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What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 22, 2021

Have you ever had an unwanted thought or image get stuck in your head? Usually you can ignore it and move on. But sometimes, it just keeps popping right back up.

You don’t want to have these sticky, uncomfortable thoughts. So why do they happen to you? They're called “intrusive thoughts” and nearly everyone has them from time to time. They can range from random images to disturbing and violent ideas like punching someone in the face or hurting yourself.

They're usually harmless. But if you obsess about them so much that it interrupts your day-to-day life, this can be a sign of an underlying mental health problem. Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Types of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can come in many forms. Here are a few of them:

Sexual thoughts. It’s natural to often have sexual thoughts, no matter your gender. When you feel uncomfortable with or shocked by such thoughts, you may fixate on them and try hard to push them away. Experts say it’s best to remind yourself that these are just passing, automatic thoughts. They don’t define you in any way.

Violent thoughts. Your thoughts may have dark or violent themes like hurting yourself or someone else. Often, they're just harmless, repetitive thoughts that you have no intention of acting on. You don’t even want them in your head. And they'll pass in time. But if you find yourself planning to follow through on your aggressive thoughts, you need professional help to manage your emotions. Talk to a doctor or a therapist.

Negative thoughts. Sometimes, when things don’t work out as planned, you might think of yourself as a “loser” or feel you’re not good enough. These thoughts should fade as your situation changes. But if they become overwhelming, you could have depression or anxiety. Talk to a mental health professional about how to control your symptoms.

Other types of intrusive thoughts. You can also have bizarre, weird, or paranoid thoughts that are basically "junk" thoughts. You have no control over them, and most of the time, they have no meaning or relevance in your life. It’s best not to take them personally or pay much attention to them. But if they last for a long time, or you keep having episodes of them, talk to your doctor to rule out an underlying mental disorder.

What You Can Do

At the end of the day, most intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. They're not a red flag, or a signal that you actually want to do the disturbing things you're thinking about. If they bother you, you can take steps to cut down on their frequency and intensity.

You can:

  • Recognize and label them for what they are -- intrusive thoughts that you can’t control.
  • Just let them linger, instead of trying to push them away.
  • Accept that they will pass eventually.
  • Give yourself time for them to fade away.
  • Prepare yourself for unwanted thoughts to come back.
  • Continue to do whatever you were doing when the intrusive thoughts flooded your head.

Don’t:

  • Act or engage with these random, repetitive thoughts.
  • Try to question why you’re having them in the first place.
  • Look for meaning behind them.
  • Suppress them. If you do this, you may fixate more on them.

This can be hard to do. But over time, being less sensitive to intrusive thoughts can reduce the emotional effect they may have on you. It also helps you feel more in control of them.

Possible Mental Health Disorders to Watch For

Sometimes, thoughts go beyond being intrusive.

Unwanted, repetitive thoughts could be a sign of OCD. With this type of anxiety disorder, you have recurring, unwanted thoughts you can’t control. You may also have the urge to repeat certain behaviors or actions over and over again.

Delusional thoughts, like thinking someone is always watching you or wants to hurt you, can be a sign of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. If you have these thoughts, talk to a psychiatrist for diagnosis and treatment options.

All these disorders can be treated with medications, behavioral therapy, or a combination of the two.

When to Get Help

If intrusive thoughts consume your energy, cause you distress, or make it hard to go about your day, tell your doctor about them. If necessary, they'll refer you to a behavioral therapist, psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist for further diagnosis and treatment.

If you feel like acting on your intrusive thoughts them in a way that could cause harm to yourself or someone else, get medical help right away.

If you’re thinking of hurting yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK. Or also text “MHA” to 741-741. This will connect you to a trained counselor from the Crisis Text Line.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.”

Resources to Recover: “5 Ways to Free Your Mind from Intrusive Thoughts.”

Mental Health America: “Types of Intrusive Thoughts.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: When Unwanted Thoughts or Repetitive Behaviors Take Over.”

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