Intrusive Thoughts: What They Are and How to Let Go

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Intrusive thoughts are when you experience sudden, disturbing thoughts or images that come into your mind without warning and refuse to go away.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, about two percent of Americans (six million people) experience intrusive thoughts. These thoughts are usually upsetting, disturbing, or uncomfortable and can repeat themselves on a loop, causing significant distress.

Intrusive thoughts are often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders but can also occur for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression.

How Do You Know When a Thought Is Intrusive?

Many people have thoughts come into their mind seemingly at random, imagining or remembering things without consciously intending to do so. However, for some people, these thoughts are unwanted and can be disturbing or hurtful, and it can be difficult to make them stop. It is like having a song stuck in your head, but the song is about something very upsetting to you.

If you experience upsetting, unwanted thoughts that you struggle to let go of or stop thinking about, you might have intrusive thoughts.

Examples of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts come in many forms, with the consistent theme that they are unwanted and unpleasant. They can consist of words or images. Intrusive thoughts that people experience might include the following:

  • Memories of something you want to forget
  • Fear that you or your loved ones will get sick, hurt, or die
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts, including thoughts of being sexually assaulted or sexually assaulting another person
  • Thoughts that you will harm or sexually abuse a child
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or suicide
  • Thoughts of harming or killing someone else
  • Fear that you will do something dangerous or illegal
  • Worry that you forgot something important, like turning the oven off

Are My Intrusive Thoughts "Normal"?

“Normal” is a subjective term. While distressing, intrusive thoughts do not make you a “bad” person. One reason why intrusive thoughts can be so upsetting is that you might feel like you are going to act on an intrusive thought, like hurting a child or acting out in an inappropriate way. However, the thoughts are upsetting in part because you do not want to act on them. Having intrusive thoughts is not a reflection on your value or worth as a person.

Conversely, some people engage in compensatory or compulsive behaviors opposing the intrusive thoughts. For example, an individual compulsively washes their hands in response to intrusive thoughts about contamination or germs.

What Mental Health Disorders Can Cause Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts can occur as a symptom of several different mental health diagnoses. If you suspect that you are experiencing intrusive thoughts, talk to a qualified professional to determine if you meet criteria for a particular diagnosis.

Diagnoses that can cause intrusive thoughts include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Intrusive thoughts are most commonly associated with OCD, though they are certainly not limited to this diagnosis. People with OCD experience distressing thoughts that they struggle to let go of, and they might engage in behaviors to compensate or reduce anxiety brought on by the thoughts.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: One symptom of PTSD is flashbacks, or unwanted memories of the trauma that cause distress. In addition to intrusive memories, people with PTSD might experience worries that another traumatic event will happen or negative self-talk related to the trauma as an intrusive thought.
  • Anxiety disorders: People with anxiety disorders may have intrusive thoughts related to specific fears or their anxiety triggers.
  • Postpartum depression: Some parents with postpartum depression experience intrusive thoughts that they will harm their baby. This can be difficult to disclose due to concerns that providers will think that the parent intends to act on these thoughts.
  • Eating disorders: Research shows that people with eating disorders might experience intrusive thoughts about their body, appearance, or eating behaviors.
  • Traumatic brain injury: Some people experience intrusive thoughts following a traumatic brain injury due to neurological changes resulting from brain damage.

Coping With Intrusive Thoughts

Fortunately, it is possible to overcome intrusive thoughts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can effectively treat this symptom, reducing the frequency of the thoughts, anxiety associated with them, and any compensatory behaviors.

One evidence-based intervention for intrusive thoughts is called exposure and response prevention, which involves intentionally focusing on an intrusive thought without acting on it or engaging in compensating behavior for an extended period of time.

A qualified therapist can help you recognize triggers for these thoughts and manage them in a healthy way. They can also conduct exposure therapy to help you sit with the intrusive thoughts and help your mind realize that you are not in danger of acting on the thought. If the thoughts are the result of trauma history, the therapist can engage in trauma-informed treatment and help you overcome your trauma.

While you might still occasionally experience an unwanted thought, the therapist can help you realize when they are happening, stop the thoughts, and redirect your mind onto more pleasant patterns of thinking.

When To Seek Help for Intrusive Thoughts

As noted previously, everyone has thoughts come into their head that they did not consciously choose from time to time. However, if you find that you are frequently having upsetting thoughts and struggling to let go or move past them, you might benefit from support from a therapist.

Remember that there is not a minimum amount of distress or difficulty that you have to experience before you “earn” the right to have professional support. If you feel like your thoughts are causing difficulty, and you want to talk to a professional about them, it is okay to seek help at any time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I stop intrusive thoughts?

    Yes, you can build skills to redirect your mind from intrusive thoughts to other thoughts. There are evidence-based treatment options to reduce intrusive thoughts and the mental distress they cause.

  • Do I have to disclose my intrusive thoughts to my partner or loved ones?

    No, you do not have to disclose your intrusive thoughts to anyone if you do not feel comfortable. However, if your loved ones know you are struggling with intrusive thoughts, they might be able and willing to support you by helping you talk through intrusive thoughts. Ask your partner or loved ones about their comfort in hearing about your intrusive thoughts. It can be distressing to hear about an intrusive thought, so make sure that you have consent before sharing disturbing thoughts with someone who might not be emotionally prepared to support you through a difficult moment.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.