Intrusive thoughts are unexpected images or thoughts that seem to pop into your head. They’re often strange or distressing. But these thoughts happen to almost everyone from time to time.
Intrusive thoughts seem to come out of nowhere. These thoughts and images are unwanted and often unpleasant. The content can sometimes be aggressive or sexual, or you could suddenly think about a mistake or a worry.
You might feel distressed when this happens, but having an intrusive thought once in a while is a typical part of life.
In most cases, intrusive thoughts do not have any particular meaning. As long as you recognize that these are only thoughts, and you have no desire to act on them, intrusive thoughts are not harmful.
However, if they’re happening often, causing significant concern, or interfering with your daily activities, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor.
Read on to learn more about why intrusive thoughts happen and how you can manage them.
There are several different types of intrusive thoughts. Some people may have intrusive thoughts about:
- germs, infections, or other kinds of contamination
- violent acts, aggression, or causing harm to other people
- doubts about doing tasks wrong or leaving tasks unfinished
- religion, blasphemy, or being an immoral person
- sexual acts or situations
- acting out or saying the wrong thing in public
It’s also possible to have other types of intrusive thoughts that do not fit into these categories.
Sometimes, people who experience intrusive thoughts become worried about what they mean. This can lead to someone trying to control or stop the thoughts. People may also feel ashamed and want to keep them secret from others.
Keep in mind that the image or thought might be disturbing, but it does not usually have a particular meaning. If you have no desire or intention to act on the thought, and you can easily move on with your day, then it’s probably nothing to worry about.
Thoughts of hurting yourself or others are a reason to reach out for help. If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, get emergency care right away. Go to the nearest emergency room or contact your local emergency services.
It’s common to have an intrusive thought every once in a while. In fact, it happens to almost everyone. A 2014 study found that about 94 percent of participants had at least one intrusive thought in the 3 months prior to the study.
In the 2014 study, “doubting” intrusions — or worries about doing tasks correctly — were the most common. Intrusive thoughts of a sexual or religious nature were the least likely to be reported.
Although intrusive thoughts are usually nothing to worry about, sometimes they can start to interfere with your daily life.
People who feel fear or guilt about their intrusive thoughts, or feel like they need to take action to control the thoughts, may be experiencing something more serious. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor.
Intrusive thoughts may not have a cause. They can just happen randomly. Some thoughts wander into your brain. Then just as quickly, they exit, leaving no lasting impression.
Less commonly, intrusive thoughts are related to an underlying mental health condition, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These thoughts could also be a symptom of another health issue, such as:
Signs that there might be an underlying cause include intrusive thoughts that:
- last longer than a brief moment
- continue to pop back into your head
- cause distress over time
- make you feel like you need to control your thoughts
Changes to mental health are nothing to take lightly. Early symptoms of some conditions may also 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 so that you can start to feel better.
Intrusive thoughts are not always the result of an underlying condition. Anyone can experience them.
But there are several conditions that include intrusive thoughts as a symptom. They include:
In OCD, intrusive thoughts cause serious distress. A person with OCD often makes significant efforts to try to suppress or stop their unwanted thoughts (obsessions). This usually involves repeating particular behaviors or habits over and over.
The behaviors and habits, known as compulsions, can interfere with a person’s quality of life. But it’s possible for OCD to improve significantly with treatment.
People living with PTSD may have intrusive thoughts related to a traumatic event they’ve experienced. These thoughts or memories can bring forth other symptoms of PTSD, such as insomnia or an unpleasant state of overalertness.
PTSD can interfere with a person’s daily functioning. However, with trauma-focused treatment, it’s possible to get relief from symptoms.
People with an eating disorder may experience intrusive thoughts about their body, losing weight, or what they eat. This can include guilt, shame, or fear related to food or body image. These intrusions can cause serious distress.
Eating disorders can also cause significant changes in behaviors related to food and eating.
It’s important to talk with a doctor if you have eating disorder symptoms. With treatment, it can be possible to avoid serious complications.
Intrusive thoughts are powerful because they seem to “stick” in your mind. They’re upsetting because they feel so foreign.
The best way to manage intrusive thoughts is to reduce your sensitivity to the thought and its contents. The following strategies may help.
Ways to manage intrusive thoughts
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, you’ll work with a therapist to learn ways of thinking that can help you become less sensitive to the intrusive thoughts. In a controlled setting, your therapist may also expose you to triggers for your intrusive thoughts so you can learn to react to them differently.
- Medication. Sometimes, medications are used to treat conditions like OCD and PTSD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed to treat these mental health conditions.
- Self-care. A good step toward treating intrusive thoughts 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. This may help reduce the frequency or intensity of unwanted thoughts.
The first step toward a diagnosis is talking with a doctor. They’ll review your symptoms and medical history. They may conduct a physical exam and, in some cases, use questionnaires or tests to find out more about your symptoms.
If they find no physical issue that could be leading to intrusive thoughts, they may refer you to a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. These individuals are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of possible causes for intrusive thoughts, including OCD and PTSD.
A psychologist or psychiatrist can work with you to identify 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 can feel distressing, but if one pops up once in a while, it’s probably nothing to be concerned about. In many cases, they are not caused by anything in particular. By recognizing that it’s only a thought, you can help yourself move past it.
When intrusive thoughts are related to an underlying condition, like OCD or PTSD, getting started with a diagnosis and treatment may take some time.
But sticking to your treatment plan can help ease symptoms and make the thoughts less frequent. Options like medication and CBT can help you cope with the thoughts when they do happen.
If your intrusive thoughts are interfering with your day-to-day life, talk with a doctor about your experiences. Getting treatment can help make intrusive thoughts more manageable.