Experiencing intrusive thoughts when you’re around trains is more common than you might think. The phenomenon was well-known enough for a pair of researchers to include it in a survey about what triggers people’s intrusive thoughts.
Their results showed that 25% of the women they surveyed, alongside 29% of men, reported having intrusive thoughts about jumping in front of a car or train. When asked whether they had intrusive thoughts about pushing someone else in front of a car or train, 8% of women and 20% of men said yes. Of the 293 people surveyed, none of them had a diagnosed mental health condition. Intrusive thoughts are not automatically criteria for a diagnosis.
In fact, intrusive thoughts are completely normal. Dr. Patrick McGrath, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD, tells me that everybody has them. People without an underlying condition generally think oh, that was weird and move on. Perhaps they find them mildly disturbing for a minute or two, but then they go about their day, not worrying about their capacity for cold-blooded murder at the subway station.
For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), however, intrusive thoughts are extremely triggering, and can cause them to become consumed with doubt and fear about these exact things—“What if I somehow lost control and shoved someone in front of a train?” “Does having this thought mean I’m suicidal?” “How can I be sure I would never kill someone out of the blue?” Continue reading for more information about intrusive thoughts, OCD, phobias, and when to seek treatment for the intrusive thoughts that tend to strike when you’re around trains.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and often distressing thoughts, images, feelings, sensations or urges that can occur out of nowhere or be triggered by something happening externally or internally. It becomes disordered when one is not able to move on from them. Dr. McGrath explains, “People with OCD go ‘Wow, that might mean something. I have to investigate that.’”
Dr. McGrath goes on to tell me about the concept of thought-action fusion, where “thoughts become equal to action, and are seen as just as bad.” To some people with OCD, thinking about pushing someone in front of a train can feel just as bad as doing it. Those who experience intrusive thoughts chronically do not desire nor enjoy their thoughts, but they tend to worry that they could. This is especially upsetting when the intrusive thoughts are taboo in nature, which they often are—pushing a child in front of a train, for example.
The often taboo nature of intrusive thoughts can cause people to want to keep them a secret, but rest assured: you are not alone in this experience. Refer again to the survey cited above. There is language for your experience, and if your intrusive thoughts that strike when you’re around trains are negatively impacting your life, there are people specifically trained to help you. Below, I’ll delve further into obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and specific phobias, the two most likely explanations for chronic intrusive thoughts when around trains.
What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?
OCD is characterized by obsessions—intrusive thoughts, urges, feelings, sensations, or images that cause distress—and compulsions, which are any internal or external actions done to relieve oneself of the distress that intrusive thoughts cause.
If you’re having intrusive thoughts when you’re around trains, you could be experiencing harm OCD, suicidal OCD, or contamination OCD. These are subtypes, or themes, of OCD. Harm OCD focuses on the fear of hurting someone else or yourself, suicidal OCD focuses on the fear of wanting to commit suicide, and contamination OCD focuses on spreading or contracting germs, bacteria, viruses, and so on.
Remember, people with OCD do not enjoy their thoughts or intend to have them, nor do their thoughts actually mean anything about who they are or what they’re likely to do. On the contrary, they are extremely distressed by them, and are no more likely than the general population to commit the acts they’re afraid of committing. In fact, due to being so afraid, they might even be less likely, as they’ll do anything they can to avoid the subject of their obsessions.
Depending on which theme your intrusive thoughts fall into, examples of what they might sound like include:
- What if I jump in front of this train?
- What if I push someone in front of the train?
- What if someone pushes me in front of the train?
- I must be a bad person because I’m thinking this. Am I crazy?
- If I’m thinking about jumping in front of the train, does that mean I’m suicidal?
- What if I contract a deadly disease from being on the train?
- What if the other people waiting for the train are breathing a virus into the air?
As mentioned above, compulsions can happen either internally or externally. In other words, compulsions can be mental or physical. Because any behavior done to relieve the distress of intrusive thoughts can become compulsive, those behaviors can vary widely. Examples of mental compulsions include:
- Rumination: Overanalyzing or trying to solve a problem that isn’t there. You might feel like you just have to “think your way out” of your fears.
