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Overcoming unwanted and obtrusive negative thoughts

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

It is certainly a brave person who seeks out help when they are having thoughts which they think are essentially bad, violent, aggressive, or sexual in nature. The fact that you have not acted out these thoughts does not always help, and the terrifying aspect is the thought that you might carry them out. First, let us clearly state that just about everyone has an obtrusive thought at some point. Perhaps you are standing on a busy platform in the London underground and, however fleetingly, it just flashed into your mind ‘what if I were to push him off the platform into the path of the oncoming train…’ you might pass this off as nothing more than the vagaries of an active mind and even giggle inwardly at the nonsense of it. For some, however, there starts an internal conversation: ‘how could you think something like that? You must be messed up to have thoughts like that…’ We all, or nearly all, do have thoughts like that, not because we want or intend to push someone into the path of an oncoming train but exactly the opposite; we are thinking about how senseless, terrible, and destructive such an act would be. As a result, the person with the negative thinking is then in a horrible spiral, questioning what sort of person they are and the fact that the thoughts occur more often and more strongly means that somehow, they are at greater risk of living out the thoughts.

If I ask a room of people if they have ever had such a strange thought as the one, I suggest above, 8 or 9 out of 10 people will put there hand up (nervously). So, the occurrence of obtrusive thoughts appears to be very common and that in turn suggests ‘normal’. When these thoughts get stuck, however, people genuinely worry that the thoughts might lead to doing the dreadful act. The trouble with thoughts is the harder we try to push them away, the stronger they become. Very often and again in a room full of trainees, I might ask them to spend two minutes not thinking about polar bears, you can think of anything at all that you like, but do not think of big white, seal hunting, furry bears plodding over the ice… You see the problem; we are not good at not thinking about something, as not thinking about it kind of actually involves thinking about it… i.e., ‘what is it again that I should not be thinking about?!’ So, we strengthen the thought by trying to push it away, and naturally we try to push it away because it is horrible.

Here is a thought: how about relaxing a little and not trying to push the thought away? It seems counter-intuitive, but evidence suggests doing this may make the thoughts less stressful. It does not mean that you think the act/image/event you are thinking of is ok… it means that we have thoughts that were unbidden, which come into our minds, and we can notice them without fear. We can choose to notice them in a sort of curious but detached way: ‘isn’t it strange that minds work that way…’ thoughts ricochet in and out of our minds all the time and we do not need to analyse all of them or try to work out meaning. There may be no meaning at all, or other stressors or traumatic events may have led to these thoughts occurring but by pushing them away and trying to distract ourselves we strengthen them and make them worse.

rther reading

Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap: Stop struggling, start living. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Harris, R., & Aisbett, B. (2013). The Happiness Trap Pocketbook: An Illustrated Guide on how to Stop Struggling and Start Living (Vol. 3). Exisle Publishing.

Winston, S. M., & Seif, M. N. (2017). Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts: A CBT- based guide to getting over frightening, obsessive, or disturbing thoughts. New Harbinger Publications.


The advice contained in this article is not supposed to replace the support of a suitably qualified mental health professional or your doctor, it is intended to highlight important issues about negative thinking. Seek out medical advice if you are struggling with the issues raised.

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