Sometimes when I’m driving over Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch to the West Coast, over the winding mountain roads, I find myself thinking, “What would happen if I froze up, didn’t make a turn and careened off the side of a cliff?” Likewise, parents of small children sometimes find themselves thinking things like, “What if I forgot about my child and left them in the car?”
Anxiety-driven thoughts like those are surprisingly common, and not just among people who have mental health problems. “Everybody gets them,” says Victoria University’s Dr Kirsty Fraser, an expert in this topic. “In my research, I’ve found the rate of people who report having intrusive thoughts is 100 percent.” So it seems it’s very normal to have fleeting thoughts about doing something out of character that would cause harm to yourself or others, or catastrophes, such as your house catching on fire and burning you alive.
Anixety can be caused by lots of things. The important thing to remember is that it's not your fault and you can do something about it. - headspace.org.nz
Can these types of thoughts become a problem? For most people they don’t. They’re just occasional, fleeting brain blips. However, for a small percentage of people they can become the basis of problems such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
So why does this happen for some people and not others? For most people, intrusive thoughts make them feel unsettled but logically they know they wouldn’t actually do whatever “crazy” thing they’re thinking. One of the factors that can cause intrusive thoughts to turn into larger issues is what’s called Thought-Action Fusion, or Magical Thinking. This is when someone believes that having a thought about doing something terrible is the same as doing it. The person thinks, “If the thought is popping up, then I must be going to act on it. I’m a terrible, dangerous person just for having the thought.”
When people see themselves as dangerous, they attempt preventative action. For example, someone who is worried about harming their infant might avoid being alone with their child. Someone who fears losing control of their car might stop driving. When people start to avoid things, it usually creates a lot of stress and tension in their life and relationships. It can also make their fears worse. Usually the person starts to believe that it’s only their preventative actions that are keeping themselves and others safe, which reinforces their sense of danger.
How can you stay calm when your mind is coming up with scary thoughts? Try recognising that these thoughts are common and normal. Think about how many times you’ve had strange thoughts but not acted on them. Anxious and paranoid thoughts can pop up for all sorts of random reasons, often when you’re feeling stressed about another issue. Don’t avoid situations due to intrusive thoughts. The more you avoid things, the worse your intrusive thoughts will become. Over-the-top preventative measures will make your anxiety worse rather than better. For example, if you’re worried about your home catching on fire, don’t buy a fire extinguisher for every room of the house when one or two would do.
Although for most people intrusive thoughts don’t become an issue, if this has happened for you or anyone you know, rest assured that there are effective treatments. Look for cognitive behavioural therapy that includes the treatment method Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). ERP involves intentionally exposing yourself to your intrusive thoughts, without doing the things you’d usually do to try to get rid of the thoughts. There are several different kinds of ERP and ways of practising the treatment that will desensitise you to your unwanted thoughts.
When you’re not so alarmed by your scary thoughts, you can get on with your life.
Dr Alice Boyes is a psychology writer and author of the upcoming book The Anxiety Toolkit, to be published by Perigee, a division of Penguin Random House