Why does my mind think bad thoughts

Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts | Anxiety and


Martin Seif, PhD, ABPP

Dr. Martin Seif is a master clinician who has spent the last thirty years developing innovative and highly successful treatment methods for anxiety disorders. He helped found ADAA and has served on its Board of Directors and Clinical Advisory Board.  Dr. Seif has offices in Manhattan, NY and Greenwich, CT. For the last 18 years, he has been Associate Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center. He also trains therapists and psychiatric residents at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Sally Winston, PsyD

Dr. Sally Winston is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. She is nationally recognized for her expertise in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Winston has been active with ADAA for over 30 years. She has served as chair of the ADAA Clinical Advisory Board and was the first recipient of the ADAA Jerilyn Ross Clinician Advocate Award.

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April 26, 2018

Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are stuck thoughts that cause great distress. They seem to come from out of nowhere, arrive with a whoosh, and cause a great deal of anxiety. The content of unwanted intrusive thoughts often focuses on sexual or violent or socially unacceptable images. People who experience unwanted intrusive thoughts are afraid that they might commit the acts they picture in their mind. They also fear that the thoughts mean something terrible about them. Some unwanted intrusive thoughts consist of repetitive doubts about relationships, decisions small and large, sexual orientation or identity, intrusions of thoughts about safety, religion, death or worries about questions that cannot be answered with certainty. Some are just weird thoughts that make no apparent sense. Unwanted Intrusive thoughts can be very explicit, and many people are ashamed and worried about them, and therefore keep them secret.

There are many myths about unwanted intrusive thoughts. One of the most distressing is that having such thoughts mean that you unconsciously want to do the things that come into your mind. This is simply not true, and, in fact, the opposite is true. It is the effort people use to fight the thought that makes it stick and fuels its return. People fight thoughts because the content seems alien, unacceptable, and at odds with who they are. So, people with violent unwanted intrusive thoughts are gentle people. People who have unwanted intrusive thoughts about suicide love life. And those who have thoughts of yelling blasphemies in church value their religious life.  A second myth is that every thought we have is worth examining. In truth, these thoughts are not messages, red flags, signals or warnings--despite how they feel.

The problem for people who have these thoughts--and one estimate is that more than 6 million people in the United States are troubled by them-- is that unwanted intrusive thoughts feel so threatening. That is because anxious thinking takes over, and the thought—as abhorrent as it might be—seems to have power it does not.  People tend to try desperately and urgently to get rid of the thoughts, which, paradoxically, fuels their intensity. The harder they try to suppress or distract or substitute thoughts, the stickier the thought becomes.

People who are bothered by intrusive thoughts need to learn a new relationship to their thoughts--that sometimes the content of thoughts are irrelevant and unimportant. That everyone has occasional weird, bizarre, socially improper and violent thoughts. Our brains sometimes create junk thoughts, and these thoughts are just part of the flotsam and jetsam of our stream of consciousness.  Junk thoughts are meaningless. If you don’t pay attention or get involved with them, they dissipate and get washed away in the flow of consciousness.

In reality, a thought—even a very scary thought—is not an impulse. The problem is not one of impulse control- it is over control. They are at opposite ends of the continuum.  However, sufferers get bluffed by their anxiety, and become desperate for reassurance. However, reassurance only works temporarily, and people can become reassurance junkies. The only way to effectively deal with intrusive obsessive thoughts is by reducing one’s sensitivity to them. Not by being reassured that it won’t happen or is not true.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are reinforced by getting entangled with them, worrying about them, struggling against them, trying to reason them away. They are also made stronger by trying to avoid them. Leave the thoughts alone, treat them as if they are not even interesting, and they will eventually fade into the background.

Here are steps for changing your attitude and overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

  • Label these thoughts as "intrusive thoughts."
  • Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you.
  • Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away.
  • Float, and practice allowing time to pass.
  • Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency. 
  • Expect the thoughts to come back again
  • Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.

