The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 168: Dealing With Crazy Thoughts

Regularly clients will tell me that they've had frightening bizarre thoughts, sometimes about hurting, or even killing, someone that they care about.

Odd as it may seem this is something that everyone experiences, but it doesn't really get talked about for fear of other people thinking we're strange or even dangerous. So I want to put your mind at rest that if you have thoughts like this, you need to remember that they're just thoughts, they're not reality.

Thinking about pushing someone in front of a bus doesn't mean you're a potential murderer, it just means that you have a brain and that it works. I know that when these thoughts become extreme you might sometimes think that there's something wrong with you but believe me, there isn't. It's perfectly normal to have weird thoughts like this. No matter how dangerous they are, they are still just thoughts. Which in themselves are completely harmless, they do nothing.
But they have the potential to grab your attention and make you question your own sanity, and maybe even control you. Your thoughts might not make you act out the harmful behaviour, but they might make you walk away from something or someone because you don't trust yourself.

It's not unusual for our brain to focus on the things that we fear, it's what it does to keep us safe. So don't be surprised if the strangest things pop into your mind. Even how you'd dispose of your dead wife if you suddenly became a murderer. I know it's freaky, and extreme, that's why people don't talk about it, and that's why I am. So forgive me if this does seem a bit unusual a topic but we're a pretty unusual species!
So, don't let your thoughts stop you from doing anything, don't let thoughts of knocking over a cyclist in your car stop you from driving, don't let thoughts about dropping a baby stop you from having a cuddle with one. Just recognise that they're thoughts, maybe even fears, acknowledge them and move on from them. That way they won't become your focus of attention, which by trying NOT to think about something often does happen. The more you try NOT to think about something the more importance your brain places on it and it backfires.
The secret to dealing with intrusive thoughts is to accept them as thoughts and move on with something else. I guess its worth adding in here that someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder might find it harder to move on from their thoughts. And that's why the thoughts often turn into obsessive behaviours as a distraction from the thoughts. But there doesn't need to be a behaviour for it to be OCD.

Obsessive thinking is a major component of OCD, it's not about washing your hands 20 times a day. But the belief that thoughts are more important than they actually are, or that having the thought is the same as doing it for real might point towards OCD, so if it's taking over your life for longer than an hour at a time or needs some sort of ritual that you need to compulsively repeat in order to settle your mind then maybe think about seeing a psychotherapist.
Having obsessive thoughts, which is sometimes called having Pure O or Purely Obsessional OCD, is just in your thoughts not in ritualistic behaviour, and is often overlooked because its hidden. So people sometimes go years without getting help or even opening up to friends and family about it. But its treatable, it might mean exposure therapy, gently introducing something that triggers the thoughts into your daily life. If the obsessive thoughts are about you harming someone, and every time you see a knife you have an hour of obsessive thinking about stabbing your best friend, then, silly as it sounds, carrying around a little plastic knife with you in your bag or jacket pocket can actually help you. By gradually getting used to the object that would trigger the thoughts you can begin to trust yourself around it, your brain learns that it's safe. Then you'd move onto a pair of scissors maybe.
These extremes affect around 1 in 50 people, so although it's possible that you or someone you know has it to this extreme level, it's rare. But if it is part of OCD then it can be helpful to think about the words that come up into your head as if the voice belongs to the OCD rather than you. Thinning of the thoughts as being separate from yourself can help you to ignore them.

It can sometimes be useful to think of them a little like an over sensitive car alarm. Sure it's useful to have a system that alerts you if there's something that needs your attention, but your car alarm shouldn't go off just because there's someone walking down the street that looks a bit shifty. If you know your car has an alarm that goes off unnecessarily when there's nothing wrong, then it's easier to accept it and ignore it if it's screaming at you, it can be the same with your thoughts.
Just because they're screaming at you it doesn't mean that theres something wrong. Maybe say to yourself "Oh, my broken alarm is telling me I could push that old woman in front of that bus" Yes you could, but that doesn't mean you will.
Remember, thinking is not the same as doing. Just because you think it, doesn’t make it real. You can think about eating marmite with a spoon straight out of the jar all day long and it doesn’t mean you like marmite. In the same way, you can think your crazy thought all day long and it doesn’t mean you’ll do it.

It's a bit like junk mail, I don't know about you but I'm always getting emails through that are desperate for my attention from spammers and hackers, and I spend as much time hitting the delete key as anything else some days. I cant make them go away, but I can filter through them and ignore them.
The same with any junk we get through the post, we get so used to seeing them that we know automatically that they don't need our attention and ignore them. But it takes practise to know the difference between the letter that says "Do not ignore this! you've won a time share holiday home" and "Do not ignore this. You're council tax is overdue" Sometimes you have to ignore what's being thrown at you.

If you think of your intrusive thoughts a bit like that it can be easier to accept them as just something trying to get your attention, something that you can choose to ignore.