It’s common for people to have strange or irrational thoughts pop into their heads from time to time. These odd thoughts are usually fleeting and harmless. But in some cases, having repeated crazy thoughts can be distressing and disruptive to daily life.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere and are bizarre, inappropriate, or nonsensical are known as intrusive thoughts. They are involuntary and may even go against what you know to be true or align with your values. Intrusive thoughts are also sometimes referred to as “unwanted thoughts” or “disruptive thoughts.”
Here are some examples of common intrusive thoughts:
- Thoughts about harming yourself or others
- Sexual thoughts that are disturbing or don’t align with your orientation
- Taboo thoughts about religion, race, or other topics
- Fears of behaving inappropriately or out of control in public
- Exaggerated thoughts about contamination, illness, or disaster
Intrusive thoughts often cause strong feelings of fear, disgust, doubt, or anxiety when they come up. Most people dismiss strange thoughts like these quickly. But in some cases, they can become excessive, feel uncontrollable, and cause significant distress.
What causes intrusive thoughts?
Researchers don’t fully understand why some people struggle with intrusive thoughts. But these are some of the factors that are believed to play a role:
- Brain wiring: Unusual connections between parts of the brain involved in emotional processing and cognitive control may contribute to intrusive thoughts.
- Stress: High stress levels seem to make some people more prone to troubling thoughts, though the exact reason is unclear.
- Trauma: Past trauma and PTSD is linked to increased intrusive thoughts for some people.
- Genetics: Studies on twins suggest intrusive thoughts may have a hereditary component.
- Biochemistry: Brain chemistry abnormalities related to serotonin may also increase risks.
It’s not fully understood why intrusive thoughts surface more for some people versus others. But high stress, fatigue, substance use, and anxiety/depressive disorders can make them worse when they do occur.
Are intrusive thoughts normal?
Yes, almost everyone has strange thoughts like these at some point. Examples of common intrusive thoughts many people experience include:
- Worrying that you left the oven on after leaving home
- Imagining driving your car into oncoming traffic
- Fear of blurting out an insult during an important meeting
- Impulse to kiss a stranger or acquaintance
Intrusive thoughts like these that briefly pop into your head and cause minimal distress are generally nothing to worry about. The human brain is complex and thoughts outside of our control are common.
However, recurring intrusive thoughts that feel completely foreign, make you question your character, or cause significant anxiety and impairment may be signs of an underlying mental health issue that should be addressed.
When are intrusive thoughts serious?
Most people dismiss odd thoughts and don’t read much into them. But in some cases, intrusive thoughts become excessive, feeling uncontrollable and constant. This may be a sign of an anxiety-related mental health disorder.
Intrusive thoughts are considered problematic and concerning when they:
- Are persistent and very frequent throughout the day
- Cause significant distress, fear, or disgust
- Negatively impact your self-image and feelings of self-worth
- Disrupt your daily functioning and ability to concentrate
- Contribute to avoidance behaviors and compulsive rituals
You may want to speak to a mental health professional if your intrusive thoughts:
- Make you feel ashamed, guilty, or anxious
- Make you question your character or feel out of control
- Cause you to avoid certain situations out of fear
- Interfere with work, school, relationships, or other parts of life
What mental health disorders involve intrusive thoughts?
Here are some examples of mental health conditions that can involve distressing, uncontrollable intrusive thoughts as a main symptom:
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Recurring intrusive thoughts are characteristic of OCD, along with compulsive behaviors done to reduce anxiety caused by the thoughts.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Re-experiencing trauma through intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares is a hallmark of PTSD.
- Depression: Depressive disorders are sometimes linked to constant ruminating thoughts relating to guilt, failure, or worthlessness.
- Schizophrenia: Auditory hallucinations and delusional thinking can lead to strange, irrational thoughts.
- Body dysmorphic disorder: Obsessive intrusive thoughts about perceived physical flaws are central to this disorder.
Identifying whether an underlying mental health issue may be contributing to intrusive thoughts is an important step in learning how to manage them.
How are intrusive thoughts treated?
Getting intrusive thoughts under control typically involves one or more of these treatment approaches:
- Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy helps patients relate to thoughts differently and reduce compulsions. Exposure therapy can also treat underlying fears.
- Medication: Prescription antidepressants and antipsychotics may alleviate intrusive thoughts, especially when an anxiety, depressive, or obsessive compulsive disorder is present.
- Mindfulness-based therapies: Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and stress management can help improve coping with distressing thoughts.
- Brain stimulation: Non-invasive brain stimulation like TMS has shown promise for reducing drug-resistant obsessive compulsive symptoms.
The most effective treatment plans involve a combination of therapy, medication (if warranted), lifestyle changes, and support from loved ones. Getting adequate sleep, proper nutrition, regular exercise, and decreasing stress is also very important.
Coping strategies for intrusive thoughts
While getting professional mental health treatment is advised, you can also try these self-help coping techniques to better manage upsetting, irrational thoughts:
- Mindfulness: Pause, acknowledge the thought, label it as intrusive, and bring your focus back to the present.
- Thought stopping: Visualize a stop sign and block out the thought when it enters your mind.
- Distraction: Remove yourself from the situation and get engaged in another activity.
- Self-care: Make sure you get enough sleep, physical activity, nutritious foods, and social connection.
- Cognitive restructuring: Challenge irrational thoughts and replace them with more realistic perspectives.
It’s also helpful to confide in trusted friends and family. Speaking about intrusive thoughts can release shame, anxiety, and power over them. Support groups can also normalize the experience and help you see you aren’t alone.
When to see a doctor
Occasional strange thoughts are normal. But if intrusive thoughts become very frequent, persistent, or cause significant impairment in your life, speaking to a doctor is recommended.
See a doctor or mental health professional right away if your intrusive thoughts:
- Are violent, aggressive, or disturbing
- Make you feel suicidal or like harming yourself
- Cause intense anxiety, guilt, shame, or hopelessness
- Prevent you from going to work, school, or socializing
- Lead to rituals or avoidance behaviors that disrupt your daily routine
A psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or other mental health provider can help assess what may be causing your intrusive thoughts. From there, they can determine the best treatment options to help you regain peace of mind.
Bizarre thoughts and mental images popping up unexpectedly is an experience most people have from time to time. This is generally nothing to be concerned about.
However, intrusive thoughts that are frequent, intense, and interfere with your life may indicate an underlying issue like OCD, PTSD, or another mental health disorder. Left untreated, these intrusive thoughts can get worse over time and seriously impact your mental health and quality of life.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help if intrusive thoughts are causing you distress or disrupting your daily functioning. With proper diagnosis and treatment, relief from recurring crazy thoughts is possible.