What happens when you think about an adorable, fluffy, excited Golden Retriever puppy? Take a second to think about how that thought makes you feel. It seems obvious that our thoughts can affect our feelings and our behaviors… Sad thoughts tend to make us sad, and happy thoughts (like thinking about a cute puppy) make us happy! It seems like a clear and obvious link, right?
But what about the way that we think about our thoughts?
Here’s a quick exercise you should try before reading on: Close your eyes for a moment and really think about someone you love, like a family member, friend, or significant other. Now, try to read the following sentence aloud and fill in the blank with the person that you just thought of:
I hope that ___________ gets in a car accident.
This exercise probably made you feel a little uncomfortable or maybe even a bit guilty. That reaction is completely normal. Rest assured that by the time you are finished reading this blog post, any distressing feelings you might have experienced from this exercise will be long gone. This is because you know that this thought doesn’t really mean anything and it says nothing about you as a person.
Unwanted intrusive thoughts, like the one implanted in your head during the above exercise, are normal experiences that occur in most people in the general population. Intrusive thoughts, however, are also a hallmark of obsessions that characterize obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (1). The major difference between a ‘normal’ intrusive thought that pops into your head and then leaves, and one that causes distress or develops into an obsession is how you respond to it.
In other words, it’s the interpretation of a thought that determines its obsessive qualities.
Often times, when we have thoughts that have a lot of personal significance, we pay more attention to them and can quickly get wrapped up in the meaning we derive from those thoughts. For example, if you’re someone who’s superstitious and you experience an intrusive thought about a loved one getting into an accident, you might interpret that thought to mean that your loved one is possibly in danger. This conclusion may then lead you to take certain actions, like repeatedly calling your loved one to make sure nothing happened to them or checking each component of their vehicle to make sure nothing will malfunction when they get on the road. While there’s nothing wrong with taking adequate safety precautions, spending hours every day repeatedly checking one’s vehicle for faults may paint a more problematic picture.
There are many ways in which we can misinterpret our thoughts. Everyone goes through life with different sets of beliefs, biases, and assumptions – It’s human nature! But being more mindful and aware of how we think about our thoughts can go a long way in reducing the amount of power they hold over us.
1. Rachman S. A cognitive theory of obsessions. In: Behavior and Cognitive Therapy Today. Elsevier; 1998:209-222.