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Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive Thoughts, Causes, Conditions, Diagnosis & Effective Treatment

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that seem to become stuck in your mind. They can cause distress since the nature of the thought might be upsetting. They may also re-occur frequently, which can make the concern worse. Intrusive thoughts [1] may be violent or disturbing. They may be thoughts of a sexual nature, including fantasies. They can also be about behaviors you find unacceptable and disgusting.

These thoughts, however, are just thoughts. They seemingly appear out of nowhere and cause anxiety, but they have no meaning in your life. They’re not warning messages or red flags. They’re simply thoughts. What gives them power is that those who experience them become worried about their significance. As a result, people may fixate on them and become ashamed, intent on keeping them secret from others.

As long as you recognize that these are thoughts only and you have no desire to act on them, intrusive thoughts aren’t harmful.

Common Type of Intrusive Thoughts

  • Sexual intrusive thoughts
  • Relationship Intrusive thoughts
  • Religious intrusive thoughts
  • Violent intrusive thoughts

Causes from Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are a type [2] of OCD. OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a common [3] disorder that involves obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. People with PTSD can also experience[4] intrusive and frightening thoughts. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a condition that develops following a traumatic event. People with PTSD may become hyper-aroused and experience flashbacks to a traumatic situation. They might also share intrusive thoughts that relate to the trauma.


A person does not have to live with intrusive thoughts. Several treatment options are available for people experiencing intrusive thoughts.

  • Medications for OCD might include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other antidepressants, such as clomipramine, a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI).

Although people typically use SRIs to treat depression, these drugs can help with OCD symptoms. They can take 8–12 weeks[5] to begin working for intrusive thoughts.

The ADAA[6] offers some tips for dealing with intrusive thoughts. These include:

  • Identifying the thoughts as intrusive
  • Clarifying that they are involuntary and irrelevant to daily life
  • Accepting their presence instead of pushing them away
  • Continuing normal behavior
  • Understanding that the ideas may return
  • Practicing meditation or mindfulness

A person should avoid:

  • Pushing the thoughts away
  • Trying to figure out what they “mean”
  • Engaging with the thoughts

What conditions include intrusive thoughts?

Anyone can experience intrusive thoughts. More than 6 million[1] people in the United States may share them. Unfortunately, many more people may not report them to their doctors or therapists. Intrusive thoughts aren’t always the result of an underlying condition. However, they’re also not likely to indicate you have a problem that requires medical attention.

However, for some people, intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of a mental health condition.

Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts can cause distress since the nature of the thought might be upsetting. 
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when intrusive thoughts become uncontrollable. These thoughts (obsessions) may cause you to repeat behaviors (compulsions) in the hope that you can end the views and prevent them from occurring in the future. Examples of this intrusive thought include worrying about locking doors and turning off ovens or fearing bacteria on surfaces. A person with OCD may develop a routine of checking and rechecking locks several times or washing their hands multiple times a day. In both cases, this is an unhealthy result that interferes with their quality of life.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience intrusive thoughts connected to a traumatic event. These thoughts may trigger some of the physical symptoms of PTSD, such as increased heart rate and sweating. In some cases, these thoughts can be so severe they lead to flashbacks and intense psychological distress.
  • Eating Disorders: People who have developed an eating disorder may experience intrusive thoughts that are harmful to their mental health. The thoughts can eventually damage their physical health. People with an eating disorder frequently worry about the physical impact food will have on their bodies. That, in turn, leads to significant distress about eating. It may also cause different behaviors, such as purging, to stop the thoughts.

How are intrusive thoughts diagnosed?

The first step toward a diagnosis is talking with a healthcare provider. They’ll review your symptoms and health history. Then, they may conduct a complete physical exam and, in some cases, a preliminary psychological evaluation.

If they find no physical issue leading to intrusive thoughts, they may refer you to a mental health professional. These individuals are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of possible causes for intrusive thoughts, including OCD and PTSD.

Through one-on-one sessions, you and your therapist will work to uncover the thoughts when they occur and how you respond to them. This will help them come to a diagnosis and decide whether there’s another possible cause.

The primary difference between intrusive thoughts that occur in clinical anxiety and those that do not is how these thoughts are appraised. Individuals with clinical anxiety are more likely to judge their intrusive thoughts as harmful, immoral, or dangerous. Such interpretations generally lead to emotional activation, which increases the perceived strength of the intrusive thoughts, increasing the level of focus upon the thought.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or mental images that make people feel uncomfortable.
 Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or mental images that make people feel uncomfortable.

