Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and involuntary thoughts, images or urges that interrupt your thinking. These abrupt thoughts can catch you off guard and may feel upsetting or nonsensical. Examples of common intrusive thoughts many people experience are: worries about accidentally causing harm, inappropriate thoughts or images related to sex, taboo thoughts about religion or harming yourself or others, and doubts about relationships, your self-worth or identity. Intrusive thoughts often cause guilt, shame and anxiety. But do intrusive thoughts really mean you’re a bad person or you’re going to act on them? Here’s what you need to know about intrusive thoughts and how to cope.
What causes intrusive thoughts?
It’s not entirely clear what causes intrusive thoughts. Several factors likely contribute to their development, including:
- Stress. Times of high anxiety and stress can make you more prone to experiencing intrusive thoughts.
- Fatigue. Being overtired leaves you less able to ward off unwelcome thoughts.
- Triggers. Certain situations or stimuli in your environment may trigger an intrusive thought.
- Background neural activity. Intrusive thoughts may arise from random firing of neurons in the brain.
- Trauma. Past traumas can lead to experiencing intrusive, disturbing thoughts and images.
- Genetics. Research suggests genetics may predispose someone to developing obsessive-compulsive disorder, which commonly involves intrusive thoughts.
- Medication side effects. Some medications may potentially worsen intrusive thoughts as a side effect.
In most cases, intrusive thoughts are a common experience. Nearly everyone has them from time to time. But for some people, intrusive thoughts occur to the point of causing major distress, get triggered easily or feel impossible to manage. When intrusive thoughts reach this level, it may be a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder that could benefit from professional help.
Are intrusive thoughts normal?
Yes, intrusive thoughts are normal and very common. In fact, various surveys have found that:
- About 94% of people have unwelcome, involuntary thoughts from time to time.
- Roughly 91% of men and 60% of women have imagined or had sexual thoughts about someone other than their partner.
- About 44% of healthy college students have had thoughts about harming themselves.
- 84% of people report having violent thoughts at times.
Having an occasional intrusive thought doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. The vast majority of people never act on them or feel driven to act by them. They are simply an everyday part of being human. Our brains generate all kinds of thoughts, urges and images on autopilot.
Why do I feel guilty about my intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts often cause guilt and shame because they go against your values or sense of identity. Common reasons intrusive thoughts lead to guilt include:
- They go against your morals. For example, harm obsessions.
- They make you feel “impure” or like a bad person. For example, unwanted blasphemous or sexual thoughts.
- They involve a taboo subject. For example, thoughts about inappropriate relationships.
- They contradict how you see yourself. For example, having an unwanted violent thought when you’re a pacifist.
- You fear acting on them. For example, worrying your obsession about harming a loved one means you’re dangerous.
Keep in mind that thoughts don’t define who you are as a person. Having an intrusive thought doesn’t mean you really want to make it happen. It’s just an unwanted thought your brain generated, not an intention or character flaw.
Do intrusive thoughts mean I’m a danger to others or myself?
Intrusive thoughts about harming yourself or others often cause extreme distress over whether you’ll act on these urges. However, unless accompanied by specific plans of harm along with other risk factors, violent or suicidal intrusive thoughts do not signify high risk or imminent danger in the vast majority of cases. Evidence shows:
- Intrusive thoughts alone aren’t dangerous or an accurate gauge of risk.
- Only those with mental illness who have intent and a specific plan are at a higher risk of acting on violent impulses.
- Intrusive thoughts of suicide aren’t predictive of future suicidal acts.
- Focusing on intrusive thoughts can make them worse but isn’t proven to make someone more likely to act on them.
Overall, science clearly shows intrusive thoughts alone do not mean you’re truly at-risk for endangering yourself or others. Your risk stems from having intent paired with a viable plan, access to lethal means and other individual factors.
Do sexual intrusive thoughts mean I’m a deviant or predator?
