You’re standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. A police officer stands beside you. His job is to ensure everyone’s safety, but suddenly, your mind becomes filled with disturbing thoughts:
“Is she looking at me angrily?”
“What if I reached for the gun in his holster?”
The fact that you’ve done nothing wrong and are highly unlikely to lose control or reach for a police officer’s firearm doesn’t prevent a wave of anxiety from washing over you. Simply put, your proximity to a police officer has triggered an intrusive thought. You walk the other way—”just in case,” you tell yourself—and make your way to a different intersection.
Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome mental images, ideas, or impulses that pop up at random. While most people can shrug off these thoughts for the meaningless mental glitches they are, a small but significant portion of the population are instead impacted severely by the anxiety these thoughts trigger.
In this article, we’ll explore what intrusive thoughts are, why they happen, and their prevalence in the general population. We’ll then delve into various mental disorders linked with unshakable intrusive thoughts and explain why, if unrelenting intrusive thoughts are having a negative effect on your life, you may want to seek help.
Why do we have intrusive thoughts?
When talking about intrusive thoughts, we’re referring to bizarre, unwanted, and often taboo content that inexplicably appears in our minds. It can feel a bit like an unknown force has briefly grabbed the remote control of our brains. As bizarre as they can seem, they’re actually a nearly universal experience. Why, then, can they be so disturbing sometimes?
A distressed response to intrusive thoughts may arise from a combination of various neural mechanisms. The brain’s default mode network (DMN), responsible for introspection, may briefly malfunction or become hyperactive, leading to a heightened focus on negative or distressing thoughts. The amygdala, a region linked to emotions and threat perception, can overreact to stimuli, exaggerating their significance and contributing to the persistence of intrusive thoughts.
But what’s truly fascinating about this phenomenon is how commonly reported intrusive thoughts are, with one study demonstrating that 94% of people experience them. Most people can have one for a moment and then get on with their day. But others, specifically people with certain mental disorders, find these thoughts incredibly distressing.
Mental disorders associated with intrusive thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are not exclusive to one specific mental disorder. They can manifest in various conditions, including:
People with PTSD may experience intrusive thoughts related to their traumatic experiences. These thoughts can be particularly distressing and can lead to hyperarousal and hypervigilance. If someone has had traumatic past experiences with police, they might encounter disturbing intrusive images, memories, or fears when they’re around police officers.
People with GAD may experience excessive and uncontrollable worrying about everyday problems, often fixating on negative intrusive thoughts. An intrusive thought that someone else could shrug off quickly might trigger intense feelings of anxiety and fear.
While the disorders above can, in some cases, result in distressing intrusive thoughts, they’re most closely associated with OCD.
In OCD, these distressing mental events—which may take the form of thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings—are known as obsessions. In response, people with OCD then engage in compulsions, which are mental rituals or physical behaviors performed to reduce distress or prevent something feared from happening.
It’s important to note that having intrusive thoughts does not mean a person intends to act on them, or that a feared event is actually likely to happen. People who experience intrusive thoughts—which is to say, just about everyone—often find them ego-dystonic, meaning they are inconsistent with their values or wants.
Why does being around police trigger my intrusive thoughts?
“I think that it’s important to say that a person doesn’t necessarily have to have OCD to have uncomfortable thoughts around police,” says NOCD clinical trainer April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC. “People of color having uncomfortable thoughts about police may be based on their own experience or numerous examples of Black people being targeted, injured, and killed by police officers in the news.
“It’s also important to mention that you don’t have to have OCD to have intrusive thoughts triggered by being around the police. I don’t happen to have OCD, but most of the time when I’m around a cop, I have a thought about grabbing their gun before they notice. I can shake it off immediately, but if I had OCD, I’d be asking all the ‘what if’ questions. ‘What if I’m capable of actually doing that?’ ‘What if I pointed the gun at them?’ ‘What if I lose control one day and I get shot?’
“OCD is often referred to as the doubting disease because that’s what it makes people do—it creates uncertainty and doubt that’s so distressing that people feel they need to perform compulsions to relieve these uncomfortable feelings. However, that only reinforces the sequence of obsession, anxiety, compulsion, and relief known as the OCD cycle.”
All of the disorders we’ve mentioned thus far have specific treatment approaches—and they’re all closely related. The gold-standard treatment for OCD is called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), and it’s highly effective in helping people break the OCD cycle and regain control of their lives.
Interestingly, ERP is also a highly effective form of treatment for anxiety disorders, and the most effective way to treat PTSD is an approach that shares close similarities with ERP, known as prolonged exposure (PE) therapy. Let’s learn more about these forms of treatment.
How you can take the power from intrusive thoughts
ERP is designed to help people confront their obsessions or distressing thoughts while refraining from performing compulsive behaviors. The main idea is to gradually, carefully confront situations or triggers that cause you anxiety, all the while resisting the urge to avoid them, distract yourself, or reassure yourself in an attempt to feel better.
In the case of distressing intrusive thoughts about grabbing a police officer’s gun, for example, you’d start with small practice exercises: looking at pictures of guns or watching a cop show. Later on, you might drive by the police station on the way home from work, or write down the worst-case scenario related to your intrusive thoughts and fears. As you practice these exercises, you’ll commit to accepting the anxiety that you feel, keeping yourself from avoiding your feelings, distracting yourself from them, or anything else you’ve done in the past.
By doing this over time, you can actually teach your brain that it doesn’t need to run from intrusive thoughts, “solve” them, or get rid of your anxiety. Instead, you can learn to simply accept these intrusive thoughts for the natural, meaningless mental events they are, and they’ll actually become far less distressing later on.
ERP has proven to be highly effective in helping people manage OCD symptoms, as well as the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Numerous studies have shown that it can significantly reduce the severity of obsessions and compulsions, often in a few months of regular sessions and homework.
ERP is a brave step towards regaining control over your life and finding relief from OCD and anxiety symptoms. Your therapist will be there to support you until you’ve mastered your toolkit and resumed living life on your own terms.
Start getting better today
If you think you might have OCD, an anxiety disorder, or PTSD, you can access evidence-based, specialized treatment for any of these conditions.
All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. Many of them also specialize in PE therapy for PTSD, and can create a personalized treatment plan to help you recover from any of these conditions. I strongly encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s accessible approach to treating OCD, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.