Unwanted thoughts are an extremely common symptom of anxiety disorders. Anxiety is the type of mental health disorder that specifically causes negative thinking, and the inability to control the thoughts that come into your head. For some people, anxiety itself can be caused by these thoughts.
Unwanted thoughts are especially common with obsessive compulsive disorder, a type of anxiety disorder, but they may affect other anxiety disorders in different ways as well. Below are some examples of obsessive thoughts, how they affect your ability to cope with anxiety, and what you can do to stop them.
Unwanted Thoughts = Anxiety?
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Any Anxiety Disorder Can Cause Unwanted Thoughts
While unwanted thoughts are most common with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, every anxiety disorder can create unwanted thoughts in some way. From recurring fears to "worst case scenario" thinking, unwanted thoughts are extremely common with any type of anxiety. If you haven't yet, take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more about how unwanted thoughts and your anxiety.
The most important thing to realize about unwanted thoughts is that the more you try to fight them, the more common they become. That's what anxiety does - it prevents you from focusing on anything else other than the things that cause you anxiety.
OCD and Unwanted Thoughts
The best example of this is with OCD. Unwanted thoughts from OCD are generally called "obsessions" because of how difficult it is for you to stop having the thoughts once you've started. Some obsessions are harmless. Other obsessive thoughts are violent, fearful, or even sexual in nature. Sometimes it's the same thought each time. Other times it changes based on the situation, but generally has something in common with previous thoughts (for example, a sexual image).
Examples of these types of unwanted thoughts include:
- Thinking about hurting someone.
- Imagining a sexual act, often an aggressive or taboo one.
- Recurring worry about something simple, like locking the door.
- Fear or thoughts about sinning, hell, or other religious imagery.
This is by no means an extensive list. It's also possible that the thoughts are about those you know or strangers.
For these thoughts to be a problem, they need to cause significant shame, anxiety, or distress. Very often the thought itself either represents a fear (like getting dirty), or changes how you see yourself, like imagining violent sexual acts against strangers, friends, or even relatives. There are different degrees of unwanted thoughts, and all of them can be anxiety related.
Once you start thinking the thought, it becomes extremely hard to stop thinking about it. No matter how hard you try to fight the thought away, it will always seem to come back. That's why many people develop compulsions. Compulsions are behaviors that you perform that calm you so that you don't stress over the thought anymore. For example:
- Avoiding cracks so that you don't break your mom's back.
- Walking in a doorway backwards.
- Locking a door three times in a row.
- Tapping or placing objects in some type of order.
Habits may make sense based on the unwanted thought (such as turning the stove on and off multiple times when you're worried about the stove), or they may seem completely random (tapping a lamp post to avoid aggressive or unusual thoughts). Their development is often fairly complicated, and in some places it may occur from nothing more than chance - such as noticing that one day when you turned off a light bulb some thought went away, so you turn off light bulbs when the thought comes back.
Fighting the Thoughts Brings Them Back Harder
There are many important things to realize about these unwanted thoughts. First and foremost, these thoughts mean nothing about who you are. Everyone has the occasional weird thought once in a while. The reason you have them more often is because your anxiety brings them back. Think of anxiety like a disease - it wants you to experience anxiety more, so it brings the thought back into your mind to cause you that anxiety. Anxiety also changes the way your brain works so that it's harder to have positive thoughts, which also pushes these unwanted thoughts back into your mind.
Another important fact about these thoughts is that studies have shown time and time again that the more you try not **to think about something, the more you think about it. It's a phenomenon known as thought suppression. Your brain doesn't want you to forget anything, so when you try to forget something it reminds you about it more than if you didn't care about the thought at all. So every time you try not to have the thought, you actually increase the likelihood of having it again.
Finally, compulsions also make these unwanted thoughts worse. Behaviors that you do to stop the thoughts end up reinforcing them, because it acknowledges that they're something that causes fear. That's why it's so important that you try to break the compulsions in addition to the obsessions.