Unwanted sexual thoughts and images are a hugely common type of intrusive thought. Intrusive sexual thoughts often involve:
- Taboo thoughts about inappropriate relationships
- Forbidden images
- Worrying you’re sexually attracted to someone “off limits” like a friend or family member
- Questioning your sexual orientation
- Worries about secretly being sexually deviant
But having intrusive sexual thoughts doesn’t inherently mean anything about your sexuality or morals, even if they disgust you. They are mental junk created by your brain’s thought-generator, not desires. The content of the thought is less relevant than how much anxiety and guilt it causes you.
Why do I keep having repulsive intrusive thoughts?
Even though intrusive thoughts are common and not dangerous for most people, they can still be very distressing and exhausting to experience. Some common reasons intrusive thoughts persist include:
- Trying to suppress thoughts tends to worsen them. Pushing thoughts out of your mind can make them recur more.
- Hyperfocusing on the thoughts adds fuel to the fire. Ruminating about them strengthens neural pathways.
- Avoiding potential triggers prevents you from habituating. Facing situations is needed to learn the thoughts fade on their own.
- Mental rituals offer temporary relief but reinforce the behavior. Compulsions like counting strengthen the obsession.
- Viewing them as significant and dangerous gives them power. Believing thoughts will make you act on them adds anxiety.
The most effective treatment approach is intentionally not reacting to or interacting with the thoughts at all. This allows your brain to become bored with them over time.
Do intrusive thoughts mean I’m mentally ill or unstable?
Having occasional intrusive thoughts is normal and does not signify mental illness. About 94% of people have intrusive thoughts at times. However, recurrent, persistent intrusive thoughts that cause significant distress or impairment in functioning could potentially be a symptom of a mental health problem like:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – Repeated, unwanted intrusive thoughts are a classic symptom of OCD. People with OCD often experience obsessional fears about contamination, harm, taboo thoughts or symmetry/order.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – Having chronic and uncontrollable worry thoughts is central to GAD. Intrusive worrying thoughts about health, loved ones, finances and other subjects are common.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Re-experiencing symptoms like intrusive memories or flashbacks of past trauma are a key sign of PTSD.
- Depression – Intrusive irrational thoughts like excessive guilt, rumination over flaws or hopelessness characterize depression.
- Bipolar disorder – The manic phase of bipolar often involves racing, disconnected thoughts and reduced inhibition of ideas and impulses.
Overall, while occasional intrusive thoughts are normal, having very frequent or disturbing unwanted thoughts that disrupt your ability to function may warrant consulting a mental health professional.
How to cope with intrusive thoughts
While just about everyone has intrusive thoughts, dealing with them in an unhealthy way can exacerbate and prolong them. Learning to respond effectively can help you manage intrusive thinking. Strategies include:
Notice and accept
Don’t try to push away or suppress intrusive thoughts. Acknowledge them neutrally as a normal product of your brain. Avoid judging, interacting with, or being distressed by them.
Do a grounding or distracting activity like going for a walk, listening to music or calling a friend when bothered by intrusive thinking.
Wait 30 minutes to an hour before reacting to an intrusive thought. Often, the urge to engage with it will fade.
Asking others for frequent reassurance about your thoughts can reinforce them. Limit how often you seek reassurance when possible.
Take good care of yourself through proper rest, nutrition and stress management skills like mindfulness or yoga.
Mentally reframe your interpretation of intrusive thoughts. Remind yourself thoughts don’t control actions or reveal character.
Professional cognitive behavioral therapy uses exposure exercises that intentionally bring on intrusive thoughts in a controlled setting to facilitate habituation.
Certain psychiatric medications like antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs may help reduce intrusive thoughts, especially when part of OCD or another mental health condition.
The most critical first step in coping with intrusive thinking is accepting that nearly everyone has strange thoughts pop into their heads at times. Making peace with your brain’s quirks can take away their power over you.