Try Not To:

  • Engage with the thoughts in any way.
  • Push the thoughts out of your mind.
  • Try to figure out what your thoughts "mean."
  • Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts

This approach can be difficult to apply. But for anyone who keeps applying it for just a few weeks, there is an excellent chance that they will see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of the unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Our book is “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts”. Selected in March 2019 as an Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Book Recommendation - an honor bestowed on outstanding self-help books that are consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles and that incorporate scientifically tested strategies for overcoming mental health difficulties.

Get the Spanish version of the book "Guía para superar los pensamientos atemorizantes, obsesivos o inquietantes" here. 

To sign up for a free e-newsletter that answers questions about intrusive thoughts, please visit this webpage: http://www.drmartinseif.com/

Additional Resources
  • What are Intrusive Thoughts and How Can You Deal with Them? ADAA Members Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA and Paul Greene, PhD
  • ADAA invites you to view Dr. Seif and Dr. Winston's corresponding free webinar, Overcoming Intrusive Thoughts.
  • Check out this helpful video by professional graphic designer and animator J. Nordby on how he overcame his struggles with intrusive thoughts. 

Dr. Winston and Dr. Seif In The News: 

  • What a Sticky Mind Means
  • Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: How to Overcome Sticky, Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts, PsychologyToday.com, July, 2019

Martin Seif, PhD, ABPP

Dr. Martin Seif is a master clinician who has spent the last thirty years developing innovative and highly successful treatment methods for anxiety disorders. He helped found ADAA and has served on its Board of Directors and Clinical Advisory Board.  Dr. Seif has offices in Manhattan, NY and Greenwich, CT. For the last 18 years, he has been Associate Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center. He also trains therapists and psychiatric residents at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Sally Winston, PsyD

Dr. Sally Winston is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. She is nationally recognized for her expertise in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Winston has been active with ADAA for over 30 years. She has served as chair of the ADAA Clinical Advisory Board and was the first recipient of the ADAA Jerilyn Ross Clinician Advocate Award.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Anxiety Disorders


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

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Intrusive Thoughts: What Are They?

Written by Shishira Sreenivas

In this Article

  • Types of Intrusive Thoughts
  • What You Can Do
  • Possible Mental Health Disorders to Watch For
  • When to Get Help

Have you ever had an unwanted thought or image get stuck in your head? Usually you can ignore it and move on. But sometimes, it just keeps popping right back up.

You don’t want to have these sticky, uncomfortable thoughts. So why do they happen to you? They're called “intrusive thoughts” and nearly everyone has them from time to time. They can range from random images to disturbing and violent ideas like punching someone in the face or hurting yourself.

They're usually harmless. But if you obsess about them so much that it interrupts your day-to-day life, this can be a sign of an underlying mental health problem. Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Types of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can come in many forms. Here are a few of them:

Sexual thoughts. It’s natural to often have sexual thoughts, no matter your gender. When you feel uncomfortable with or shocked by such thoughts, you may fixate on them and try hard to push them away. Experts say it’s best to remind yourself that these are just passing, automatic thoughts. They don’t define you in any way.

Violent thoughts. Your thoughts may have dark or violent themes like hurting yourself or someone else. Often, they're just harmless, repetitive thoughts that you have no intention of acting on. You don’t even want them in your head. And they'll pass in time. But if you find yourself planning to follow through on your aggressive thoughts, you need professional help to manage your emotions. Talk to a doctor or a therapist.

Negative thoughts. Sometimes, when things don’t work out as planned, you might think of yourself as a “loser” or feel you’re not good enough. These thoughts should fade as your situation changes. But if they become overwhelming, you could have depression or anxiety. Talk to a mental health professional about how to control your symptoms.

Other types of intrusive thoughts. You can also have bizarre, weird, or paranoid thoughts that are basically "junk" thoughts. You have no control over them, and most of the time, they have no meaning or relevance in your life. It’s best not to take them personally or pay much attention to them. But if they last for a long time, or you keep having episodes of them, talk to your doctor to rule out an underlying mental disorder.

