Intrusive Thoughts: Why We Have Them and How to Stop Them

Intrusive Thoughts: Why We Have Them and How to Stop Them

What exactly are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts seem to just pop into your head out of nowhere. They’re those thoughts and images that you really don’t want to have – often they’re pretty unpleasant. Sometimes they can be aggressive or sexual, or they might just be reminders of a mistake or something you’re worried about.

It’s totally normal to feel a bit distressed when this happens, but honestly, having the odd intrusive thought is just part and parcel of being human.

Usually, these thoughts don’t really mean anything. As long as you can acknowledge that they’re just thoughts and you’ve got no intention of acting on them, they’re not harmful at all.

But if they’re happening all the time, making you really worried, or getting in the way of your day-to-day life, then it might be worth having a chat with a doctor about it.

Different types of intrusive thoughts

There are loads of different types of intrusive thoughts out there. Some people find themselves thinking about:

  • Germs, infections, or other kinds of contamination
  • Violent acts, aggression, or hurting other people
  • Doubts about doing things wrong or leaving tasks unfinished
  • Religion, blasphemy, or feeling like you’re a bad person
  • Sexual stuff or situations
  • Saying or doing something embarrassing in public

And hey, sometimes there are other types of intrusive thoughts that don’t fit into any of those categories.

Sometimes, when people have intrusive thoughts, they start to worry about what they mean. This can lead to them trying to control or stop the thoughts. They might even feel ashamed and want to keep them a secret from everyone.

But here’s the thing – even though the thoughts might be disturbing, they usually don’t have any special meaning. If you don’t want to act on the thought and you can just get on with your day without any trouble, then it’s probably nothing to worry about.

Are intrusive thoughts normal?

Yep, they sure are. Pretty much everyone gets an intrusive thought every now and then. In fact, a study back in 2014 found that about 94 percent of people had at least one intrusive thought in the three months before the study.

In that study, the most common intrusive thoughts were about doubting yourself – like worrying about whether you’re doing things right. Thoughts of a sexual or religious nature were the least likely to be reported.

But while most of the time intrusive thoughts are nothing to worry about, if they’re starting to get in the way of your life, it might be time to talk to someone.

What causes intrusive thoughts?

Sometimes intrusive thoughts just happen for no particular reason. They kind of wander into your brain, then wander right back out again, leaving no lasting impression.

But sometimes they’re linked to an underlying mental health condition, like OCD or PTSD. They might also be a symptom of another health issue, like a brain injury or dementia.

If your intrusive thoughts stick around for longer than a quick moment, keep coming back, start to really bother you, or make you feel like you need to control them, there could be something more going on. It’s always worth chatting with a doctor about it.

Conditions that include intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts aren’t always a sign of an underlying condition, but sometimes they can be. Conditions that might include intrusive thoughts as a symptom include:

  • OCD
  • PTSD
  • Eating disorders

But even if you don’t have one of these conditions, intrusive thoughts can still happen to anyone.

Managing intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can feel really intense because they seem to get stuck in your head. But you can work on reducing how much they bother you. Here are a few strategies that might help:

  • Try to change how you react to the thoughts and what they’re about.

Diagnosing intrusive thoughts

If you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts, it’s worth having a chat with your doctor. They’ll ask about your symptoms and medical history, maybe give you a physical exam, and possibly use questionnaires or tests to learn more.

If they don’t find any physical issue causing the thoughts, they might refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist who can help figure out what’s going on. These folks are trained to spot the signs of conditions like OCD or PTSD and can work with you to come up with a plan.

Kristina Shafarenko

Kristina Shafarenko is a relationship and health and wellness psychologist and a part-time freelance lifestyle writer covering health and fitness, sex, sexual wellness, and relationships. When she's not writing, you can find her planning her next getaway, taste-testing every coffee spot in sight, and lounging at home with her cat, Buddy.

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