Techniques to Reduce Unwanted Thoughts
Remember, all anxiety disorders can have unwanted thoughts. Those with social phobia often imagine disasters before and during social events. Those with PTSD often flashback to the event that caused them stress. Those with panic disorder are constantly thinking about their health, etc. All of these are types of unwanted thoughts, and affect those with all types of anxiety.
There are interesting and effective strategies that can reduce the frequency of your unwanted thoughts. They include:
Forcing the Thought
Much of the reason that you have these thoughts is because they cause you to be distressed each and every time they occur. One strategy that experts recommend is purposefully thinking these thoughts until you grow tired of them.
It works on a principle known as habituation - the evolutionary ability to find things less frightening when you've been around them for a long enough time. Pigeons and birds that try to steal food from you when you eat outdoors are perfect examples. Pigeons are born to be afraid of humans, but because humans cause no danger, they get used to them and start to come closer without experiencing as much fear.
By forcing yourself to think those types of thoughts, you're likely to cause yourself distress. But if you continue to think those thoughts for a long enough period of time, the thoughts themselves will become boring and your mind will want to think of other things. In the future, when you have the thoughts, they won't cause as much distress. The thoughts will still occur, but they won't bother you as much, and that should decrease the anxiety they cause and the frequency of them.
Monitoring Your Own Reaction
So much of these unwanted thoughts are the result of the way you respond to them. When you feel shame or get upset at yourself for having them, you give them much more power and they're more likely to affect your happiness and your mind.
You have to be careful, and try your best not to react this way. Force yourself as best you can to be "okay" with the fact that these thoughts occur. Remember, they're just anxiety and they don't mean anything. Once you cure your anxiety disorder the thoughts will go away. Until then, they're just an inconvenience and nothing you should concern yourself with, no matter how fearful the thoughts are.
Write the Thoughts Out
Often times this is easier said than done. Another option you can try is writing the thoughts out rather than trying to force them away. Writing out these thoughts tells your brain that it doesn't need to obsess over them anymore. It tells your mind that you can calm down, because the thought is in a permanent place. This is especially useful if you have these thoughts before sleep.
Fighting the Compulsion
You also need to learn to control the compulsion, not just the obsession. Every time you perform a compulsion or behavior as a reaction to these thoughts, you train yourself to find the thought fearful and the compulsion less fearful.
Learn to fight the compulsion as best you can. If possible, use reminders as well. For example, if one of your recurring unwanted fears is that you leave the stove on, then take a picture of the stove in the off position when you leave your home and use it to remind yourself that everything is okay.
You should also fight any compulsion that you use to reduce greater fears. If you touch a lamp (for example) to reduce unwanted sexual thoughts out of a fear that you'll perform the act if you don't touch the lamp, then have a friend help you avoid touching the lamp and watch as nothing happens.
Compulsions may take the stresses away, but they're bad habits that also reinforce the fear in the first place. Avoiding compulsions can be difficult on your own, so don't be afraid to contact a therapist to help you with these steps and others. Therapy is not a four letter word - it's a great choice for those that decide they need additional help.
Anxiety Over Obsessive Thoughts
Whether it's obsessive thoughts that cause anxiety or anxiety that causes unwanted thoughts, the reality is that unusual or otherwise "crazy" thoughts are actually a very normal part of everyone's life. Many people have strange thoughts or fears that they want to avoid, and many people have wondered things that are inappropriate or otherwise distressing.
The difference is that those people don't have anxiety, so they were able to laugh them off without a second thought. Those with anxiety find that these thoughts cause them incredible worry, and that worry is one of the reasons that so many people find these thoughts to be so overwhelming.
When these thoughts cause you that level of anxiety you need to get treatment - not just for the thoughts themselves, but also for the anxiety that allows those thoughts to affect you.
I've worked with thousands of people with distressing thoughts in the past. Take my free anxiety test now. It's a great tool for learning more about your overall anxiety and what it takes to cure it forever.
Freeston, Mark H., and Robert Ladouceur. What do patients do with their obsessive thoughts? Behaviour Research and Therapy 35.4 (1997): 335-348.
Freeston, Mark H., and Robert Ladouceur. Exposure and response prevention for obsessive thoughts. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice 6.4 (1999): 362-383.