Updated May 3, 2023
Many parents understand what it is like to have horrifying thoughts about their child being harmed in some way. Most everyone experiences moments of frustration or anger when a violent thought creeps in and then subsides. It is common to experience anxiety and even play out scenarios about failing when trying something new or starting a new job. Negative thoughts can make their way in and cause anxiety in nearly every situation. It may feel strange to even have these thoughts, and they may recede within moments.
For some people, intrusive thoughts present as a short-term issue. For others, they’re a daily challenge. Do intrusive thoughts ever fully go away? It’s not always possible — or even necessary — to completely stop them. The goal is to take away their power.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
It is believed that more than six million people in the United States experience intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that suddenly enter a person’s consciousness, seemingly out of nowhere, and create a jarring reaction. Often the thought conflicts with the person’s value system and can be disturbingly violent or sexual.
It is not known why these thoughts occur, but for some people, the thoughts may become “sticky,” meaning that they linger or reoccur. People with chronic intrusive thoughts may experience these cognitive sensations as intense anxiety. They may also struggle with spiraling fears that cause the thoughts to intensify and create extreme distress. One example is if a person is constantly interrupted with fearful thoughts about having a heart attack: The thoughts may cause so much anxiety that symptoms mimicking a heart attack actually occur. These types of intrusive thoughts are associated with anxiety or panic attacks.
Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
Whereas everyone experiences some degree of intrusive thoughts at times, unwanted disturbing thoughts are thoughts that cause great distress and consistently recur. These types of thoughts can trigger intense feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and shame. Often the content of the unwanted intrusive thoughts includes violence, such as pushing someone in front of a train or hurting a child. They also commonly include sexual deviance. These types of thoughts can trigger self-doubt and fear since the thought is at odds with the person’s values.
Although not all unwanted intrusive thoughts are the result of a mental disorder or health condition, they can be a symptom.
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can occur for no particular reason. Intrusive thoughts have been studied but there is still no definitive reason for why they happen to people. Some experts believe that intrusive thoughts manifest in rebellion against the things that we would never actually do. Other experts believe that intrusive thoughts are revealing underlying issues in relationships or stability. As our brains wander and are influenced by our surroundings, strange thoughts can occur and linger. Intrusive thoughts have been documented following the following diagnoses:
- Brain trauma
- Parkinson’s disease
Intrusive thoughts are also associated with certain mental health conditions. These and their descriptions follow.
Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Related to Intrusive Thoughts?
When intrusive thoughts or obsessions become uncontrollable to the point that they are affecting daily function, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may be the explanation. OCD-intrusive thoughts that occur repeatedly throughout the day are unhealthy and interfere with quality of life. The thoughts could seem rather benign at first, but the frequency and intensity of the thoughts can create problems. People with OCD intrusive thoughts may experience:
- Fearful thoughts of being contaminated by germs
- Checking and rechecking locks
- Excessive focus on religious or moral thoughts
- Fearful thoughts about not having life’s necessities
- Consuming thoughts about things not being in order
- Excessive thoughts about superstitions
- Fixations on situations that are outside of the person’s control
How can someone tell what is an obsessive vs. intrusive thought? When intrusive thoughts become consuming, governing daily actions and responses, they are crossing over into OCD thoughts. Similarly, when your thoughts interfere with responsibilities and relationships, it is time to seek help for OCD.
Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Related to Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts connected to a traumatic event may occur in people who suffer from PTSD. The intrusive thoughts may become so overwhelming that they cause intense distress. For example, a survivor of a severe car accident may experience intrusive and even obsessive thoughts that prevent them from wanting to travel by car.
Are Eating Disorders Related to Intrusive Thoughts?
People who struggle with eating disorders experience intrusive thoughts on an ongoing basis relating to food, control, and body image. They constantly think about food, calories, and the impact on their body. The obsessive thoughts lead to distress when it comes to food and eating, which has a severe impact on their body.
