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Intrusive Thoughts: Why They Happen and How to Handle Them

Have you ever been driving down the highway, minding your own business, when suddenly, a bizarre thought pops into your head? Maybe it’s an image of swerving into oncoming traffic, or worse, and you recoil in shock. Well, you’re not alone.

Those pesky brain blips are called intrusive thoughts, and they’re more common than you might think. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at these thoughts—what they are, why they happen, and how to keep them from taking over your mental road trip.

What Exactly Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty details, let’s define our quirky little companions, shall we? Intrusive thoughts are those bizarre, unsettling, and often downright strange notions that pop into your head out of nowhere. They’re like the unwanted guests at a mental party, crashing in uninvited.

Picture this: You’re chopping vegetables for dinner, and suddenly, you have this fleeting thought about what it would be like to take that knife, and… you get the idea. Or maybe you’re in church, and your brain starts whispering inappropriate jokes. Sound familiar? 

Such thoughts aren’t uncommon. We all have them from time to time. 

There are times when such thoughts can become a more serious problem. In such cases, intrusive thoughts may be a sign of a mental health condition.

Why Do Intrusive Thoughts Happen?

Now, let’s uncover the mystery behind these thought invaders. The truth is, intrusive thoughts are a part of the human experience. They can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. But why?

The Evolutionary Angle

Our brains are hardwired to think about all sorts of things, even those that make us uncomfortable. This evolutionary trait helped our ancestors anticipate potential dangers and stay alert. So, thanks, ancient brain!

Anxiety and Stress 

When we’re anxious or stressed, our brains can go into overdrive. This heightened state of alertness can lead to a flurry of intrusive thoughts as your brain tries to prepare you for any possible threat—even the improbable ones.

The Cleveland Clinic notes that these thoughts can sometimes be completely random, but they often relate to something you might already be anxious about.

Taboo Topics

Intrusive thoughts often revolve around topics that society deems taboo or inappropriate. This is because your brain is like a mischievous child—tell it not to think about something, and it can’t resist doing exactly that.

Mental Health Conditions

Sometimes, intrusive thoughts can be linked to certain mental disorders. Such conditions can make these thoughts more frequent and distressing. These disorders include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Postpartum anxiety disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder

Certain factors can play a part in making intrusive thoughts worse. This can include poor sleep, hormonal changes, and disruptions in your normal daily routine.

Types of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few common themes to be aware of:

  • Violent or Harmful Thoughts: Thoughts of hurting yourself or others, often with graphic imagery.
  • Sexual Thoughts: Inappropriate or taboo sexual thoughts that make you uncomfortable.
  • Religious or Blasphemous Thoughts: Thoughts that challenge your religious or moral beliefs.
  • Fearful Thoughts: Anxious thoughts about unlikely future events, like disasters or accidents.

How to Identify Intrusive Thoughts

Identifying intrusive thoughts can be a bit tricky because they often blend in with your regular stream of consciousness. However, here are some ways to recognize them:

  • They are sudden and unwanted: Intrusive thoughts typically come out of nowhere and are unwanted. They can be quite different from your usual thought patterns.
  • They contain disturbing, distressing content: These thoughts often involve disturbing, irrational, or taboo content. They may involve harm to yourself or others, inappropriate sexual thoughts, or blasphemous ideas.
  • They are repetitive: Intrusive thoughts may recur frequently, even if you try to push them away. They can be like a broken record, playing in your mind despite your efforts to stop them.
  • They evoke a strong emotional response: These thoughts can provoke strong negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt, or disgust. The emotional reaction is often disproportionate to the content of the thought.
  • They sometimes interfere with your daily life: If these thoughts start interfering with your daily functioning, causing distress, or leading to compulsive behaviors to alleviate the anxiety they create, it’s a clear sign that they are intrusive and may warrant attention.
  • They are inconsistent with your values: If a thought goes against your personal values and beliefs, and you find it distressing, it’s likely intrusive.
  • You have a hard time letting them go: You may find it challenging to dismiss or forget intrusive thoughts, even though you want them to go away.

