Thinking the unthinkable

Do you have disturbing thoughts that simply won’t go away?  Thoughts that upset you, yet you keep obsessing on them?  Such unwanted intrusive thoughts can be very distressing, particularly as they keep popping into the mind and seem to get stronger and stronger.

You may feel guilty and think that you are a terrible person, or perhaps fear that you may act upon them. Many people have such thoughts and are often persecuted, tormented, fearing their thoughts will never go away or that the only answer is prison, mental hospital or worse still…  People try to push them away or “neutralise” them, spending a lot of time trying to put them right, perhaps inserting another thought or carrying out some kind of ritual, such as counting to three, touching wood or repeating certain words or phrases in a vain attempt to banish them.

Often these thoughts are the worst possible kind imaginable.  For example, the mother with a young baby may have thoughts of harming her child, perhaps even seeing herself doing it.  Someone with high morals may have sordid thoughts, completely out of character.  Very often, the kind of thoughts experienced will be the exact opposite of the thought they would wish to have.  This is part of the problem.

Obsessive thoughts or fear of indulging in impulsive acts are very common.  Research has shown that as many as 90% of “normal” people will at some time have obsessional thoughts. The thoughts may be accompanied by strong urges. Common ones include shouting obscenities in a quiet place such as a church, library or the workplace during a meeting. Perhaps you have thoughts of jumping off a railway platform in front of a train or  pushing somebody onto the line, maybe you fear you will drive into oncoming traffic. Perhaps you worry that you may shake or strangle your baby, whatever your thoughts, they can be really upsetting.

The problem is that such thoughts keep returning because every time you think about them, however fleetingly, you give them negative importance in your mind.  In other words, you give them power by focusing on them, by not wanting them – it’s as simple as that.  Allow them to be there and they will go away.  One of the biggest problems with obsessional thoughts is that they seem so real.

Obsessive thoughts appear:

  • Unstoppable  – they just pop into your mind without any effort
  • Unhelpful – they lower your mood and make you unhappy
  • Unbelievable – you know they are not true, yet you keep repeating them
  • Implausible – you accept them as facts, although they are ridiculous

Such thoughts become habits, and habits can be broken.  Overcoming the problem can be achieved by following ten simple steps outlined below:

Try to accept your thoughts; they are just thoughts, however odd or out of character.   Don’t try to change your thoughts, just the way you respond to them.

Remember, a thought is just a thoughtit doesn’t mean anything – learn to relax with your thoughts.

Be compassionate to yourself; you are normal; everyone has odd, weird or unpalatable thoughts sometimes.  Having such thoughts does not mean you are a bad person.

Do not give your thoughts any importance.  They are not worth the energy invested in them.

Do not try to push thoughts out of your mind.  This is known as “thought suppression .  It will only make them return ten times stronger.

Do not try to “neutralise” it with another thought or ritual, as this will keep you locked into the cycle, strengthening the thoughts by giving them some negative importance.

Just allow your thoughts to be there as you engage in everyday activities.  They will fade if you turn your attention to other things.

Remember, the more frightened you are, the more they will come to mind – fear feeds thoughts.

Stop asking for reassurance – reassurance will only last briefly and you will never gain confidence in believing that your obsessional thoughts will just fade away and that you will not act on them.

Remember  – if you don’t want to have them, you will.  Let the thoughts do whatever they want; they can’t harm you – they are just thoughts.

For more detailed information you may wish to contact a health professional.

Feel free to email me at:, or look for a therapist near you at

Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist

Image reference

6 thoughts on “Thinking the unthinkable

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