Intrusive, unwelcome, or unsettling thoughts are something that happens to nearly everyone. They seem to come out of nowhere, and they’re usually gone as quickly as they arrived. 

Sometimes they’re just unexpected or bizarre, but they can also be downright scary. Many people simply let the thought pass and move on, but there are some for whom these thoughts can start to control their minds and even actions.

What is Considered an “Intrusive Thought”?

Intrusive thoughts really do feel, well, intrusive. They seem to come about for no reason, and don’t fit the usual thought patterns for the person receiving them. 

Many people describe them as extreme. The imagery or internal commentary that may accompany these thoughts may be uncomfortable or even disturbing. However, even self-doubt or negative self-talk can be forms of intrusive thoughts.

If you recognize that you occasionally have intrusive thoughts, remember that they are truly uncontrollable. It might seem odd that we think about things that we would never act upon or that might even disgust us, but it does happen to everyone. Know also that feeling anxious or distressed by them is natural.

One study found that nearly 94% of people across the world suffer from intrusive thoughts. The most common type is doubting thoughts. Doubting thoughts mean thinking that you’re doing the task at hand or some other part of life “incorrectly”.

Other types of intrusive thoughts might involve:

  • Contamination, or germs and uncleanliness
  • Violent acts
  • Blasphemy or conceptions against your religions
  • Sexual acts

Some types are obviously more extreme than others, however, the “extreme-ness” of thought does not dictate how intrusive it is or how profound of an effect it may have. Worrying that you’re going to make a fool of yourself in public is just as valid of an intrusion as a violent thought.

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

As humans, we are usually looking for reasons behind things that harm us. What causes intrusive thoughts? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t totally clear.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Intrusive thoughts aren’t necessarily caused by OCD, but they are the predominant symptom of this disorder. Whereas most of the population gets the occasional intrusion, someone with OCD will deal with them nearly constantly. 

The ‘obsessive’ part of this disorder refers to aggressive and extreme, fear-inducing thoughts. Instead of passing through, these ideas become an obsession, and they can dominate other, more rational, thinking.

The ‘compulsive’ portion refers to the actions a person takes because of these intrusive thoughts. In an attempt to relieve themselves of some of the anxiety, someone with OCD may develop rituals, or uncontrollable behaviors meant to stop whatever they fear from happening. 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is borne from trauma, and it manifests in a variety of ways that have been broken down into types. Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is one such type of PTSD that can cause intrusive thoughts in the form of memories, usually called “flashbacks”. These can occur as suddenly as most intrusions, but they are often triggered by something that reminds the person of the traumatic event.

As with OCD, these thoughts aren’t caused by PTSD, but they are a major symptom. PTSD flashbacks can cause intense anxiety, and even panic attacks, and these thoughts don’t typically pass through quickly. 

Intrusive thoughts are also associated with several anxiety disorders. Although the cause isn’t entirely clear, the correlation is evident. 

Unexplainable Thoughts

For most people, there doesn’t seem to be a diagnosable cause for intrusive thoughts. They seem to pop up more when anxiety is present, or if someone is in a new and strange situation. Nearly everyone in the world gets them at some point, and it is not a reflection of a person’s character, control, capabilities, or any other aspect about them as a human being. 

How to Deal with Intrusive Thoughts

Depending on the level at which you experience them, there are a few ways to deal with these intrusive thoughts. It seems like there is no way to completely get rid of them, but you can manage how they affect you.

In the Moment

As soon as you notice one of these thoughts pop into your brain, Harvard Health Publishing recommends letting it happen. It will go away quickly as long as you don’t dwell on it or fight it. Recognize which thoughts are invasive, and let it pass along.

The second thing Harvard recommends doing is forgiving yourself for those fabrications of your mind. They can be disturbing, but remembering that they are totally out of character can help them pass. Even if these thoughts involve something you are ashamed of, remember that it isn’t who you are, and you shouldn’t judge yourself for them. 

One thing that might be easier said than done is to reduce anxiety and stress. Focusing on your wellbeing may reduce the number of intrusions you experience.

If It’s Happening Too Much

If there comes a point where these thoughts feel overbearing and can’t be ignored, it might be a sign of OCD or other disorders. Luckily,  there are treatment options available to help you live a full, happy life in spite of intrusive thoughts. 

Talk to your doctor or therapist, as they might be able to recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), or other ways to get you to react differently to these thoughts.

Inner Balance Counseling Can Help

Whether intrusive thoughts are taking over your life or you just get a bad feeling from them, you can always reach out to us here at Inner Balance. We’ll help you manage those thoughts and get you on the right track towards feeling better. Talk to us today about a consultation.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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