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What are Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts get stuck in someone’s mind and can be distressing. Several conditions can cause intrusive thoughts, but there are ways to manage them.

Intrusive Thoughts

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What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that get stuck in your head. Sometimes these thoughts can be harmless, but in other cases, they can be incredibly disturbing and even violent. Oftentimes, these obsessive thoughts may indicate underlying mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Intrusive thoughts can appear out of nowhere and cause anxiety, compulsions, and disruption of your daily routine. These thoughts are given power when you become fixated on them and they start to interfere with your mental wellbeing as well as your daily life.   

Types of Intrusive Thoughts

There are several types of intrusive thoughts ranging from OCD intrusive thoughts to thoughts that simply provoke anxiety. The common types include: 

  • Sexual thoughts: These thoughts relate to sexual activity and can occur in both genders. Thecan become intrusive when they make you feel uncomfortable and you become fixated on them. 
  • Violent thoughts: These thoughts tend to have a violent theme such as hurting oneself or hurting another person. 
  • Negative thoughts: These obsessive thoughts are characterized by depression and anxiety, and you may feel negative feelings towards yourself.
  • Paranoid thoughts: These thoughts are generally bizarre, and you may have little control over them. They generally do not have any meaning or relevance in your daily life.1 
  • Relationship thoughts: These types of thoughts cause you to worry about relationships. 
  • Religious thoughts: Obsessive religious thoughts pertain to religion.   

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

OCD is a disorder commonly associated with intrusive thoughts and compulsions. Alongside these obsessive thoughts, the individual may become compulsive and feel the need to participate in compulsive behaviors. Additionally, those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience intrusive and frightening thoughts regarding their traumatic event. 

Even so, the cause of intrusive thoughts is relatively unclear. They become a problem when they get in the way of your daily living routine and make it difficult for you to participate in life activities. The thoughts themselves may stem from anxiety or other underlying mental health disorder. If they do become a problem, it is critical to seek professional assistance.2    


Even though intrusive thoughts can be virtually any thought that is repetitive and causes stress to the individual experiencing it, some common examples of intrusive thoughts that fall into the categories discussed above include: 

  • Fears regarding sexual orientation.
  • Violent thoughts of harming loved ones or children.
  • Violent thoughts of killing others. 
  • Religious fears that an individual has lost touch with their religious beliefs. 
  • Negative thoughts about oneself. 
  • Constant worry about a relationship.  

When distinguishing between a regular thought and intrusive thought, note that intrusive thoughts are involuntary and the individual may feel they have little control over them. That is why it is essential to develop appropriate coping skills to manage OCD urges.2  

How to Push Away Intrusive Thoughts

What are Intrusive Thoughts? - Iris Healing® Woodland Hills, CA

For those who experience disturbing or disruptive thoughts that lead to compulsion, you may look for ways to manage the thoughts and compulsive behavior. While receiving assistance from a mental health professional is likely the best course of action, there are some ways that you can help push the thoughts away. 

To manage these thoughts, you should try participating in some of the following coping mechanisms and strategies: 

  • Recognize the thoughts and label them for what they are. 
  • Understand that intrusive thoughts may not be under your control, but you can acknowledge them. 
  • Accept that the thoughts will pass eventually.
  • Do not necessarily try to push your thoughts away but rather acknowledge that they are there. 
  • Give yourself time for the thoughts to fade away.
  • Prepare ways that you can cope with the thoughts when they come back. 
  • Continue working on whatever task you are working on even if the thoughts flood your brain. 
  • Try to identify any instances that trigger the thoughts by keeping track of frequency and intensity.  

Addiction vs. Obsession: Conditions Including Intrusive Thoughts

Because intrusive thoughts generally coincide with a mental health disorder, several conditions may cause intrusive thoughts alongside other mental health symptoms. Some of the conditions that generally experience obsessive thinking include: 

  • OCD 
  • PTSD 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression.  

It is also vital to distinguish the difference between addiction vs obsession because an individual who suffers from a substance abuse addiction may also experience some intrusive thoughts about the other symptoms that they have. Furthermore, addiction is a comorbid disorder with several other mental health disorders including anxiety and depression. 

Symptoms of Intrusive Thoughts 

OCD intrusive thoughts or other types of these thinking patterns can be persistent and cause distress or anxiety. While many of these thoughts are involuntary by the participant, there are some things to watch for when you are looking for signs of incoming intrusive thoughts. These signs include:3  

  • Changes in thoughts 
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Disturbing imagery 

Symptoms of Other HealthRelated to Intrusive Thoughts Issue Include  

While mental health conditions are closely associated with intrusive thoughts, other conditions may result in intrusive thoughts. These compulsive and obsessive thoughts can be a symptom of other health issues such as:4 

  • Brain injury 
  • Dementia 
  • Parkinson’s disease     

Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts

There are some treatments for unwanted thoughts that have proved to be helpful. While managing this condition is best done by first working with a licensed therapist or mental health professional, there are some ways to manage OCD intrusive thoughts on your own. 


Cognitivebehavioral therapy (CBT) is a great way to discuss distressing thoughts and compulsive behavior. By participating in talk therapy, you can work to become less impacted by your intrusive thoughts as well as discuss ways in which you can manage your thoughts. You may also work to identify your triggers and learn to develop healthier responses to these triggers.  


If you do experience obsessive thoughts, a health care provider may decide that medication is the best course of action to help balance the chemicals in your brain. For OCD intrusive thoughts and depression, prescription drugs such as antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may be prescribed.  


Above all, using self-care to manage your obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors is one of the best ways to learn to cope. Learning to manage your stress through self-care by implementing coping strategies can help reduce the frequency and intensity of your obsessive thoughts and even compulsive behavior (1). 

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