- Mental review: You may comb through memories of the last time you were near a train, trying to remember if you had these thoughts then, too.
- Reassurance-seeking: Those with OCD often seek reassurance from both their loved ones and themselves. You might ask a loved one, “Do you think I’d ever jump in front of a train?” or repeat to yourself I am healthy and will not contract any diseases.
- Checking: “Testing” your body for signs of wanting to push someone. You might interpret things like a heightened adrenaline or restlessness as a sign that you’re getting ready to do it.
- Thought replacement: This happens when you try to replace a “bad” (intrusive) thought with a “good” one. You might have a phrase, prayer, or mantra that makes you feel like a “good” person.
Examples of physical compulsions include:
- Repeatedly applying hand sanitizer
- Not sitting in the train seats, in case any germs were to get on your clothes
- Pacing up and down the train platform to distract yourself from the thoughts
- Avoiding eye contact with others waiting for the train
- Keeping your fists balled up so you can make sure they don’t push anyone
- Standing as far away from the train as possible while waiting
What is a phobia?
A phobia, Dr. McGrath says, is “a fear of one specific thing, and a significant avoidance of that thing. You don’t usually see compulsive behavior in people with phobias, and they’re not usually bothered by that thing unless it’s around, whereas OCD is with you all the time.”
If your intrusive thoughts when around trains are tied exclusively to trains, being physically around them, seeing them on video, or reading about them, and if you don’t find yourself trying to do “mental gymnastics” or physical behaviors to get yourself out of the fear caused by those thoughts, you might be experiencing a phobia. There’s a term coined to describe any fear related to trains, (and it’s a mouthful): siderodromophobia.
Here are some symptoms you might experience:
- Intense fear, anxiety, or even panic when exposed to a train
- Doing everything you can to stay away from or avoid trains
- Experiencing physical reactions to trains, such as: nausea, dizziness, sweating, increased heart rate, tight chest
- Being aware that your fear is irrational, but feeling unable to control it
Whether you’re experiencing a theme of OCD or a phobia, effective treatment may involve the same form of therapy: exposure and response prevention (ERP).
When and how should you get help?
If your intrusive thoughts and fears when around trains are negatively impacting your daily life, it’s time to get help. Your life should not be limited or hindered because of your intrusive thoughts. ERP consists of working with a specialty-trained therapist to identify your triggers and come up with a plan to gradually expose you to those triggers. You’ll start with the triggers that disturb you the least and work your way up to those that make you the most uncomfortable.
In the case of OCD, your therapist will give you strategies to avoid compulsions before, during, and after the exposure exercise. With a phobia, you’ll learn to manage your symptoms of anxiety in the face of your triggers, and gradually resist your avoidance behaviors. You’ll do some exposures during your therapy sessions, where your therapist can help guide you; other times, you’ll be asked to practice exposures on your own as “homework” between therapy sessions.
Exposures are individualized and depend on what theme of OCD or form of specific phobia you’re experiencing, but some examples include:
- Looking at pictures & videos of trains
- Reading an article about someone who jumped in front of a train
- Watching a video about the bacteria, germ, or virus that you most fear
- Standing close to the train, rather than far away
- Getting off the train and applying hand sanitizer only once
- Going to a train station with your therapist, where they’ll stand in front of you, trusting you not to push them off
I know that list might sound daunting. You might feel distressed or panicked just reading those examples. That’s normal—and that’s also the point. In order to become desensitized to your triggers, you have to face them and resist your compulsions or avoidance responses.
Remember that a therapist will be guiding you through the process, and you won’t be forced to do anything you’re not ready for. As someone with OCD myself, I can tell you with confidence—and empathy—that your life is waiting on the other side of facing your distressing intrusive triggers. You can start your recovery journey by scheduling a free 15-minute call with the NOCD Care team.