Intrusive thoughts are disturbing and distressing—and they pop into your head at completely random times. When they do, they can be alarming and upsetting, sending you into a thought spiral.
Needless to say, if you’re a person with strongly held values of racial equality and justice, it may be particularly distressing if one day, a random thought emerges in your mind that you find horrifying. Maybe you’re talking to a new friend who belongs to a racial minority. Out of nowhere, a racist thought floats in your head that you find completely disgusting. Does this mean you’re actually a racist?
Or perhaps you’re in a group at a party, and a friend introduces you to someone new. All seems to go well and everyone says hope to see you soon! and leaves pleasantly. But suddenly you’re hit with a worry: Did you actually say something extremely rude and offensive? Did they walk away upset at a racial remark you blurted out? What if you somehow erased it from your memory?
Maybe you pulled into a parking lot and grabbed a great spot. When walking into the grocery store, you see someone and are hit by anxiety that maybe you actually meant to steal their spot in the lot, and you did so because they appear to belong to a certain race.
All of these can be examples of racial intrusive thoughts. And if you’re having them and reading this, it’s because you’re distressed and want to understand what this all means. We’ll help you answer those questions, as well as suggest how you can get help.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and distressing thoughts or memories, describes a 2022 study in PLOS Computational Biology. They feel as if they come from nowhere, and the result can be anything from momentary curiosity to overwhelming discomfort, sadness, or fright. In response, you may try to distract yourself, avoid the topic of your thought, or attempt to figure it out for certain.
“Everyone has intrusive thoughts,” says Patrick McGrath, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. Despite the fact that they’re upsetting or disturbing, “this is a normal, natural experience. There’s no problem with having intrusive thoughts,” he says.
Problems arise, however, when we see these thoughts as something bad on their own. This is “thought-action fusion” at play, says Dr. McGrath, and it creates a dangerous spiral. An intrusive thought, image, or urge about harming someone can feel equal to actually doing it; your brain might say “Why else would I have had that thought?” Now you see them not as just a fleeting disturbing thought, but as evidence that you’re a harmful or terrible person. In reality, however, these thoughts aren’t related to your actual values—often, they’re quite the opposite.
It’s common to want to suppress these thoughts, but doing so sucks up a lot of cognitive resources, per a 2017 article in the Journal of Neuroscience, and doesn’t actually keep them from returning in the future. People often attempt to suppress an intrusive thought, which makes them feel better momentarily. Unfortunately, this only strengthens these thoughts by teaching the brain that they are dangerous or threatening, and makes them more distressing and frequent over time, creating a cycle that tends to get worse when left untreated.
What makes it more likely you’ll experience intrusive thoughts?
You’re more likely to get stuck in the cycle of intrusive thoughts if:
- You have OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder characterized by uncontrollable, distressing recurring thoughts, urges, or images (obsessions), and repetitive behaviors or mental acts done to neutralize the distress that results from those obsessions (compulsions). Intrusive thoughts in OCD often feel shameful or taboo, or oppose one’s values.
- You have PTSD: Persistent intrusive memories related to the trauma you experienced is common in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), notes research.
- You have depression: Thoughts that are hopeless, pessimistic, or involve death or suicide can be symptoms of depression, per the National Institute of Mental Health.
- You have anxiety: Anxiety attempts to keep you safe by throwing a lot of ‘what if’ questions at you, and in return, throws you into a worry spiral about the future.
- You’re stressed: Life stressors, even good ones, can make intrusive thoughts more likely, according to Harvard Medical School.
- You didn’t get enough sleep last night: Sleep deprivation impairs certain areas of the brain that play a role in memory and emotion, setting the stage for unwanted thoughts to push though, suggests 2020 research in Clinical Psychological Science.
Keep in mind that PTSD, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia can all occur alongside OCD. If that is the case, then treatment involves addressing both conditions.
Are racist intrusive thoughts a sign of OCD?
Not necessarily. These intrusive thoughts can be indicative of a number of other mental health conditions, as described above. However, intrusive thoughts are a very common form of obsession that leads one to perform compulsions in OCD. One of the reasons why intrusive thoughts are so disturbing is not just their content—but that they are unpredictable.
Some of these unpredictable, negative and repetitive thoughts can surround race. In fact, so-called Race OCD is an OCD subtype in which people get sucked into a cycle of intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors out of fear of being racist. You may worry that you are acting racist or other people think you’re behaving in racist ways. You may even believe you must be a racist simply for having a racist thought in mind. The key is worry or doubt, which can be extreme and fill you with a flood of guilt and shame. As a result, you engage in compulsions to neutralize these distressing feelings.