What You Can Do

At the end of the day, most intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. They're not a red flag, or a signal that you actually want to do the disturbing things you're thinking about. If they bother you, you can take steps to cut down on their frequency and intensity.

You can:

  • Recognize and label them for what they are -- intrusive thoughts that you can’t control.
  • Just let them linger, instead of trying to push them away.
  • Accept that they will pass eventually.
  • Give yourself time for them to fade away.
  • Prepare yourself for unwanted thoughts to come back.
  • Continue to do whatever you were doing when the intrusive thoughts flooded your head.


  • Act or engage with these random, repetitive thoughts.
  • Try to question why you’re having them in the first place.
  • Look for meaning behind them.
  • Suppress them. If you do this, you may fixate more on them.

This can be hard to do. But over time, being less sensitive to intrusive thoughts can reduce the emotional effect they may have on you. It also helps you feel more in control of them.

Possible Mental Health Disorders to Watch For

Sometimes, thoughts go beyond being intrusive.

Unwanted, repetitive thoughts could be a sign of OCD. With this type of anxiety disorder, you have recurring, unwanted thoughts you can’t control. You may also have the urge to repeat certain behaviors or actions over and over again.

Delusional thoughts, like thinking someone is always watching you or wants to hurt you, can be a sign of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. If you have these thoughts, talk to a psychiatrist for diagnosis and treatment options.

All these disorders can be treated with medications, behavioral therapy, or a combination of the two.

When to Get Help

If intrusive thoughts consume your energy, cause you distress, or make it hard to go about your day, tell your doctor about them. If necessary, they'll refer you to a behavioral therapist, psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist for further diagnosis and treatment.

If you feel like acting on your intrusive thoughts them in a way that could cause harm to yourself or someone else, get medical help right away.

If you’re thinking of hurting yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK. Or also text “MHA” to 741-741. This will connect you to a trained counselor from the Crisis Text Line.

Why Terrible Thoughts Come to Our Heads - T&P

It's good that there is no mind reader yet, otherwise any of us would be caught red-handed. After all, even the most meek and delicate person can sometimes rejoice at the failure of his neighbor or feel a desire to crush someone's head. Why do respectable citizens watch dismembered thrillers with pleasure, while ardent liberals sometimes catch themselves in xenophobia? And is it possible to prevent such "thought crimes"? Jena Pincott wrote about it on Psychology Today, and T&P translated the main points.

Each of us sometimes catches ourselves thinking wrong, frightening or vile thoughts. To bend over a cute baby and suddenly think: "I can easily crush his skull." Comfort a friend who has experienced a collapse in his personal life, and secretly savor the humiliating details of his story. Ride with relatives in a car and imagine in detail how you lose control and drive into the oncoming lane.

The more persistently we try to distract ourselves from these ideas, the more intrusive they become and the worse we feel. This is not easy to admit, but we do enjoy primitive thrills and other people's misfortune. People have amazingly little control over their own black thoughts: we have no control over their duration or content.

In his famous experiment in the 1980s, Eric Klinger asked volunteers to write down their thoughts for a week each time a device beeped. The scientist found that during a 16-hour day a person is visited by about 500 unintentional and obsessive ideas, lasting an average of 14 seconds. Although most of the time our attention is occupied with everyday affairs, 18% of the total number of thoughts cause discomfort to a person and are marked as bad, evil and politically incorrect. And another 13% can be described as completely unacceptable, dangerous or shocking - these are, for example, thoughts of murder and perversion.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was one of the first to become seriously interested in black thoughts. In his Psychology of the Unconscious (1912), he described the shadow side of the personality, the seat of sinful desires and animal instincts that we usually repress.

How is the dark side of personality formed? From the point of view of neuroscience, some of the cognitive processes form the "I" with which we are used to identify ourselves - prudent, normal, logical - while other processes serve as an impetus for the development of a dark, irrational consciousness, where obsessive images and ideas are born.