When to see a mental health provider
Occasional passing intrusive thoughts are generally nothing to worry about. But if you’re experiencing:
- Very frequent or relentless intrusive thinking
- Inability to dismiss thoughts and recurring compulsions
- Severe distress, anxiety or depression
- Urges to act on harmful or dangerous thoughts
- Intrusive thoughts disrupting your daily functioning
It may be time to seek help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. Getting professional support can help you better manage intrusive thinking and determine if it’s a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder needing specific treatment.
- Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, unwanted thoughts, images or urges that can be disturbing but are harmless for most people.
- Having occasional intrusive thoughts is normal and does not mean you’re dangerous, immoral or mentally ill.
- Trying to suppress intrusive thoughts often backfires and fuels recurring thoughts.
- Learning to accept and not interact with intrusive thinking can help diminish its power over time.
- Seeking help from a mental health professional is recommended if intrusive thinking severely disrupts your life.
Overall, intrusive thoughts are a common human experience and rarely signify anything troubling on their own. While uncomfortable, practicing acceptance and avoidance of overanalyzing them will usually lessen their intensity over time. However, if intrusive thinking persists and dominates your thinking against your wishes, seeking professional support can help.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I keep picturing horrible things I don’t want?
Having distressing or graphic unwanted mental images is common. Our brains generate random thoughts and images. Picturing something negative doesn’t mean you actually want it to happen. Trying not to picture something often backfires and strengthens the imagery. Accepting the images as meaningless thoughts allows them to fade.
How do I know if my intrusive thoughts are serious?
Occasional passing intrusive thoughts are not serious for most people. But if they are very frequent, causing significant distress and disrupting your normal functioning, it may signify an underlying mental health condition. Recurrent thoughts of harming yourself or others are especially important to discuss with a professional.
Can I think my way out of intrusive thoughts?
Trying to logic your way out of intrusive thoughts or repeatedly reassure yourself is typically futile. Your analytical mind cannot overpower the irrational, emotional rumination parts of your brain generating intrusive thoughts. Accepting thoughts as random junk from your brain rather than engaging with them is more effective.
Do intrusive thoughts go away on their own?
For most people, intrusive thoughts come and go randomly, often fading over time with no long-term consequences. But getting stuck in cycles of suppressing or avoiding triggers can worsen them. Intentionally facing triggers and learning to sit with uncertainty helps thoughts lose intensity.
Can medication help with intrusive thoughts?
Medication alone is rarely an effective solution for pure intrusive thinking. However, medications like antidepressants and antipsychotics may help lessen intrusive thoughts that are part of disorders like OCD, anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also critical.
Examples of intrusive thoughts
Intrusive thoughts come in many forms. Here are some examples of common categories of intrusive thoughts:
- Deliberately harming or killing someone
- Yelling abuse at someone
- Throwing or breaking things during an argument
- Forbidden or illegal sexual acts
- Being unfaithful
- Engaging in unusual fetishes
- Thoughts against your religious beliefs
- Blasphemous thoughts
- Sacrilegious images
- Being exposed to germs, diseases or toxins
- Making others sick by spreading contamination
- Dirtiness, parasites or being stained
- Things being symmetrical, even, “just right”
- Intense focus on order/organization
- Fear of unintentional mistakes
Intrusive thoughts are an incredibly common, mostly normal experience for the majority of people. While disturbing, upsetting thoughts understandably cause anxiety, guilt or shame, having them does not mean you are immoral, unstable or dangerous. The content of the thoughts often matters less than your judgment of yourself because of them. Challenging catastrophizing interpretations about what the thoughts mean can help remove their power over you. Rather than fruitlessly trying to eliminate or solve intrusive thinking, practicing present-focused thinking and acceptance of your brain’s quirks is the most effective way to cope. However, if intrusive thinking significantly disrupts your ability to function, seeking help from a mental health professional can help you manage symptoms and determine if an underlying condition requires treatment.