a place flying back from London lost an engine, and I took two more. As were other passengers, I was realistically scared. And I once took two or three over a day when my husband was near death.

    There is not space here to put down all I know and think about intrusive thoughts. However, I urge anyone having them to take a deep breath and see if they are worrisome enough for you to see a therapist. If so, make sure you see several. You must feel comfortable with therapist. The first ones I saw automatically assumed I would be coming back and were startled that I said I wanted to see several before making up my mind.

    I chose the one who asked me at end of hour session: “Now, what questions do you have about therapy or me or fees? How do you feel about our talk.” This led me to schedule a second talk and I was in therapy with him for about 10 years. I was not rich, my parents refused to help me. I was seeing a Jewish therapist and they felt he was undoubtedly was just out to make money.

    When I got married, we moved to New York City for my husband’s job. I was by then a highly functioning woman, but there were issues I still needed to work through. I decided to go into a graduate program and did. One for training adults and one for clinical social work with a total of three intensive internships.

    As I gained more knowledge about mental illness, I began to believe I did have some kind of anxiety neurosis that was probably genetic. Although I had a happy marriage and family, was successful in my career, and continued to grow in this career, although all these good things I still have anxiety issues and sometimes an intrusive thought. Although 99% of the time I could work through these on my own, I still felt the need of a professional to discuss my life issues with. I feel this has enriched my life, but I’d be lying to say I didn’t wish I hadn’t had to cope with this.

    If you feel suicidal or homicidal you should go to an emergency room and get calmed down and talk about a plan for you. As long as you know you are not going to act on these thoughts, you probably would be helped by therapy which might be one session or several years. I now work as a therapist and have seen many patients who have one horrifying panic attack, or anxiety attack, or one set of intrusive thoughts. Sometimes we can figure out what caused it and they do not need therapy. Others, I may still be working with.

    Trust your gut. If you are too worried to think, do go to the emergency room and tell me the situation. I promise you they will have heard about it before and studied about it in their schooling. If you are a religious person, do ask God for help and make your spiritual life part of your work to be at peace.

    God bless you. It’s hard for me to really feel how I felt back them. And without help I could have never have figured it out. I was far too guilt ridden and did not trust my ability to analyze myself. If you have trouble finding a therapist you feel comfortable with, I suggest going to a local PH.D or MD program for a referral. You can look up the background of therapist on line. Again, trust your reaction. If still not sure have a session where you take a close relative or friend. Take care of yourself. Your thoughts are probably telling you to pay attention to some event in your life. Best wishes, Janice

  • Kim Boivin

    Kim Boivin

    April 11th, 2016 at 4:01 PM

    It seems very clear to me that the description fits OCD. I agree that to be human is to have some unwanted, intrusive thoughts (and experts on treating OCD agree with that). And, what is being described here sounds like more than that. It sounds like OCD so, it’s important that it’s recognized as such and that the person gets help from a professional who knows about OCD and effective treatment for it. Sadly, there are professionals who don’t and can therefore make things worse. I hope this courageous person gets some help from an expert in OCD. If they do, things will get better.

  • Matthew

    Matthew

    April 22nd, 2017 at 8:06 PM

    I have had the same kind of thoughts and it has led me too a deep identity crisis and crippling depression. It started in college but has gotten progressively worse. I constantly felt like crying all day today because of them. Thanks for all the info. I feel so alone in this.

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