Today I was fortunate to spend about 30 minutes with Dr. Martin Seif, a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders.  Dr. Seif and I talked about intrusive, obsessive and unwanted thoughts.  What are they?  How do they become so troublesome?  How should we approach this problem?

Everyone Has Intrusive, Irrational Thoughts

We all have odd, irrational thoughts at times.  They are nonsense.  They are meaningless.  We know that we would never act on them, and for most of us, those thoughts come and go within seconds without any impact.  For others, irrational thoughts become “sticky” when these thoughts are viewed as threats in some way. Thoughts that are viewed as threats are put on what Dr. Seif calls a “watch list”. We guard against them and try not to have them, which almost always leads to that thought becoming intrusive, obsessive, or out of control.

Interestingly, it would appear that thoughts are more likely to become intrusive and obsessive when the content of the thought runs counter to our core values, beliefs and self-image.  The gentle person has intrusive thoughts regarding violence and harm.  The person that loves children has obsessive thoughts about harming or abusing children. The religious person has obsessive thoughts about yelling blasphemous statements in church.

The content of intrusive thoughts is generally irrelevant.  The important parts are simply these:

  1. The thought is stuck
  2. The though repeats
  3. The thought causes great distress

Anxiety And Fear Blur The Distinction Between Thoughts And Reality/Action

When calm and rational, we recognize that thoughts are not reality.  They are ways to rehearse things with no real consequence.  Thoughts do not lead to reality nor do they reflect the state of reality.  When anxious and afraid, however, the bluffing nature of anxiety and fear distorts this view.  An anxious mind suddenly follows every thought as if they are real, or accurate descriptions of reality.

An Unwanted Intrusive Thought Is An Obsession

Intrusive, unwanted thoughts are similar to obsessions in OCD, but thoughts can also be compulsive.  In treating OCD we can stop the compulsion that fuels the disorder, but since we can’t stop thoughts, we must “empty the gas tank” of the obsession by learning to not fight, change, or stop the thoughts.  Success comes when we learn to let these thoughts come without resistance, and without reaction or interaction or engagement.  Dr. Seif likens intrusive unwanted thoughts to bullies.  You disarm a bully by simply refusing to interact with him.  You react to a bully by acting as if you simply do not care that he is yelling at you and threatening you.  This is the path to treating intrusive/obsessive thoughts.  Its not easy, but there are ways to learn to do this.

About The “Root Cause”

We’ve talked about this quite often on the podcast.   Digging for root cause as a way to solve the unwanted, intrusive thoughts problem is generally not terribly effective, somewhat outdated in current mental health circles, and can actually be counter productive.  While examining deeper emotional and historical issues can be beneficial in life, it is likely a better strategy to deal with the anxiety disorder first, then go after those items.

Important Links From This Episode

Find Dr. Martin Seif at http://drmartinseif.com

Find the Anxiety and Depression Association of America at https://aada.org

Drs. Seif and Winston’s most excellent book on this topic can be found on Amazon (affiliate link):

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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)



Featured photo by Tine Ivanič on Unsplash


Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.