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Ask Dr. Roger - Violent Thoughts

Q: I need some help, words of encouragement as well. I was reading one of my roomate's books, it was all about serial killers. And I was about half way through the book and I started to get intrusive thoughts about killing people, or sticking things into my eyes, or hurting people, jumping in front of trains, stealing. Mainly all the bad things I have never done in my life. I am super scared! I know I need help. I will see a doctor when i go back home, but any idea what i should try to do now while i am waiting my time to go back home? Thanks

Violent Thoughts

A: I am sorry to hear you have been experiencing these troublesome thoughts. When you say you are "super scared," does that mean you are scared of the thoughts or of acting on the thoughts? I am going to guess that you are concerned about what the thoughts mean (e.g., what do they say about you and your mental state) and whether they might predict a violent act. Whenever I meet a client who is disturbed by intrusive thoughts, I immediately think of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), although to be clear, I am not diagnosing you as having this problem.

Individuals with OCD tend to worry and feel anxious about negative, intrusive thoughts. They start to wonder if these thoughts mean they’re crazy, or if these thoughts might come true. The interesting thing is, most people in the general population tend to have intrusive thoughts, which can be odd and disturbing (to them). Here are some examples of thoughts that people sometimes have in the general population (these are based on research):

  • thoughts of harm coming to a family member
  • an urge to drive into a pedestrian
  • an urge to make a sexually inappropriate gesture or remark
  • repeated worries about one’s sexual identity or preference

 

Whenever a thought like this comes to mind, most people are able to dismiss them in some way. However, people with OCD are more likely to try and interpret what it means to have these thoughts. They are also more likely to feel very compelled to prevent these thoughts from coming true. For example, if someone with OCD experienced intrusive thoughts about dropping a baby or throwing a baby on the floor, they would likely (a) feel horrible about having the thought, (b) worry what it means to have such a thought (i.e., what kind of person has these thoughts?), and (c) would be less likely to hold a baby.

Generally speaking, psychologists have found that people’s reactions to their thoughts can be just as powerful as the thoughts themselves. Thinking about your thoughts is called meta-cognition, and is becoming more and more recognized as an important factor in mental health.

Of course, someone might say – how do you know someone won’t actually act their thoughts? If someone has violent thoughts, maybe they WILL act on them. This is true – I don’t know if having the thoughts you have reflects OCD or some other kind of problem. As such, I recommend you do see your doctor or a mental health professional for an assessment of some kind. However, one of the things I am usually interested in is -- do these thoughts bother you in some way? Do they make you anxious?  If someone feels anxious and ashamed of having thoughts about murder or dropping babies, it is usual one indication that the person is less likely to act on them. Also, people with OCD tend to have a high sense of responsibility, which is another clue to look for. If you are a responsible person, with no history of violence and you feel anxious about these thoughts, this usually is a good indication you will not act on them.

In any case, I appreciate your question, and I would encourage you to talk to your doctor when you get a chance.

Dr. Roger

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