According to Klinger's theory, an ancient preconscious mechanism in our brain is constantly looking for potential sources of danger in the world around us. Information about them, bypassing consciousness, is transmitted in the form of emotional signals, which cause unwanted thoughts. Neuroscientist Sam Harris believes that these thoughts are random and completely uncontrollable: although a person is conscious, he cannot completely control his mental life.

Dark and frightening thoughts

"This is disgusting, show me more"

People are embarrassed to admit that they are attracted to sinister and vile stories: it is considered that this is the lot of freaks and perverts. Fans of bloody thrillers, photo compilations with car accident victims or alcoholized embryos have a reduced ability to empathize. Thirty years ago, University of Delaware professor Marvin Zuckerman determined that some people are more thrill-hungry than others. When confronted with something abnormal and terrible, people with this type of personality are more excited - this can be established by measuring electrodermic activity.

Cravings for unhealthy and creepy things can also be beneficial. As psychologist Eric Wilson argues, thinking about the suffering of others allows us to neutralize destructive emotions without harming ourselves or others. They can even lead to a state of awe: “I can feel the value of my own life in a new way,” writes Wilson, “because I myself and my family are alive and well!”

Thoughts of sexual perversion

"Don't open at work... and nowhere at all"

Many of us find sexual taboo thoughts to be the most disgusting thoughts: there is nothing worse than catching ourselves in a fantasy about something immoral or illegal.

The good news is that a little excitement doesn't mean anything. Clinical psychologist Lee Baer, ​​a professor at Harvard Medical School, argues that arousal is the body's natural response to attention: "Try thinking about your genitals and convincing yourself that you don't feel anything." If the thought of rape or sex with a minor flashed through your mind, this does not mean at all that you are going to bring this idea to life. All people think about sex, but not all fantasies should be taken literally.

Women's erotic fantasies of submission and rape have their own logical explanation. University of North Texas researchers found that 57% of women have ever felt aroused by fantasizing about forced sexual intercourse with themselves as the victim. This can be explained by the desire of a woman to be desired - so much so that a man cannot control himself. Another explanation is a surge of endorphins, which enter the bloodstream more actively due to an accelerated heartbeat that accompanies a feeling of fear and disgust. The imaginary situation of coercion allows you to give freedom to secret "evil" desires without feeling guilty. Rape fantasies, which remain under the reliable control of our consciousness, have nothing to do with the desire to be raped in real life.

Politically incorrect thoughts

"If they know what I'm thinking, they'll hate me"

Hateful voice in your head that turns on when "another" appears in your field of attention - be it a person in a wheelchair, a woman in a veil , a brightly dressed transsexual or a foreigner with an unusual skin color. This voice, which you do your best to muffle, calls into question the adequacy, behavior, abilities and, in general, the presence of human qualities in "others".

Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, believes that such thoughts are caused by a primitive defense mechanism that formed at the dawn of mankind, when outsiders were by definition a source of threat. The mechanism of "psychological immunity", however, does not justify modern manifestations of intolerance - fat-shaming, xenophobia, religious prejudice or homophobia.

The good news is that automatically occurring politically incorrect thoughts can be overcome: psychologists advise you to stop thinking about how polite and open-minded others think you are, and concentrate on the personality of the person with whom you communicate.

Malevolent thoughts

“Your failure is my joy”

When we hear on the news that some girl was caught drunk driving and arrested, we are not touched. But if that girl turns out to be Paris Hilton, we feel a strange, malicious satisfaction that the Germans call "shadenfreude" (literally, "joy at harm").

Australian psychologist Norman Feather (Flinders University) proved that we are more pleased with the failure of someone outstanding than the failure of a person of our equal status. When successful people fail, we feel smarter, more insightful, and more confident.

