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Everything You Need to Know About Intrusive Thoughts

How to deal with intrusive thoughts
Written by:

Wafaa Amjad Dar


Dr. Bradley Noon




  • Intrusive thoughts are not harmful but can impact the quality of life, especially when persistent.
  • These thoughts are bothersome, hard to control, often conflict with one’s values, and cause anxiety.
  • Obsessive thoughts typical for OCD are a subset of intrusive thoughts and are characterized by subsequent compulsions.
  • Intrusive thoughts can occur in anyone but sometimes they are triggered by underlying conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and distressing thoughts or mental images that seem to occur out of nowhere. They are not exceptional—everyone may experience them at some point.

Some people feel significant discomfort because of these thoughts, but the good news is that you can change the way you think. Read on to explore the nature of intrusive thoughts and understand how to manage them.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts mean recurrent, unintentionally occurring thoughts that cause uncomfortable feelings, from unease to distress. An unwanted intrusive thought may be frightening, violent, disgusting, or embarrassing, it has a repetitive nature and often causes strong urges to remove it.

While anyone can have them, they are more common in people with anxiety disorders and depression. These thoughts aren’t harmful, but they can affect the quality of life.

Persistent and severe intrusive ideations may be a symptom of a mental health condition. See an expert online to go through an assessment.

How to Identify Intrusive Thoughts?

The main characteristics are the following:

  • Unwanted: Intrusive thoughts are often undesirable and disturbing. 
  • Distressing: They can involve mental images that go against your values or cause significant discomfort.
  • Unusual: Often, these images are extraordinary for you, meaning they are distinct from your regular thoughts. For example, they can be unusually violent.
  • Hard to control: They are repetitive, persistent, and difficult to control. Unsuccessful attempts to ignore or suppress them increase anxiety.
  • Bothersome: They bother you so much that it interferes with your ability to focus on tasks or enjoy activities.

Obsessive Thoughts vs Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts [1*] are sudden, unwelcome, and potentially disturbing thoughts that can encompass a range of topics, such as violence or fear. They are not exclusive to any particular underlying mental health condition. Anyone with anxiety disorders, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can experience them. Moreover, they may occur in people without any mental issues because of severe stress, overstimulation, exhaustion, or traumatic experiences.

Obsessive thoughts [2*] , on the other hand, are a subset of intrusive thoughts. They are typically associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They are also repetitive and distressing, but they are accompanied by intense urges to engage in compulsive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety. For instance, someone with OCD might have obsessive worries about contamination and therefore compulsively wash their hands.

Types of Intrusive Thoughts

Common intrusive thoughts manifest as vivid mental images. They come in many forms and numerous variations, but here are a few prevalent categories:

  1. Harmful ideations. These are images of hurting oneself or other people on purpose or unintentionally, even though a person will not act this way in reality.
  2. Relationship worries. These include overanalyzing feelings, seeking constant reassurance, and worrying about fidelity. In the long run, these excessive reflections can strain relationships and affect their overall quality.
  3. Negative self-talk. These negative thoughts include constant self-blame, self-doubt, and feeling very negative about oneself. They can make you feel worse and also contribute to conditions like depression and anxiety, creating a cycle of emotional distress.
  4. Embarrassing scenarios. Being afraid of suddenly saying something inappropriate or offensive or embarrassing yourself in public in some way.
  5. Sexual intrusive thoughts. They are about things of a sexual nature that are inappropriate or make you uncomfortable because they may not match your beliefs or desires.
  6. Religious fears. For example, worrying that you might do something that goes against your beliefs, a fear of punishment, or a fear of losing faith.
  7. Delusions. They are irrational, persistent beliefs that don’t match reality. These include unfounded suspicions, extreme feelings of importance, or bizarre notions. They are often linked to serious conditions like schizophrenia.

Why Do You Have Extreme Intrusive Thoughts?

Some of these thoughts don’t have a definite reason. However, frequently occurring intrusive ideations can have a cause or a trigger, for example:

  • Underlying mental health conditions, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postpartum depression, major depressive disorder, or anxiety.
  • Imbalances in neurotransmitters, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), because they can influence thinking patterns.
  • Certain medical conditions, such as epilepsy, brain injuries, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and eating disorder symptoms.
  • Genetic predisposition to conditions like OCD or schizophrenia.
  • Some medications, particularly those affecting the central nervous system, may cause intrusive thoughts as a side effect.