Remember, everyone experiences intrusive thoughts from time to time. It’s the persistence, distress, and impact on your life that can differentiate them from ordinary thoughts.

If you’re concerned about intrusive thoughts and how they affect you, consider discussing them with a mental health professional who can provide guidance and support.

Are Intrusive Thoughts Harmful?

Intrusive thoughts themselves are not inherently harmful. They are a natural and common aspect of human thought processes. Everyone experiences fleeting, bizarre, or unwanted thoughts at times. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s important to remember that just having a thought doesn’t make it true.

Remember that thoughts aren’t facts. Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it reflects your reality. 

It’s the way we react to these thoughts and the potential consequences of those reactions that can determine whether they become harmful.

Here’s the key:

Normal Intrusive Thoughts: Occasional intrusive thoughts are a normal part of the human experience. They can be strange, disturbing, or even taboo, but they usually don’t lead to harm.

Harmful Reactions: What can be harmful is how a person reacts to these thoughts. For example, if someone becomes overly distressed by these thoughts, engages in compulsive behaviors to neutralize them (as seen in OCD), or lets them significantly interfere with their daily life, relationships, or mental well-being, then the reaction to intrusive thoughts can be harmful.

Context Matters: The impact of intrusive thoughts varies from person to person and depends on the specific content of the thoughts and an individual’s mental health and coping mechanisms. What might be distressing to one person may not be to another.

Underlying Conditions: In some cases, intrusive thoughts can be more distressing or problematic when they occur in the context of certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, OCD, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, the thoughts are often more persistent and distressing.

It’s important to remember that experiencing intrusive thoughts does not mean you are a bad person or that you will act on these thoughts.

However, if intrusive thoughts are causing significant distress or interfering with your life, it’s advisable to seek help from a mental health professional. They can provide guidance, support, and strategies to manage these thoughts in a healthy way.

How to Tame Those Pesky Intrusive Thoughts

Okay, so now you know what intrusive thoughts are and why they happen. But what can you do about them? Here are some practical tips for keeping those mental party crashers in check:

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation practices can help you become more aware of your thoughts without judgment. When intrusive thoughts pop up, acknowledge them, and let them pass like clouds in the sky.

Challenge the Thoughts

Don’t let those thoughts bully you! Challenge them with rational thinking. Ask yourself, “Is this thought based on reality, or is it just a product of my anxious brain?”

Stay Busy

Keep yourself engaged in activities that you enjoy. An idle mind is more likely to wander into intrusive territory, so stay occupied with things that capture your interest.

Talk About It

Sharing your intrusive thoughts with a trusted friend or mental health professional can be incredibly liberating. Sometimes, just saying them out loud can take away their power.

When to Seek Help

While intrusive thoughts are common, they can become problematic in some cases. If your intrusive thoughts are causing severe distress, interfering with your daily life, or leading to harmful behaviors, seeking help is essential. A mental health professional can provide guidance and support tailored to your situation.

What Not to Do:

Writing for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Martin Seif, PhD, ABPP, and Sally Winston, PsyD, suggest certain things you should avoid doing when you experience intrusive thoughts.

Don’t try to engage with or push the thoughts out of your mind. Though stopping or trying to prevent a thought can make the problem worse. 

They also advise against trying to figure out what the thoughts mean. And don’t try to figure out if your efforts to get rid of the thoughts is “working” since this can trigger more intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive Thoughts vs. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

It’s worth noting that intrusive thoughts are different from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), although they can sometimes overlap. In OCD, intrusive thoughts are often accompanied by compulsive behaviors, like repetitive actions or rituals aimed at reducing anxiety. If you suspect you might have OCD, a mental health evaluation can help determine the best course of action.

The Bottom Line

Intrusive thoughts can seem bizarre, but they’re just one of the many quirks that make us human. Remember, you’re not alone in experiencing these sometimes strange mental detours, and there are ways to manage them.

Whether through mindfulness, challenging your thoughts, or seeking professional help when needed, you have the power to keep those intrusive thoughts from hijacking your mental road trip. So, embrace your quirky brain, stay mindful, and enjoy the journey!


Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Cleveland Clinic. Intrusive thoughts are all in your head.