Intrusive Thoughts

What are they?

Intrusive thoughts include unwanted thoughts, images, urges, or impulses that pop into your head outside your control. It is normal to have occasional intrusive thoughts, but these thoughts sometimes get “stuck” and can be hard to get rid of. Because these thoughts are intrusive and unwanted, they often cause distress. The thoughts themselves are not a problem, but when they get “stuck” and become obsessive and/or cause a change in your behavior, it may be an indicator of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

What Symptoms Might You Notice?

Common intrusive thoughts include: 

  • Thoughts or flashbacks of unpleasant memories from the past
  • Thoughts that you have contracted an illness or disease with no evidence to support it
  • Inappropriate thoughts or images of sex
  • Thoughts that if you don’t do something specific, it might cause something bad to happen
  • Thoughts of doing something illegal or violent
  • Thoughts or impulses that you might do something embarrassing or shameful
  • Thoughts of swerving your car into oncoming traffic
  • Thoughts of doing something sacrilegious or blasphemous  
  • Thoughts that you forgot something, like locking your front door

How Prevalent is OCD?

We all have intrusive thoughts sometimes or feel the urge/impulse to do something we don’t actually want to do. In fact, 94% of people experience intrusive thoughts at some point or another (Moulding et al., 2014), making them a very common experience. For someone with OCD though, these thoughts get “stuck” and there is an overwhelming need to do compulsive behaviors in order to reduce anxiety and distress. Intrusive thoughts connected to OCD are less common, affecting about 2.3% of the population (NIMH, 2017). 


Things you can do to help with intrusive thoughts:

Don’t try to push the thoughts away or get rid of them: Trying to suppress unwanted thoughts or make them go away will not work. If you’re told not to think about a purple elephant, likely the first thing you think of is a purple elephant! It’s the same when it comes to intrusive thoughts. The harder you try to not have a thought, the more that thought will pop up.

Use mindfulness: Notice the intrusive thoughts when they come up without placing judgment on them or trying to push them away. Instead, allow the thought to exist. This can look like “Oh, there you are thought. I see you’ve come up again” or “I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that I forgot to lock my door”. 

Remember that a thought is just a thought: Thoughts are not inherently “good” or “bad”. People with anxiety or OCD often label their intrusive thoughts as “bad” and negatively judge those thoughts and themselves. This judgment often strengthens the intrusive thoughts and makes them harder to tolerate, so try to remove judgment by reminding yourself that “A thought is just a thought”. It’s not fact or proof of anything, and it’s not a prediction of the future.   

Try not to analyze what your thoughts mean: Again, a thought is just a thought. Analyzing the meaning of an intrusive thought is another way of placing judgment on the thought or placing judgment on yourself for having the thought. The intrusive thought does not have to mean anything about you, your intentions, your future actions, or whether you are a good or bad person. 

Apps that help:

  • Calm:  This app offers guided mindfulness meditations to help you practice noticing your thoughts as they come up, allowing them to exist, and then allowing them to leave your mind.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

THESE are Intrusive Thoughts!