Intrusive thoughts happen to those in the recovery community and to people who have never struggled with addiction. Intrusive thoughts are common for those who suffer from mental health conditions such as OCD, anxiety, and PTSD, but they can happen to anyone. The good news is, though these types of thoughts can be scary, they are not a marker of who you are as a person and they don’t have to stick around.
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 reoccur frequently, which can make the concern worse. This type of thought is maybe violent or disturbing. They may be thoughts of a sexual nature, including fantasies. They can also be about behaviors you find unacceptable and abhorrent.
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. 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, these types of thoughts aren’t harmful.
They are generally the opposite of our actual desires, meaning a peaceful person may have an intrusive thought about committing a violent act, for example. There is no doubt that intrusive thoughts can be disturbing. They vary from person to person but can include violent thoughts, bad memories, or even thoughts that are explicitly sexual. Many people mistake this type of thought for impulses, but the two are completely different. These types of thoughts are essential “brain junk” that will fade quickly if not given much attention.
What conditions include intrusive thoughts?
Anyone can experience intrusive thoughts. More than 6 million people in the United States may experience them. Many more people may not report them to their doctors or therapists. These types of thoughts aren’t always the result of an underlying condition. They’re also not likely to indicate you have a problem that requires medical attention. However, for some people, these types of thoughts can be a symptom of a mental health condition.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when intrusive thoughts become uncontrollable. These types of thoughts (obsessions) may cause you to repeat behaviors (compulsions) in the hope that you can end the thoughts and prevent them from occurring in the future. Examples of this type of 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. Cognitive therapy based on the appraisal model is an effective treatment for OCD, although it does not add to the treatment efficacy of behavior therapy. 
Post-traumatic stress disorder
People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience these types of thoughts that may be 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.
People who have developed an eating disorder may experience this type of 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 great distress about eating. It may also cause additional behaviors, such as purging, to stop the thoughts.
What causes intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can just happen randomly. Some thoughts wander into your brain. Then, just as quickly, they exit. They create no lasting impression. Mundane thoughts leave, but these types of thoughts last longer and often return. In some cases, these types of thoughts are the result of an underlying mental health condition, like OCD or PTSD. These thoughts could also be a symptom of another health issue, such as:
- A brain injury
- Parkinson’s disease
Changes to mental health are nothing to take lightly. Early symptoms of some conditions may include:
- Changes in thought patterns
- Obsessive thoughts
- Thoughts of disturbing imagery
These thoughts are nothing to be ashamed of, but they are a reason to seek a diagnosis and treatment.
Intrusive Thoughts Examples
Thoughts 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. Examples of these thoughts can be:
- Violent thoughts
- Disturbing thoughts
- Thoughts of a sexual nature, including fantasies
- About behaviors you find unacceptable and abhorrent
How to stop intrusive thoughts
In the United States, it’s estimated that over 6 million people struggle with intrusive thoughts. With so many people facing these disturbing thoughts, it’s important to know how to combat them. The secret to controlling these types of thoughts is to ignore them. If a strange thought pops into your head, let the thought pass, and move along with your day. The more attention you pay to these types of thoughts, the more you allow them to burrow into your consciousness, the more power the thought will have. The best way to control intrusive thoughts is to ignore them.
The outlook if you have intrusive thoughts
Treating and preventing intrusive thoughts may take some time, but don’t give up. For conditions like OCD and PTSD, sticking to your treatment plan can help ease symptoms as well as prevent unwanted thoughts. If you experience intrusive thoughts as a result of a chronic condition like dementia or Parkinson’s disease, sticking to your treatment plan can also help reduce unwanted thoughts. CBT is also helpful in these cases. You can learn techniques for coping with these thoughts and moving past them quickly.
Intrusive thoughts are powerful because they “stick” in your mind. Their unusual nature can cause distress and anxiety. They’re upsetting because they feel so foreign. Having intrusive thoughts doesn’t always mean you have an underlying issue or behavior. They are, like so many other thoughts you have in a day, just thoughts. But if your intrusive thoughts are interfering with your day-to-day life, talk with a healthcare provider about your experiences. Getting treatment can help you reduce your sensitivity to the thoughts and react in a better manner if they occur.
Diagnosing Intrusive Thoughts
The first step toward a diagnosis is talking with a healthcare provider. They’ll review your symptoms and health history. They may conduct a full physical exam and, in some cases, a preliminary psychological evaluation.
If they find no physical issue that could be leading to this condition, 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.
Intrusive thoughts Treatment
The best way to manage these types of thoughts is to reduce your sensitivity to the thought and its contents. These strategies may help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Talk therapy is a way for you to discuss distressing thoughts with a mental health expert. You’ll learn ways of thinking and reacting that can help you become less sensitive to this type of thought. In a controlled setting, your therapist may also expose you to triggers for your intrusive thoughts so you can develop healthy responses.
A healthcare provider may prescribe you medication to help balance chemicals in your brain. This is common for conditions like OCD and depression. These prescription drugs include antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
A good step toward treating this type of thought is recognizing what they are: just thoughts. You can learn to label them when they happen and recognize that thoughts are not the same as intent or behavior. Also learning to manage stress through self-care and the development of active coping strategies can help reduce the frequency or intensity of unwanted thoughts.
Reclaim your life
Intrusive thoughts are powerful because they “stick” in your mind. Their unusual nature can cause distress and anxiety. They’re upsetting because they feel so foreign. We Level Up Treatment Center can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to manage this type of thoughts with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
 Julien D, O’Connor KP, Aardema F. Intrusive thoughts, obsessions, and appraisals in obsessive-compulsive disorder: a critical review. Clin Psychol Rev. 2007 Apr;27(3):366-83. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2006.12.004. Epub 2007 Jan 22. PMID: 17240502. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)