Note that intrusive thoughts do not necessarily indicate mental or neurological problems. They can happen in anyone, for example, after a prolonged lack of sleep or high stress levels. Sometimes, they are a normal part of cognitive functioning, but it’s important to see a therapist if they bother you or affect any area of your life.

Take the first step toward better mental health today. Contact us to go through a detailed assessment.

What Can Intrusive Thoughts Lead To?

Usually, intrusive thoughts don’t mean you are going to do anything imagined. However, if they are not addressed properly or become severe and distressing, they can disrupt your daily life, causing anxiety and potentially leading to depression. In severe cases, they lead to the development of compulsive behaviors or suicidal ideations, which require prompt professional help.

Intrusive thoughts can also worsen existing mental health conditions and cause physical health consequences, including heart problems, stomach troubles, and sleep issues. Seeking professional help is essential to manage and address them effectively, promoting mental and physical health.

If you’re experiencing suicidal or self-harming thoughts and require immediate assistance, contact a crisis hotline, such as 911, 988 suicide & crisis lifeline [3*] (toll-free), or Samaritans (116-123 or via chat).

10 Ways to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts

It may not be possible to get rid of intrusive thoughts completely because they are a common human experience. There’s no need to feel ashamed or isolated due to them. However, different treatment options and non-medical self-help techniques can help you handle them better and prevent their impact on your daily life.

Note that the effectiveness of these approaches can vary from individual to individual. So, try several of them and seek guidance from a mental health professional if you find it challenging to cope by yourself.

Use Cognitive Defusion

Cognitive defusion [4*] helps manage intrusive thoughts by creating distance from them instead of attempting to suppress or control them. The process begins with observing your thoughts without judgment and recognizing them as just thoughts, not absolute truths. For example, rephrase “I’m going to fail the exam” into “I have a thought about failing the exam.” This makes you more focused on finding solutions instead of blaming yourself.

You can also visualize your thoughts like words on a chalkboard, not a part of your core identity, reducing their impact on your well-being and breaking the cycle of rumination and worry. Over time and practice, you will learn to shift your focus towards more meaningful actions.

Identify the Triggers

Try to recognize the specific situations, emotions, or experiences that tend to trigger the onset of unwanted thoughts. Knowing these triggers puts you back in control of your thoughts. It gives you a deeper insight into why you have them and how you can reduce their frequency or severity. It also lets you and your healthcare provider create more personalized strategies to deal with them.

Moreover, identifying triggers is a big part of exposure therapy, where you gradually face disturbing objects or situations in a controlled way. This helps make the thoughts less intense and distressing.

Recognize the Difference Between Thought and Reality

Involuntary thoughts can feel overwhelmingly real, but they are just thoughts and not reflections of actual events or facts. Remember this to better distance yourself from them and question them, avoid impulsive reactions, and see things more clearly. Self-awareness and treating thoughts as something that comes and goes enables you to concentrate on what truly matters and improves your mental well-being.

Shift Your Focus

While suppressing unwanted mental images can backfire, distracting yourself can help prevent this rebound effect. Try to intentionally divert your attention from a disturbing thought by calling a friend, doing chores, watching a movie, drawing, reading, or taking a walk. Methods like Attention Training Technique (ATT) are promising for shifting focus effectively and can also help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a set of techniques aimed to help you pay attention to the present moment without judging or getting too wrapped up in your worries. It teaches you to see them as temporary, not as truths or big problems. It also helps you tell the difference between rational thoughts and irrational fears.

Moreover, mindfulness [5*] helps you feel calm and relaxed, which can ease the stress and tension that often come with involuntary thoughts. This method is strongly based on self-awareness, which can help you identify the situations or emotions that trigger unwanted mental images and ideas. It helps you to be proactive, like reducing the effects of triggers or using coping strategies promptly. Ultimately, mindfulness puts you in control of your thinking patterns.

