Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts at the Zoo...Have I Gone Crazy?

by Dr. Meg McKelvie

April 9, 2019

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was enjoying a sunny day chasing after her toddler at the Zoo, away from the distractions of her work and chores around the house. She held her daughter in her arms so they could both see the polar bear pacing below next to a big pool of water in its enclosure. She’d had a lot of thoughts that day, “Does she have enough sunscreen on?” “Will I have time to get that work project done this afternoon while she naps?” “How’s my step-father doing with his health condition?” And then in a moment her daughter pointed at the water excitedly and said “swim!,” and her mind generated a particularly sticky thought: “Maybe I’ll just toss my child into the polar bear’s pool.” Screeeeech….


My friend’s day had the potential to go one of many ways in this moment. If she took her thoughts seriously, as a reflection of WHO SHE IS, she might soon become alarmed. Some thoughts that might follow this might be “Have I gone crazy?” “Am I going to harm my child” “Should my baby be taken from me?” “Am I a bad mom?” “I MUST be a bad mom.” “This must be confirmation that I’m not fit to be a mother.” And on and on ad infinitum.  You know the drill.  Our minds have the potential to go from here to China in a split second. 

But what if she noticed that thought, chuckled to herself, and said, “man, that was an odd thought” and then moved on to notice her child’s small hands, the look of wonder in her bright eyes, and the giraffes eating greens in the next exhibit? What if she told a friend later, joking that “I had this strange thought,” and her friend reassured her that she too had weird thoughts sometimes?

Unwanted, or “intrusive,” thoughts happen to all of us from time to time. If we all had to broadcast all of our thoughts publicly, we’d be pretty embarrassed by many of them!  We experience a stream of worried thoughts at night that keep us from sleeping. We keep replaying unpleasant memories again and again and again and again…. We might be disturbed by unexpected thoughts about jumping off a bridge or high place or driving the car off the road. There’s even a form of OCD called “Harm OCD,” in which people become highly distressed by thoughts that they might cause harm to themselves or others, which they would never actually do.  

We don’t need to rid ourselves of our negative or odd thinking.  We have over 50,000 thoughts a day.  Trying to police all the thoughts our mind secretes would be like trying to control how much we salivate.  My friend doesn’t need to scrub herself clean of these thoughts. Thoughts are not dangerous, and they don’t have the power to “make” us do things we don’t want to do. In the years since that happened to my friend, she has never once thrown anyone into an animal exhibit at the zoo, or caused her child any physical harm.

It’s our relationship to our thoughts that matters. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we help people change their relationship with their thoughts such that tricky or unhelpful thoughts no longer have the power they once did. ACT helps us relate to our thoughts in a way that allows us to go on about our days, without hopping on a preverbal train to China. Changing how we relate to our thinking enables us to be more available to staying present with the people we love and doing the things that matter to us.

If you’re interested in learning more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or other Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT), please contact us.