THE BLOG
07/08/2014 12:52 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2014

Does Thinking Crazy Thoughts Mean I'm Going Crazy?

The other day, a friend made a confession in hushed tones with sideways glances. "Yesterday I was driving," she said, "and randomly thought, 'Wow, I could just turn the steering wheel a few inches and I would flip into that ditch and die.' It freaked me out and I haven't driven since. Am I going crazy?"

On the contrary, the fact that she did not turn the steering wheel, despite having the thought, and is around to tell the tale, means she's perfectly normal.

Thoughts, whether bizarre, weird, or even seemingly dangerous, are just thoughts. Thoughts, by themselves, are harmless. It is when we attach meaning ("And that means I'm a freak," "I must be dangerous," "I'm going crazy") or negative consequences ("I must want to kill myself," "This means I'm going to hurt someone") 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 that thing. A variation on thought-action fusion is a mistaken belief that your weirdest thoughts are a true indicator of who you are and what you are likely to do.

For example, an individual who believes in thought-action fusion might be waiting for a train and see an elderly woman waiting a few steps away on the platform. The thought "I could push that old lady on the tracks right now," might cross his mind.

Most others would then think, "That was random; what a strange thing to think. I'm sure not going to do that," and contentedly resume texting, reading subway ads, or staring into space.

Our friend who believes that thought equals action, however, thinks that this thought means, deep down, he really wants to, or will, send our unsuspecting granny to her demise. He thinks, "What a horrible thing to think! I must be going crazy. I need to get out of here before I kill her!" He scuttles away, ashamed, confused, and very distressed, convinced that having the thought is as bad as doing the deed.

To shake yourself free of a belief in thought-action fusion, remember that there is a clear difference between thinking a strange or dangerous thing and taking action on that strange or dangerous thing. If the thought of drinking all the water out of your toilet bowl pops into your head, that's one thing. If you find yourself actually starting to do it, you may want to seek some professional help, as well as some antibiotics.

Belief that thoughts are overly important can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. Sometimes this happens with new parents. Post-partum depression is a well-known occurrence, but post-partum OCD is a lesser-known woe of some new moms and dads. A new mom might have a thought, for example, about dropping, hurting, or drowning 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. It is only when the line between thought and action is actually crossed that dangerousness becomes an issue.

Trying to stop a thought, called thought suppression, counterintuitively, makes it pop up more often. Thought suppression doesn't work because you have to remember what it is 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. So it is 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 mean your brain is working.

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen hosts the weekly Savvy Psychologist podcast on iTunes.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.