Often the compulsions done in response to this theme involve reassurance-seeking. You might engage in mental compulsions where you spend a lot of time going over what you did and said and asking yourself if those things were racist or could have appeared racist. You may ask a friend repeatedly for confirmation that you did not accidentally blurt out something offensive in a conversation, or ruminate on doubts about having uttered a slur in the past. You might even start avoiding being around those of another race out of fear you might say or do something offensive.
OCD may cause you to seek reassurance, but it never accepts it, says Dr. McGrath. You may ask a friend who was with you if they heard you say a racial slur, and they’d say no, of course not. You’d ask if maybe you whispered it, and they’d say they didn’t hear you say anything. “Aha!” your OCD would respond—it’s still possible that you could have said it, because there is no definitive proof otherwise. What if someone across the room secretly recorded you using the slur and it got blasted on social media, and then you lose your job, and so on and so forth?
OCD takes everything to the umpteenth degree and presents it to you as an emergency.
“This is the morally scrupulous area of OCD,” says Dr. McGrath. These are themes based on a fear that you’ve done something wrong or offensive to someone. “There is no limit to this. Your brain says that any pain you may have caused someone would be awful and horrible,” he says. One example of this: You worry that you walked too slowly in front of someone and caused them to slow down, and so they had to stop at the light, missed their bus, and then arrived late at the hospital where their mom died. In racial themes of OCD, you may fear that you walked slowly—and thus caused all of these things to happen—due to a subconscious racial motivation.
Keep in mind that OCD is an especially clever disorder. If you consider racial justice issues to be important and are focused on talking and behaving in a culturally appropriate way, “OCD will pick up on that,” says McGrath. In return, you’ll maintain constant awareness of how you’re talking or acting. In theory, that sounds like it would be a good thing—you want to act in a way that aligns with your values—but this constant hyper-awareness can backfire. What can happen is that you anticipate all sorts of things that could go wrong, triggering an intrusive thought, diving into an anxiety spiral about what you may have said in the past, and then jumping to the worst-case scenario, he says.
Do racist intrusive thoughts mean I’m racist?
This may be what you’ve been worrying about all along. The answer is no. “If you were racist, you would not identify these thoughts as ‘intrusive,’” says Dr. McGrath. “That’s where I see the difference.” But how do you really know if the thoughts are intrusive or not? Well, if you’re overwhelmed and disgusted by the thoughts and conduct compulsions to get rid of them, these are intrusive thoughts.
It’s important to remember that you are not your thoughts. Just because you think something does not mean it’s representative of your beliefs or values. “OCD likes to pick what you think would be most horrible in a situation—like using a racial slur—and feeds you doubts that you might have done it,” says Dr. McGrath.
Of course, if you are indeed behaving in racist ways, or your racist thoughts align with your personal views or beliefs, then this is a completely different conversation. In these cases, you should seek the support and resources needed to challenge racially prejudiced or damaging beliefs or ways of thinking.
Is it possible to stop racist intrusive thoughts?
If your racist intrusive thoughts are related to OCD, then treating OCD can actually allow you to experience them less often (though it isn’t possible to stop experiencing intrusive thoughts altogether). This can be accomplished with the gold standard therapy for OCD: exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP.
During ERP, your therapist will trigger an intrusive thought or obsession and guide you in making the conscious decision not to engage in a compulsion to get rid of it. While this can feel anywhere from uncomfortable to extremely distressing, you will be in a safe space with your therapist who can support you during your session.
“In treatment, you’ll learn that racist intrusive thoughts don’t have to mean something. You can allow the thoughts to be there without reaction and allow them to pass,” says Dr. McGrath. Having a thought doesn’t mean you have to accept it—you can reject it by refusing to engage on OCD’s terms. You can gain perspective by reminding yourself that these themes have been targeted by OCD and cause such distress precisely because they correspond with values that are meaningful to you, such as racial justice.
Still, it’s okay to acknowledge those thoughts as they happen, rather than try to push them out of your mind or “never think those thoughts again.” In fact, it’s necessary to acknowledge them, and then choose not to act with reassurance seeking or another compulsion. Dr. McGrath compares the effect of thought suppression to what happens when you tell someone not to think of a pink elephant. Without doubt, their brain will immediately conjure a pink elephant, and that’s all they’ll be able to think about.
“You can allow these thoughts to pass, and you don’t have to make them go away, because that will only make them stick more,” says Dr. McGrath. When you do this in ERP therapy, you learn that you can handle these intrusive thoughts. They’re not as frightening as you thought they were, and they become less and less powerful. Soon, these thoughts will fade into the background. “When you try to make something go away, it will grow. If you simply allow it to be there, it will fade,” he says.
The qualified therapists at NOCD specialize in ERP therapy and are here to work with you if you’re having racist intrusive thoughts. Book your free 15-minute call to learn how they can offer you the one-on-one virtual support you need to help those thoughts fade.