Learn Acceptance Techniques

Acceptance-based methods help to accept distressing thoughts without trying to change them. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy [6*] (ACT), commonly used in treating depression and anxiety [7*] , can teach you to observe your thinking process without struggling. 

Even though acceptance-based techniques may not always decrease the frequency of disturbing thoughts, they aid in reducing the related distress. Sometimes, it’s recommended to combine acceptance with exposure therapy. Rather than seeing these thoughts as overwhelming or distressing, you learn to approach them with a more constructive outlook. Over time, these practices can help you not only manage your thinking more effectively but also foster personal growth and development, improving your overall well-being.

Take Intrusive Thoughts Less Personally

Unwanted thoughts, especially violent ones, might make you feel ashamed or guilty, but it’s crucial to know it is normal to have intrusive thoughts and they don’t define you. These disturbing thoughts are a byproduct of your brain’s complexity, not your intentions, and they don’t reflect who you are.

Taking a less personal approach lets you deal with these images more calmly. Instead of getting upset, see them as passing clouds in the sky. This change in how you see them helps you manage these ideations better, making you feel more compassionate toward yourself and emotionally strong.

Reduce Daily Stress

When stress and anxiety are high, intrusive thoughts tend to worsen. To manage this, prioritize self-care by improving sleep, diet, and physical activity, and setting aside time for hobbies and communication with loved ones. Acknowledge your feelings rather than avoid them because bottling up emotions increases stress. Instead, face these thoughts without letting them overwhelm you.

Engage in Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most researched treatments for anxiety and depression, conditions that often include recurrent bothersome thoughts. This therapeutic approach helps to recognize irrational beliefs and exaggerated worries and then address them. It also focuses on acceptance techniques that help to reduce anxiety without suppressing concerns or engaging in compulsive behaviors. The nature of CBT is practical methods you learn to use in day-to-day life and reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts on your decisions and behavioral patterns.

When to Seek Professional Help

Intrusive thoughts happen to everyone. The tips we’ve introduced to you to deal with intrusive thoughts are simple, but it does take some work and effort to implement them and see the first results. However, if they become overwhelming and the methods you’ve tried aren’t helping, it’s important to see a healthcare professional. They will choose the most appropriate course of treatment, including talk therapy or medication. Early diagnosis increases the chances for effective treatment.

Contact us for support and guidance on managing intrusive thoughts and improving your mental well-being.


Intrusive thoughts themselves are not considered a mental health disorder. They are a common phenomenon experienced by many people, even those without mental health conditions. However, when they cause significant distress, are accompanied by compulsive repetitive behaviors, or interfere with daily life, they may indicate an underlying mental issue.
Intrusive repetitive thoughts don’t typically reflect real desires, but if they bother you, become severe, or include suicidal ideations, it’s critical to see a healthcare professional to address them.
The duration differs for each person and depends on the cause. Some thoughts disappear quickly, while others can persist for weeks or more. Occasional fleeting intrusive thoughts are normal, but if they cause significant distress or disrupt daily life, consider seeing a healthcare provider.
Intrusive thoughts are a normal part of cognition and can be triggered by stress or significant life changes in everyone. They don’t always mean a mental health problem, and everyone experiences them differently in terms of frequency and intensity.
Supporting someone with intrusive thoughts requires empathy and understanding. Listen without judgment, recommend professional help, and remind them that these thoughts don’t define them. Avoid excessive reassurance, encourage self-care, and be patient. Respect their boundaries by giving space when needed while remaining available for support. Remember, your support is valuable, but it’s not a replacement for professional help.


7 sources
  1. The assessment of unwanted intrusive thoughts: a review and critique of the literature
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  2. Obsessional intrusive thoughts in children: An interview based study
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  3. 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
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  4. Cognitive defusion and self-relevant negative thoughts: examining the impact of a ninety year old technique
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  5. Mindfulness and Behavior Change
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  6. The use of acceptance and commitment therapy to prevent the rehospitalization of psychotic patients: a randomized controlled trial
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  7. Randomized clinical trial of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) versus acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for mixed anxiety disorders
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Written by:

Wafaa Amjad Dar


Dr. Bradley Noon



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