Intrusive thoughts are sudden, involuntary thoughts that can be disturbing. These thoughts can be distressing for the individual, but they do not lead to harmful action.

Although everyone may occasionally experience sudden thoughts that can be distressing or uncomfortable, some individuals experience frequent, involuntary thoughts that cause great stress and anxiety.

In this article, we discuss what intrusive thoughts are, some myths that surround them, and how a person can get treatment.

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Intrusive thoughts may be disturbing in nature.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, intrusive thoughts are among the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can also be a feature of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that seem to occur out of the blue. They can be disturbing and unpleasant.

The thoughts can also be explicit, which can lead to people keeping them a secret and not seeking help because they feel ashamed.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), intrusive thoughts are involuntary and have no bearing on reality or a person’s desires. People do not act on these thoughts, typically finding them shocking and unacceptable.

Intrusive thoughts can be persistent and cause significant distress in some people. Often, the harder people try to rid themselves of these thoughts, the more they persist, and the more intense they become.

Intrusive thoughts are usually unpleasant and can be shocking.

It is essential to understand that intrusive thoughts are involuntary. People who experience them typically feel repulsed by their nature.

There are many types of intrusive thoughts. According to OCD-UK, a charity in the United Kingdom, common topics of intrusive thoughts include:

Sexual intrusive thoughts

Sexual intrusive thoughts tend to revolve around a person’s sexuality or sexually harming others.

Examples of sexual intrusive thoughts can include:

  • fear of being sexually attracted to infants
  • fear of being attracted to members of their family
  • fears regarding their sexual orientation

Relationship intrusive thoughts

People may worry about their relationships, on which these thoughts can place a strain.

Examples of relationship intrusive thoughts can include:

  • analyzing the strength of their feelings for their partner obsessively and finding fault
  • constantly seeking reassurance from their partner
  • doubts regarding fidelity

Religious intrusive thoughts

Types of religious intrusive thoughts can include:

  • God not forgiving them for their perceived sins and sending them to hell
  • having negative thoughts in a religious building
  • repeating certain prayers continually
  • fears that they have lost touch with God or their beliefs
  • constantly analyzing their faith

Violent intrusive thoughts

A person may experience thoughts about being violent toward themselves or others.

Common violent intrusive thoughts include:

  • harming loved ones or children
  • killing others
  • using knives or other items to harm others, which can result in a person locking away sharp objects
  • poisoning food for loved ones, which can result in the person avoiding cooking

People experiencing these thoughts may avoid public places and contact with people.

There are some myths that surround intrusive thoughts. These include:

Myth 1: A person wants to act on these thoughts

Fact: People do not want to act on their intrusive thoughts

According to the ADAA, the opposite is true. The most dangerous myth surrounding intrusive thoughts is that they will lead to action.

Those experiencing these thoughts typically work hard to fight them, which results in the thoughts becoming persistent. The thoughts are at odds with the nature of the person thinking them.

Myth 2: All thoughts are worth examining

Fact: Thoughts do not always have a significant meaning

People do not have to see every thought as a sign or warning of something. Despite how these thoughts can make a person feel, they do not carry any meaning or desire.

Intrusive thoughts are a type of OCD. OCD is a common disorder that involves obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

People with PTSD can also experience intrusive and frightening thoughts. PTSD is a condition that develops following a traumatic event.

People with PTSD may become hyperaroused and experience flashbacks to a traumatic situation. They might also experience intrusive thoughts that relate to the trauma.

In some cases, however, the cause of intrusive thoughts is unclear.

A person does not have to live with intrusive thoughts.

Several treatment options are available for people experiencing intrusive thoughts.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help a person change how they think and react to these thoughts.

Medications for OCD might include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other antidepressants, such as clomipramine, which is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI).

Although people typically use SRIs to treat depression, these drugs can help with OCD symptoms. They can take 8–12 weeks to begin working for intrusive thoughts.

The ADAA offer some tips for dealing with intrusive thoughts. These include:

  • identifying the thoughts as intrusive
  • clarifying that they are involuntary and irrelevant to daily life
  • accepting their presence instead of pushing them away
  • continuing normal behavior
  • understanding that the thoughts may return
  • practicing meditation or mindfulness

A person should avoid:

  • pushing the thoughts away
  • trying to figure out what they “mean”
  • engaging with the thoughts

A doctor will ask questions about the nature of these thoughts and their frequency. They will also ask whether there is a family history of mental health conditions.

A doctor may refer the person to a mental health specialist, who will check for symptoms of a mental health disorder in case that is causing the thoughts. For example, they may ask about compulsive behaviors that indicate OCD.

It is possible to treat some causes of intrusive thoughts. Some people will overcome OCD or PTSD, but it can take time. Others may continue to experience symptoms but be able to manage them through treatment.

For some people, intrusive thoughts may persist for a long time. It is possible to learn to live with these thoughts and not let them affect daily life.

Many people will experience some unwanted and sudden thoughts, and it is usually not necessary to see a doctor or therapist.

However, anyone who experiences intrusive thoughts that cause regular or severe distress should see a doctor or therapist. These professionals can help the person understand what is causing the thoughts and how to treat them.

A person can find useful contacts on the National Institute of Mental Health website.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provide a treatment service locator.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and involuntary thoughts that are usually disturbing in nature. People experiencing these thoughts do not act on them and often find them distressing.

The intrusive thoughts are sometimes due to an underlying mental health condition. In other cases, their cause is unclear.

Treatment for the underlying condition might help reduce the intrusive thoughts.