Tips on How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts
Anyone who experiences intrusive thoughts that disrupt their daily life has wondered how to be free. The consensus among mental health professionals is that the best way to reduce intrusive thoughts is to reduce sensitivity to the thought. A few ways for people to reduce the frequency and impact of intrusive thoughts are to:
- identify the thought as “intrusive” and allow the thought to occur with the understanding that it isn’t a reflection of the whole person.
- practice deep breathing, allowing time to pass.
- accept the intrusive thoughts and expect them to come back without judgment.
- to continue with the activity that triggers the thought and work past the thought.
- practice mindfulness meditation to relieve the anxiety associated with the intrusive thought.
Should the intrusive thoughts persist and cause severe distress or interfere with your quality of life, consider consulting your doctor, and seeking professional treatment.
What Can You Do to Manage Intrusive Thoughts?
Self-care and therapy can help you recognize distressing thoughts for what they are: just thoughts. Your brain may be telling you “stories” that feel very real, but thoughts have no power or significance on their own. Most importantly, they don’t define you or your character.
Wondering, “How do I stop getting stuck on intrusive thoughts?” The first step in breaking the cycle is to become aware of your thought patterns. When an intrusive thought emerges, do you get tangled up in negative emotions and judgment of yourself? Does your body react with physical sensations?
Give Yourself Some Grace
Regain perspective by reminding yourself that all thoughts are temporary. Instead of fighting or wishing them away — which can often make intrusive thoughts worse — see if you can calmly observe and acknowledge them. It takes practice, but you can build up resilience by repeating positive affirmations such as “This is just a passing thought” or “I am a good person.” Mindful meditation apps and visualization techniques may also help ground you with a feeling of control. Imagine placing your unwelcome thoughts on a cloud and watching them float away.
Redirect Your Attention
It’s common for intrusive thoughts to arise when you’re dwelling in the past or fretting about the future. Re-center your focus by finding joy in the present moment. If you enjoy being creative, carve out time to journal, color or draw. See if putting intrusive thoughts to paper reduces their emotional impact. You may also find benefits in a daily nature walk or spending time with a pet. These simple activities help distract you from ruminating thoughts by positively engaging your body and senses. A large study of animal visitation programs demonstrated that just 10 minutes of interaction with animals can lower cortisol stress levels.
Explore Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of psychotherapy that’s particularly helpful for treating thought disorders. Working with a CBT therapist, you’ll learn how to change your distorted thought patterns, calm your mind and body and create more distance between you and your thoughts. The idea is to become less sensitive and reactive to the intrusions, thereby reducing their intensity and frequency.
In many studies, CBT has been shown to be just as effective as — or more effective than — other psychiatric therapies and medications. If you worry that “my disturbing thoughts won’t go away,” contact a compassionate mental health practitioner at FHE to recover your confidence and control. You may begin to feel relief after just a few sessions.
What is the Best Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts?
A mental health professional can evaluate and make a diagnosis. A medication may be prescribed that serves to balance chemicals in the brain. When someone is diagnosed with OCD, PTSD, or depression, an antidepressant or other drugs that alter serotonin levels may be effective for alleviating intrusive thoughts.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Regular therapy sessions with a mental health professional are an effective way to reduce intrusive thoughts. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), patients learn effective strategies for responding to intrusive thoughts and becoming less sensitive to them. A therapist may also work to desensitize the patient by intentionally exposing triggers so that the intrusive thought can be worked through in a controlled setting.
On its own and in addition to other therapies, self-care is always important. Whether it is yoga, meditation, massage, or another form of self-care, soothing the mind and body can help reduce intrusive thoughts and one’s response to them.
If your intrusive thoughts are increasingly problematic and begin to interfere with your daily life and responsibilities, it may be time to consult a doctor or mental health professional. Effective treatment and prevention of intrusive thoughts may take time, but patience is key. Establishing and maintaining a treatment plan is imperative and will gradually be effective for alleviating troubling intrusive thoughts. Seeking help is the best path to brighter days in the future.