Science

Uncomfortable Oxford: imposter syndrome and intrusive thoughts

Did I lock my door?

What if I’m gay?

Does everyone just pretend to like me?

What would happen if I jumped out in front of a car?

Do I belong here?

These are all intrusive thoughts – unprompted and often unwanted thoughts which run contrary to people’s true beliefs. Many Oxford students will know that the latter question is one that can plague the university experience. Despite how it may feel, having these thoughts is not unhealthy. That’s good news for the 80% of people who regularly experience some form of intrusive thought.

It is not the thoughts themselves that can lead to issues, but how these thoughts are dealt with. The important realisation about intrusive thoughts is that they do not represent what you truly think and they certainly do not represent who you are. Reaching this realisation is one that many people of student age struggle to reach. Studies have shown that younger adults (16-25) experience a higher recurrence in their intrusive thoughts and are more affected by these thoughts than older adults.

The ability to inhibit thought processes is quite a complex process controlled by an area in the frontal region of your brain called the prefrontal cortex. Inhibition is a process which must integrate language, perception, motor movements and high-level cognitive functions such as intrusive thoughts. Testing inhibition was first conceptualised with a simple Stroop task, commonly be seen in brain training games like in the image below.

Stroop task: A participant would have to say red for the first card and green for the second. Reaction time and accuracy can be used as a measure of inhibition ability

Individuals who were worse at the Stroop task were also worse at thought suppression tasks. The ability to inhibit default responses does not reach its full potential until the age of 21 and the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the age of 25. This seems strongly suggestive of the fact that students are at a high risk of failing to suppress intrusive thoughts which, without intervention can lead to anxiety, depression and obsessional ritualisation (otherwise known as OCD).

Students are not only likelier to experience intrusive thoughts but are most likely to experience the most devastating kind of intrusive thoughts, ones that run directly counter to our self-conceptualisations. For example, a religious person with unsuppressed intrusive thoughts of blasphemy will be far more affected than a non-religious person, experiencing more guilt, obsessions and negative thoughts.

Similarly, whether we like it or not, studying at Oxford becomes an intrinsic part of a student’s personality. Often, pressure from family and friends, particularly at home, helps perpetuate this idea that a person’s identity and intelligence boil down to being an ‘Oxford student’. I for one can’t count the times I’ve been asked “don’t you go to Oxford?” as I struggle to find a misplaced object! Intrusive thoughts that suggest a student doesn’t belong in Oxford can be particularly damaging, the thoughts are maintained for a longer period and actively trying to suppress these thoughts has been shown to only make matters worse.

So what can be done?

One of the most important things for all manners of intrusive thoughts is to normalise them. To the majority of people, intrusive thoughts come and go, they do not affect them in an adverse way and they are aware that they do not influence their self-perception or their identity. These intrusive thoughts should be more broadly accepted concepts and should be easy to talk about. By acknowledging the absurd nature of these thoughts, misconceptions about their meaning can be more easily dismissed by those at risk. 

Yet for some people it is too late to normalise these thoughts. They have dwelled on them for too long and, by this point, they have fully given in to the misconception that they do not belong here. This is, of course, blatantly not true. Not only have these people passed Oxford’s rigorous interview and admissions process, but they have also done excellently in their A-levels at school.

It is so important that these people do not think they have ‘tricked’ their way into Oxford and instead recognise that they have real symptoms of real psychological disorders which can completely warp cognitive processes. Reaching out to friends, family, and, most importantly, professional help is crucial. Professional therapy (CBT) has been proven to help many people who have all kinds of psychological disorders and its value cannot be understated.

Unfortunately, it is not always up to the students whether they have CBT or not. Despite therapy’s proven benefit for the majority of people it is not available for everyone and waiting times can still be painfully slow. It is the responsibility of universities to provide better services for its students, especially for a high stress environment such as Oxford.

Admittedly, mental health services here in Oxford are far from the worst in the country and this country is far from the worst in the world. Yet, it is still very far from perfect and a nationwide effort should be made to make therapy more accessible for all, with some research stating it wouldn’t cost a thing!