Perhaps this is how our inner desire for justice manifests itself. But where does the feeling of shame come from? According to Professor Richard Smith, author of The Joy of Pain, it makes no sense to beat yourself up for this banal emotional reaction. To overcome an attack of gloating, you need to imagine yourself in the place of the victim or concentrate on your own achievements and virtues, because the best antidote to envy is gratitude.

Cruel and bloodthirsty thoughts

“If I had a chainsaw now…”

You are calmly cutting onions in your kitchen, and suddenly the thought flashes through your head: “What if I slaughter my wife?” If thoughts of murder were considered a crime, most of us would be found guilty. According to psychologist David Bass (University of Texas at Austin), 91% of men and 84% of women have ever imagined themselves pushing a person off a platform, strangling their partner with a pillow, or brutally beating a family member.

The researcher offered a radical explanation: because our ancestors killed to survive, they passed on to us a predisposition to kill at the gene level. Our subconscious always stores information about murder as a possible way to solve problems related to stress, power, limited resources and security threats.

However, in most cases, thoughts of violence do not precede actual violence, but, on the contrary, block it. The heartbreaking pictures that the brain paints make us analyze the situation before we act. The scenario plays out in the imagination, the prefrontal cortex turns on, and the eerie thought disappears.

But what happens to dark thoughts when we suppress them?

The Hydra's Dilemma

"Radical Acceptance Method. .."

The thoughts we try to suppress become intrusive. This is reminiscent of the battle with the Lernaean Hydra: instead of a severed head, new ones grow back. When we try not to think about something, we only think about it. The brain constantly checks itself for the presence of a forbidden thought, and it pops up again and again in the mind, while feelings of shame and self-loathing distract us and weaken our willpower.

Depression and stress can aggravate the painful process of suppression. The more effort we spend on fighting the obsession, the more time we need to recover and rest. For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, dealing with unwanted thoughts can take several hours a day. None of us can fully control our minds. As Carl Jung wrote, we do not control the shadow "I", we do not create dark thoughts and desires of our own free will - which means that we cannot prevent their appearance either.

Dr. Baer recommends the Buddhist method of radical acceptance: when an undesirable idea arises, one should try to perceive it as just a thought, without deep meaning and hidden meaning. No need to condemn yourself or resist - just let the thought go. If she comes back, repeat again.

Another way to let go of an obsession is to write it down on paper and destroy it. This helps to distance oneself from an unpleasant thought, and then literally get rid of it. The “door effect” can also work - physically moving to another room helps the brain switch to a new topic and reset short-term memories. For difficult cases, there is a radical approach: do not let go of frightening thoughts, but, on the contrary, play them out in your imagination in full detail.

What is really important in dark thoughts? The value we give to them. We can perceive unpleasant thoughts as valuable objects for investigation - clues that the shadow self gives us. By analyzing its manifestations, we better understand others and ourselves. A gloomy, vile and uncomfortable thought becomes a source of inspiration. As Eric Wilson writes, imaginative people can turn destructive ideas into fuel for mental and emotional development.

The father of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, kept a diary, which was subsequently published under the title "Red Book". In his diary, Jung recorded disturbing images and ideas from the unconscious, including his encounter with the metaphorical Red Rider. The presence of the Horseman is unpleasant for Jung, but the researcher enters into a dialogue with the stranger: they talk, argue and even dance. After that, the scientist experiences an extraordinary surge of joy, feels agreement with himself and the world. "I'm sure this red man was the devil," writes Jung, "but it was my own devil."

Icons: 1) Marek Polakovic, 2), 3) Luis Prado, 4) Zlatko Najdenovski, 5) Liliane Lass Erbe, 6) Studio Fibonacci — from the Noun Project.

7 ways to fool your brain and deal with negative thoughts

March 13, 2022 Life

Positive attitudes and a heavy blanket will help you become an optimist.

You can listen to the article. If it's more convenient for you, turn on the podcast.

"Try to think positively" - you've heard this advice a million times. There is nothing wrong with it, of course, but not everyone succeeds in following it.

