Our brains think 24/7. Most thoughts are tame, but some are downright weird. Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains why you should not freak out about freaky thoughts.
The other day, a friend confessed a secret to me. The revelation was made in hushed tones, with sideways glances.
“The other day I was driving and randomly thought, ‘Wow, I could just turn the steering wheel a few inches and I would flip into that ditch and die,’” she said. “It freaked me out. That’s not normal, is it?”
Am I Normal?
On the contrary, it’s perfectly normal. Thoughts, whether bizarre, weird, or even dangerous, are just thoughts. Thoughts, by themselves, are harmless. It is when we attach meaning (“I’m a freak,” “I’m dangerous,” “I’m crazy”) or negative consequences (“I must want to kill myself”) to the thoughts that we end up labeling them, and ourselves, as bad, cracked, or hazardous.
Psychologists use the term “thought-action fusion” to describe the erroneous idea that thinking about something is equivalent to actually doing it. A variation of thought-action fusion is a mistaken belief that your weirdest thoughts are a true indicator of who you are and what you're likely to do.
For example, Joseph is waiting for a train and sees an elderly woman waiting a few steps away on the platform. The thought “I could push that old lady on the tracks right now,” crosses his mind. Joseph is shocked. He believes his thought means he really wants to, or will, send our unsuspecting granny to her demise. “What a horrible thing to think! I must be going crazy,” he says to himself. “I need to get out of here before I hurt her.” He scuttles away, ashamed, confused, and very distressed, convinced that having the thought is as bad as doing the deed.
Thought Does Not Equal Action
By contrast, by viewing his thought as just that—a harmless thought—Joseph’s reaction might be very different. Instead, he might think “That was random; what a strange thing to think. I’m sure not going to do that.” He might then contentedly resume texting, reading subway ads, or staring into space.
The belief that thoughts are overly important or that having the thought is the same as acting upon it can be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a treatable disorder that affects 2.5% of the population. Suspect OCD only if the thoughts take up an inordinate amount of time (more than an hour a day), are distressing, and are accompanied by repetitive, compulsive rituals meant to minimize or counteract the thoughts.
Sometimes OCD strikes new parents (see What is Postpartum OCD?). Postpartum depression is a well-known occurrence, but postpartum OCD is a lesser-known woe of some new parents. A new mom might have a thought, for example, about dropping her baby, or even hurting the baby deliberately. Simply having the thought, especially if the thought is accompanied by a shudder, does not mean the mom is dangerous or unfit. It probably means quite the opposite—her brain is scanning for possible dangers in order to protect her newborn.
When a discomfiting thought pops in one’s head, a first impulse is often to try to stop thinking the thought. These attempts, called thought suppression, unfortunately make the thought occur more often. Thought suppression doesn’t work because you have to remember what you’re not supposed to think about. For example, try not to think about a pink elephant floating above your head right now.
So the next time a bizarre thought crosses your mind, allow yourself to label it as a “junk thought.” For instance, when you get your mail, you probably have a mix of important mail, like cards, magazines, and bills, but also junk mail, like circulars for stores you don’t patronize or mail for the guy who lived in your house before you. You pay attention to the important mail and recycle the rest. You don’t think that getting another guy’s mail means you are that guy, or that getting a circular means you are destined to shop at that store. Same with thoughts. Some thoughts, like “Call Mom,” or “I should probably pay my taxes,” require attention and action. Others, like inadvertently imagining what it would be like to kiss your creepy, malodorous next-door neighbor, can be sent right to the junk pile.
So next time a crazy thought pops into your head, try this: thank your brain for doing what it’s supposed to do—think thoughts—and place the thought gently in the great recycle bin of your mind. You’re not crazy; it just means your brain is working.
Karno M, Golding JM, Sorenson SB, Burnam MA. The epidemiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder in five US communities. Arch Gen Psychiatry. Dec 1988;45(12):1094-9.
Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders. Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.