Key Takeaways

  • Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that cause distress. They can cause severe anxiety and often revolve around taboo or violent subjects.
  • Having intrusive thoughts isn’t a sign that you want to act upon them. They don’t reflect your inner desires or define your character.
  • Intrusive thoughts are incredibly common and are sometimes associated with certain mental health conditions. You can learn to manage them with the right support.

Everyone experiences uncomfortable thoughts from time to time. For example, if your doctor orders some blood work because you’re having unexplained fatigue, you may worry about the results. You may even fixate on the worst-case scenario, afraid that there’s something seriously wrong with your health. These fears may remain at the forefront of your mind until your doctor calls with your test results. 

But this experience, while certainly nerve-wracking, is different from struggling with intrusive thoughts. Unlike the worries about blood work (which are tied to a real-life concern), intrusive thoughts can arise out of nowhere. They may involve distressing imagery and are difficult to control.  So if your thoughts are seriously upsetting and you can’t seem to push them out of your mind, you might be experiencing intrusive thoughts.

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, repetitive ideas or impulses that cause distress. These thoughts are often related to sensitive topics like:
  • Violence
  • Abuse
  • Sex
  • Illness
  • Suicide
  • Religion
  • Death 
Some people worry that having these thoughts means that they have an unconscious desire to act upon them. But most people experiencing intrusive thoughts want nothing to do with these disturbing ideas and will never carry them out. For example, people who consider themselves pacifists may still struggle with violent intrusive thoughts. In other words, intrusive thoughts don’t define you as a person. One of the most troubling aspects of intrusive thoughts is the stigma that surrounds them. This stigma causes a fear of judgment that makes it difficult to ask for help and leaves people to struggle in isolation.  If you or someone you care about is struggling with intrusive thoughts, here are some things to keep in mind:
  • Intrusive thoughts are not hidden desires. Having an intrusive thought is not an indicator that a person intends to act on the thought.
  • Practice kindness and acceptance. It can be terrifying to have intrusive thoughts on taboo or violent topics. So be kind to yourself if you’re having this experience and have compassion if someone discloses this experience to you.
  • Intrusive thoughts are more common than you think. Some research indicates that 90% of the population will experience them at some point. 
  • Anyone can experience intrusive thoughts. While intrusive thoughts are commonly associated with certain mental health concerns, you don’t have to have a mental illness to have them.

What causes intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts can be triggered by a variety of factors such as stress, hormonal shifts, using certain substances or medications, and even some physical health conditions.  But intrusive thoughts could also indicate the presence of the following mental health concerns:
  • Anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): In OCD a person has repeated intrusive thoughts that cause acute anxiety. The person then engages in a series of compulsive rituals or behaviors in an attempt to resolve their anxiety. 
  • Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): In the aftermath of trauma, a person may struggle with upsetting memories (sometimes called flashbacks) of the event. It can be difficult to control these intrusive memories and people will often go to great lengths to avoid anything that may remind them of the event. 
  • Depression: People living with depression often ruminate or fixate on negative thoughts, experiences, or feelings. This can lead to a cycle of intrusive thoughts and damaging self-talk that can perpetuate a belief that things won’t get better.
  • Other mental health conditions like eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also feature intrusive thoughts.

How to stop intrusive thoughts

Dealing with the occasional intrusive thought is a common experience. But if you’re struggling to get disturbing images out of your mind, here are some strategies that can help:
  • Learn to label your thoughts. The first step in overcoming intrusive thoughts is beginning to recognize them. When these thoughts arise, remember that they’re separate from your identity and do not define your character.
  • Prioritize self-care. Keeping your stress level in check can also help reduce negative thoughts. Specifically, make sure you’re getting adequate sleep. Research shows a link between intrusive thoughts and stress-induced insomnia.
  • Know your triggers. See if you can identify where your intrusive thoughts are coming from. And rather than judging your thoughts, respond with a mindful approach and focus on the present moment. You can also experiment with calming techniques like deep breathing or meditation.
  • Talk to a professional. If your intrusive thoughts are causing significant distress and interrupting your ability to live your life, talking to a therapist can help. Look for someone who specializes in treating anxiety, OCD, and other conditions which commonly cause intrusive thoughts. 

Finding help for intrusive thoughts

For a long time, the stigma surrounding intrusive thoughts made it difficult to talk about them. But now that more people are speaking openly about their experience we’re gaining a better understanding of where intrusive thoughts come from and what it takes to manage them.  You don’t have to have a mental health condition like OCD, PTSD, or depression to experience intrusive thoughts. But if you’re struggling to push unwanted images or impulses out of your mind, you may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional who can make an assessment and help you identify your triggers.  Therapists who work with Rula come from a wide variety of backgrounds and specialize in treating many different types of mental health challenges, including intrusive thoughts. So if you or someone you care about is in need of support, we invite you to explore how our platform can help you find a therapist who’s right for you. 

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