Pamela Gale Johnson

Founder of the Secret Society of Happy People.

It is easier for people to think about the bad than about the good. Once faced with danger, like cavemen, we begin to look for other things that can harm us.

Therefore, you need to make an effort to learn to think that nothing bad will happen, and then look for something positive. Here are a few tricks to help you do just that.

1. Find a way to incorporate positive attitudes into your daily activities

Positive attitudes or affirmations that we repeat every day help to increase self-esteem, if we really believe in what we say. This has been confirmed by scientific research.

Until affirmations become a habit, most likely you will forget about them during the day. To fix this, try this hack:

Greg Shepard

Health Expert.

I have created passwords for all online services that consist of the first letters of words in a sentence. For example, one of the passwords was a short version of the phrase "Every day I get better and better." And I repeat this setup daily by logging in.

2. Imagine that the negative thoughts are the passengers of the bus you are driving

Joe Eclair

Licensed psychologist.

My favorite technique is this: I imagine that negative thoughts are unsolicited advice that I will never follow. I say "thank you" and ignore him.

This cognitive strategy can teach you to control your thoughts and not attach too much importance to them.

You just imagine yourself driving a bus with negative thoughts. You can even give each passenger a personality and voice. They ride with you and annoy you with their incessant pessimistic talk. And here the main thing is to remember that you are the bus driver. And only in your power to drive them out of the cabin.

This is a good strategy for realizing that it is not your thoughts that control you, but the opposite.

3. Turn Negative Thoughts into Neutral

Sasha Heinz

Developmental Psychologist and Certified Personal Growth Coach.

If we are haunted by negative thoughts, it is easiest to turn them into neutral ones first.

It is difficult to switch from an anxious state to a happy one just thanks to the settings. For example, if you have been worried for a very long time that you still have not met your love, affirmations are unlikely to help you join positive-minded people. It's not that easy. Therefore, it is better to neutralize the negative first and only then practice positive attitudes.

It's much easier to move from "I'll never find my love" to "I just haven't met the right person yet" than to immediately shout: "My soul mate is already halfway to me!" Your brain will more easily accept such changes.

4. Try the Emotional Freedom Technique

Use your fingertips to explore the meridians of the body, such as the crown area, tap on them and repeat the affirmations. Thanks to this, emotional blocks can be removed.

Please note that the technique requires a complete understanding between body and mind. Some may think that this is too much. But if the technique aroused genuine interest, you can try. However, there is no scientific evidence of its effectiveness.

5. Cover yourself with a heavy blanket

Negative thoughts bother you not only during the day, but also at night. And this is where a blanket comes in handy. It turns out that sleeping under a heavy blanket (from two to 13 kg) will help to cope with anxiety. As experts explain, it puts a palpable pressure on your body, and this promotes relaxation and helps you fall asleep faster.

This may be due to the body's grounding effect, which reduces stress and pain and improves sleep quality.

6. Try aromatherapy

Although aromatherapy has not been researched enough, there is some evidence of its effectiveness. It helps to cope with feelings of anxiety and improves the quality of sleep.

Lindsey Elmore

Pharmacist and health expert.

When you inhale the aroma of oils, it affects the limbic system of the brain, which is also responsible for our emotions.

You can use a diffuser or just take a bath with a few drops of oil.

7. Stop fighting

Couples who believe their relationship is doomed from the start do end up falling apart. This is the Pygmalion effect in action: you unconsciously do what leads to the expected result. You'll either get smart and go on the offensive hoping to make a difference, or you'll just go with the flow because the problem doesn't deserve attention.

In the case of negative thoughts, everything works the same way. You are completely immersed in the problem, considering all possible solutions and thereby only increase its significance. Instead, just be aware, accept, and embrace your negative thoughts.

Jacqueline Pirtle

Happiness and mindfulness coach.

You will enter a "I'm not going to fight them" mode free from pressure and resistance.

Learn more