People with clinical anxiety are also more likely to spend more time thinking about the implications of these thoughts and take measures to attempt to prevent the feared potential consequences from occurring. Furthermore, they are more likely to overestimate the probability of experiencing these feared outcomes. People without clinical anxiety are more apt to dismiss such thoughts as out-of-character and go on about their day.

Others may suggest that people struggling with intrusive thoughts distract themselves, get their mind off of these thoughts, or “simply” don’t worry about them. While this advice may be well-intentioned, adherence is generally not feasible in the presence of clinical anxiety. It is also not supported by research. Thought suppression (or attempts to banish a thought otherwise) tends to have a boomerang effect: no matter how hard you try to push them away, they continue to make their way back into your consciousness.

Imagine that you were at a pool, and there was a giant inflatable beach ball in the water. In this comparison, the beachball represents your thought(s). You decide to try to shove the beachball underneath the waterline (i.e., you attempt to stuff down your intrusive thought). This requires a notable amount of both effort and strength. You most likely won’t be able to do it, or at least not for very long. And the moment you let up, even the slightest bit, the beach ball/intrusive thought will pop right back out of the water and back into your awareness.

There is a very BIG difference between thinking and doing. In the presence of anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, these thoughts should especially not be stopped, but rather, they should be examined, confronted, and worked through.

Intrusive Thoughts
Seek help if you are experiencing severe symptoms of having intrusive thoughts that affect your life. Reclaim your life and enjoy it once again.

This is the approach embedded within Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). By learning how to come into contact with intrusive thoughts systematically, individuals can learn to effectively address these intrusions in ways that provide much more than the temporary relief offered by thought suppression, compulsive rituals, checking behaviors, and frequent confessing/apologizing. In essence, these treatments will decrease both the frequency and the power of intrusive thoughts. Combined, CBT and ERP can reverse the cycle between intrusive thoughts, misappraisals, emotional activation/distress, and compulsive behaviors.

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts and Are They Normal?

We’re not sure why these thoughts suddenly pop into our heads, but some psychologists have theories. For example, psychologist Lynn Somerstein (2016) suggests that perhaps recurring or frequent intrusive thoughts are a sign of something difficult or something going wrong in a person’s life.

Perhaps they are struggling with relationship problems, stress at work, or frustration with parenting and trying to keep it from bubbling over. However, instead of staying politely buried, it finds other ways to work its way up to the surface.

Although we aren’t sure where they come from, they keep coming back to bother you sitting there, dwelling on them. The more we try not to think of something, the more we end up thinking of it.

Suppose I tell you NOT to think about a purple elephant. In that case, you can think about anything else in the world, but do not let the image of a purple elephant come into your mind—how long do you think you can last before a picture of a purple elephant pops into your head? For most people, it’s not very long before they succumb to the image they have been instructed not to see.

When we have a healthy, neurotypical brain and a good grasp on how to monitor our thoughts and allow them to pass right on by, these thoughts are nothing more than a blip on our radar. However, if you find yourself regularly dealing with unwanted, violent, disturbing, or bizarre thoughts, you may be dealing with a severe mental health issue. The two most common diagnoses associated with intrusive thoughts are anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

If you feel you have more intrusive thoughts than average or often dwell on these thoughts, you may be suffering from one of these disorders. Read on to learn more about intrusive thoughts, how they relate to each of these disorders, and what you can do about it.

People can also experience “intrusive thoughts,” meaning passing thoughts such as “What would happen if I killed myself?” that don’t necessarily signify intent or major mental health disorders.
People can also experience “intrusive thoughts,” meaning passing thoughts such as “What would happen if I killed myself?” that don’t necessarily signify intent or major mental health disorders.

In addition to medication, therapy, and hypnosis, there are some self-help methods to lessen your symptoms and improve your quality of life when dealing with these thoughts.

We Level Up FL Treatment Center provides world-class care with round-the-clock medical professionals available to help you cope. In addition, we work as an integrated team providing information about intrusive thoughts and other aspects of treatment. Make this your opportunity to reclaim your life. Call today to speak with one of our treatment specialists. Our specialists know what you are going through and answer any of your questions.

Your call is private and confidential, and there is never any obligation.