What are intrusive thoughts?

Do you ever have thoughts that disturb or upset you? Ones that are completely unwelcome, and not something that you would ever choose to think or act on for yourself? These are called intrusive thoughts. They can be violent, sexual, or emotionally disturbing thoughts that pop up out of nowhere.

If you have these thoughts, you’re not alone, and you’re not a bad person. 

Intrusive thoughts are, unfortunately, quite common. And while this is not quite good news (wouldn’t it be great if intrusive thoughts didn’t happen for anyone!), it can help assuage the anxiety that comes with them a bit. If they happen to many of us, then no, of course you’re not crazy or a bad person for having them! It is also a great reminder that while yes we may have these thoughts, they do not define our character. 

Since we know that many people experience these kinds of thoughts, we know that having the thoughts is not the problem. The problem comes when these thoughts cause: 

  • Shame
  • Embarrassment 
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety

Instead of simply dismissing the intrusive thoughts, we often latch onto them, fixate on them, and begin feeling any (or all) of the above feelings, which then hinders our ability to move on from the upsetting thoughts. We take on responsibility for the intrusive thoughts, causing ourselves more emotional distress. 

Where do they come from?

Sometimes intrusive thoughts just happen. Other times, a change in your health (brain injury, dementia, etc.) could trigger these thoughts. There are also many chronic conditions that can cause intrusive thoughts, such as: 

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

If you notice increased frequency in unwelcome thoughts, that is a good reason to seek medical attention from a trusted provider.

What can you do when you have them?

Like we said above, the intrusive thoughts themselves are not necessarily the problem. Well they are unwelcome and upsetting, the problem comes when we fixate or ruminate on them, rather than dismissing them, and let them determine how we see ourselves, and how we act. 

So how do you stop yourself from latching onto intrusive thoughts when they pop up?

First, you need to be able to recognize them:

Much of the issue is that we treat intrusive thoughts just like any other thought we have. We assume it came from our own beliefs or desires, just like the rest of our thoughts. In reality, intrusive thoughts don’t reflect our beliefs or desires. But treating them as though they do is where the distress comes from. 

If instead you are able to point out an intrusive thought as it happens, you are much less likely to believe it is truly reflecting your beliefs, desires, or true thoughts. A simple “this is an intrusive thought” as soon as it pops up can make a big difference. 

Remind yourself intrusive thoughts are unwelcome, unreliable, and not a reflection of you:  

Intrusive thoughts are rude guests who came over without being invited and made themselves right at home. This is probably not the kind of guest you would normally welcome into your home, so why would you welcome them into your mind? After you have recognized the intrusive thought for what it is, remind yourself that it is unwelcome. Just because it came in and plopped itself down on your mind’s couch, doesn’t mean you have to extend the invitation for it to stay. 

Remind yourself that these thoughts are also unreliable. Intrusive thoughts can manifest from depression, PTSD, anxiety, etc.  They don’t reflect the reality you are in. They don’t reflect your true beliefs, they are simply an unfortunate symptom of these conditions. 

Seek professional help: 

If intrusive thoughts are something you experience frequently, you could likely use some external support. Therapy and medication (when necessary) are great tools to manage & address chronic or frequent intrusive thoughts. 

Learning how to manage intrusive thoughts effectively is really tricky. If you need help figuring out how, our clinicians can help.