In 30 seconds
Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome, involuntary, or unwanted thoughts that pop into our heads at random. Often, they can be unpleasant, disturbing, or distressing, particularly as they are often recurring. But there are ways to manage such thoughts. Remembering that they are just thoughts is often the first step. But if you begin to fixate or obsess over them, cognitive behaviour therapy can help.
Dealing with Unwanted Thoughts
The thought may feel like it comes out of nowhere. It might feel embarrassing or shameful, or even disturbing or scary. Whatever it is that comes into your mind, it can bring long-lasting negative emotions – particularly if you try to push that thought away.
These unpleasant, unwelcome, or unwanted ideas or mental images are known as intrusive thoughts. However disturbing they may feel, they are really common – and they shouldn’t affect the way you see yourself as a person.
Here, we take you through the psychology behind intrusive thoughts – from why we have them to what you can do about them.
What are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, senseless, or disturbing thoughts that may make you feel negative emotions. They pop up involuntarily or completely at random, in moments in which you are doing something else. And they can recur again and again.
These thoughts can be particularly disturbing or distressing because their content can often be sexual, violent, or abhorrent to you. In these cases, it is normal that you may judge yourself, or feel embarrassed or ashamed.
Importantly, the vast majority of people experience unwanted intrusive thoughts. In fact, one global study found that 94% of people have them. You are not alone.
In fact, with these numbers, intrusive thoughts should be considered a normal part of life. But it may be that your response to them is problematic. If you worry about these thoughts excessively, if you obsess over them, or if they affect your mental health or self-esteem, talk to someone about how you are feeling. It can help.
What Can Trigger Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can just happen at random. But they can also be triggered by underlying stresses, anxieties, or health changes:
- External stresses. Work, relationships, and financial worries can all lead to an increase in intrusive thoughts. Usually, it is not that stress itself causes these thoughts. Rather, when you are stressed, you might pay more attention or give more value to these thoughts.
- Big life changes. If you have just started university or a new job, for example, you may feel more anxious than usual. That’s normal, but it can encourage you to dwell on unpleasant thoughts.
- Concerning historical events. Studies have recently looked into the link between COVID-19 and intrusive thoughts. The pandemic has been a stressful time for many people and it’s normal that you might notice negative feelings more often.
- Childbirth and new parenthood. Hormonal changes after having a child can be a common cause of intrusive thoughts. According to one study, 100% of new mothers have worrying thoughts about their baby being harmed, while half have thoughts about harming the baby themselves. These appear to be particularly common when new parents have little support.
Intrusive thoughts don’t always need a trigger. Sometimes, they just happen. That’s normal too.
Is Intrusive Thoughts a Mental Illness?
No, intrusive thoughts are not a mental illness. They are really common – and will affect the majority of us at some point during our lives.
However, intrusive thoughts that are particularly distressing are often associated with some mental health conditions:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Intrusive thoughts are commonly associated with OCD. But having intrusive thoughts alone does not mean you have this condition. Instead, OCD occurs when these thoughts become uncontrollable and affect your quality of life. For example, you may develop compulsions, such as frequent hand washing, as a result of these obsessive thoughts.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are living with PTSD, you may experience intrusive thoughts connected to a particular traumatic event. But reliving a stressful moment in your mind is not enough to be diagnosed with PTSD. This anxiety disorder has specific symptoms, including flashbacks, psychological distress, and physical symptoms such as increased heart rate.
- Eating disorders. People with eating disorders may experience intrusive thoughts related to what they eat. This may lead you to compulsive behaviours such as overeating or making yourself throw up. It can have a big impact on your daily life.
It is important to be clear: just because you have intrusive thoughts, it does not mean you have a mental health problem. However, if you are concerned, do talk to a doctor, a family member or loved one, or a mental health professional. They can help.
How Do You Stop Intrusive Thoughts?
You may not be able to stop intrusive thoughts, but there are effective ways to manage them. These include, first of all, changing your attitude towards these thoughts:
- Remember that thoughts are automatic. It’s important to recognise that you do not decide what passes through your mind.
- See these thoughts for what they are. They are just thoughts. They do not mean that you want to act out a particular scene and they don’t define who you are. In fact, they don’t mean anything.
- Expect the thoughts to return. It’s in the nature of intrusive thoughts to recur. Don’t be surprised if they return.
- Don’t try to combat the thoughts all the time. Fighting these thoughts can give them more power than they should have – and can lead to distress for you.
- Continue what you were doing before the intrusive thought arrived. As well as you can, try to carry on as normal.
How a Doctor Can Help
If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts, or feel like you have OCD symptoms, a doctor can help. If they believe it is necessary, they can prescribe the following:
- Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). A common and effective psychotherapeutic practice, CBT involves changing your behaviour by changing negative patterns of thought. For this, you will need to go to a counsellor or psychologist, who will help you learn to become less sensitive to these negative thoughts.
- Exposure and response prevention (ERP). A well-studied treatment for OCD, ERP works by exposing you to your common triggers and helping you to find responses that are healthier. It sounds scary, but it has been found to be highly effective.
- Medication. In some cases, you may be prescribed medication. Antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common treatment options.
Intrusive thoughts are recurring unwanted thoughts that can be deeply distressing or unpleasant. They are really common, affecting nearly everyone at some point throughout their life.
If you are concerned about intrusive thoughts, do talk to a doctor. They can help.
What is the Best Way to Stop Intrusive Thoughts?
The best way to manage intrusive thoughts is not to try to stop them. Remember, however unpleasant, these thoughts are just thoughts. They do not have any meaning for your character or desires.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts, talk to a doctor. They may be able to treat you with CBT or medication.
How Often Does Someone Have Intrusive Thoughts?
The majority of people have intrusive thoughts and they can happen quite often. Studies show that while the frequency of these thoughts is quite stable throughout your life, older people tend to show greater difficulty in controlling them. However, younger adults tend to ascribe greater meaning to them.