What are Intrusive Thoughts?

<p>PeopleImages / Getty Images</p>

PeopleImages / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Dakari Quimby, PhD

Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, unwanted thoughts or images that enter your mind without warning. They can take many forms, such as violent or disturbing thoughts about harming yourself or others, sexual thoughts, or fears about accidents or disasters. No matter their form, intrusive thoughts can be distressing, especially when they contradict your character and beliefs.

Why Do Intrusive Thoughts Happen?

The average person has over 6,200 thoughts daily, and almost everyone has occasional intrusive thoughts. Exactly why intrusive thoughts happen can vary from person to person. Some people’s intrusive thoughts are triggered by temporary stress, anxiety, or hormonal changes. For others, intrusive thoughts can be a sign of an underlying mental health condition.

Possible reasons for why intrusive thoughts happen include: 

  • Stress: When you’re going through a period of increased stress or feeling anxious about a traumatic or stressful event, you may have more intrusive thoughts than usual.

  • Hormonal changes: Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy and postpartum can trigger intrusive thoughts. New parents may have a sudden thought or fear of dropping their newborn or alarming thoughts of harming their new baby.

  • Anxiety disorders: Anxiety can make people more sensitive to potential threats or dangers, leading to an overactive fear response. This can generate intrusive thoughts that reflect your worst fears and worries, such as accidents, illnesses, or social situations.

  • Depression: People with depression can experience persistent negative, intrusive thoughts about themselves, the world, and the future.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) performed to relieve the distress caused by the thoughts. For people with OCD, intrusive thoughts can dominate their daily lives and significantly impact their quality of life.

  • Eating disorders: Many people with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, experience intrusive thoughts about body image, weight, and food.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Trauma or past experiences can create intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event. Reminders of the event or experiencing similar situations may trigger these thoughts.

Related:4 Ways To Stop the Cycle of Negative Repetitive Thoughts—Rumination

What Are Examples of Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts can pop into your head seemingly out of nowhere as you go about your day. They can manifest in different ways, ranging from nonsensical to scary. Many intrusive thoughts center around themes of violence, sex, taboo topics, or something terrible happening.

Most intrusive thoughts are not based on reality and often don’t align with your personality, beliefs, or values. As a result, you might feel guilt, shame, repulsion, and emotional distress when these thoughts enter your mind. 

Examples of common intrusive thoughts include:

  • Hurting yourself or others, even when you have no intention of doing so

  • Inappropriate or taboo sexual acts or scenarios

  • Blasphemous religious thoughts

  • Fear of germs or contamination

  • Worries or doubts about your identity, relationships, and decisions you make

  • Doing something illegal or socially unacceptable

  • Negative self-talk (e.g., thinking you are worthless, incapable, or stupid)

  • Memories of past trauma

  • Nonsensical ideas or images

Having the occasional intrusive thought is a common experience, but if you experience them frequently enough to impact your day-to-day life, talk with a healthcare provider or mental health professional to seek help and support. 

Related:What Is Catastrophizing, and How Do You Stop?

How Can You Manage Intrusive Thoughts?

For some people, intrusive thoughts go away almost as quickly as they came. For others, it can be upsetting to have these thoughts, and you may find yourself questioning who you are, where the thought came from, or if the thoughts reflect your true self.

It can be helpful to remind yourself that just because a thought enters your mind doesn’t make it true, nor is it a reflection of your character. Research suggests that intrusive thoughts go away more quickly if you don’t try to push them away or give them too much attention. The more you fixate on an unwanted intrusive thought, the more likely it is to stick around. The most effective way to manage intrusive thoughts is to acknowledge them as a passing thought and nothing more.

Of course, letting intrusive thoughts pass without self-judgment is easier said than done. These strategies can help you manage intrusive thoughts.

Keep Stress Levels in Check

When your stress levels are high, you’re more likely to experience more frequent intrusive thoughts. Stress can trigger the release of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol), which can worsen anxiety and exacerbate intrusive thoughts.

Keeping your stress levels in check is a good way to help prevent a surge of intrusive thoughts, especially those that focus on self-doubt, fears, and worries. There are many ways to manage stress, including: 

  • Breathing exercises

  • Meditation

  • Mindfulness

  • Regular exercise

  • Engaging in activities or hobbies you enjoy

  • Talking to a trusted family member or friend

It might take some trial and error with various stress management techniques before you find which strategies are most effective for you.

Related:How To Relieve Stress: 15 Ways You'll Want To Try

Get Enough Sleep

Research shows that lack of sleep can increase intrusive thoughts and make it more difficult to regulate your emotions. By prioritizing sleep, you can help keep your brain and body healthy, which may reduce the number of intrusive thoughts you have and help you better manage when they do occur. Strategies to get a good night’s sleep include:

  • Establish a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day

  • Create a sleep-friendly environment, keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature

  • Limit screen time in the evening

  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants in the hours before bedtime

  • Engage in meditation and deep breathing exercises before bedtime to calm your mind

Figure Out The Cause of These Thoughts

Understanding the root cause of intrusive thoughts can help you better manage them and the emotions you feel as they occur. When you know why intrusive thoughts are happening, you can better understand why certain events or activities might trigger an unwanted thought and why certain thoughts evoke feelings of shame, disgust, or fear. It can also help to identify your values and beliefs and remind yourself that intrusive thoughts are not representative of who you are.

For example, if a loved one died in a car accident, you may have intrusive thoughts or images of dying or causing a fatal accident every time you drive. Rather than pushing these thoughts out of your mind or letting them prevent you from leaving your home, you can identify why you have them, accept them without judgment, and develop a compassionate approach to managing them.

See a Mental Health Professional

If intrusive thoughts are causing significant distress or are interfering with your daily life, consider talking to a mental health professional. A mental health professional can provide you with the tools and strategies to manage intrusive thoughts and help improve your mental health. If your intrusive thoughts are a sign of a mental health condition, such as anxiety or OCD, treatment can help manage the condition and help you gain control over your thoughts.

Related:Best Online Therapy Services

A Quick Review

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and often disturbing thoughts or images that enter your mind without warning. Most people experience occasional intrusive thoughts, which may be triggered by hormonal changes or periods of stress and anxiety. For others, intrusive thoughts can indicate a mental health condition, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Understanding the root cause of intrusive thoughts can help manage them effectively. Other strategies that may help cope with unwanted thoughts include stress management, getting good sleep, and figuring out the root cause of the thoughts. Seeking the help of a mental health professional is best if intrusive thoughts are causing significant emotional distress or have begun to have an impact on your daily life.

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