Human minds are complex and mysterious. Capable of producing over 6000 thoughts per day , these are sometimes unwanted thoughts. This article explores the meaning and nature of intrusive thoughts and how to manage them.
What are Intrusive thoughts?
According to APA, intrusive thoughts are upsetting mental events or images that can disrupt thoughts related to the task a person is doing . Intrusive thoughts can have the following features   :
- Are Repetitive; thus, similar thoughts may occur again and again
- Are either images or impulses
- Are unwanted and unacceptable or not something a person would want to think about
- Are uncontrollable and may happen suddenly
- Are often not in character with what the person does or believes
- Are challenging to control or remove
- Cause distress, guilt, shame, or negative emotions in a person
- And most likely to distract a person from the task an individual is working on
These thoughts are often related to harm, violence, sexual themes, aggression, dirt, or contamination  . They may also have themes of doubts regarding self, thoughts about specific stressors, failure, or flashbacks from the past. For instance, a person jogging may reach a bridge and suddenly get an intrusive thought about the bridge collapsing. Otherwise, the person may not have any anxiety around health and bridges and may have this thought. Another example is a person with a loved one in hospital suddenly finding themself thinking about their death.
While some individuals can brush these thoughts aside, others become obsessed or afraid. They become triggers for events of the past and a cause for worry.
Researchers have concluded that individuals who feel guilty for having such thoughts or believe they might be capable of doing something wrong because they have these thoughts often feel distressed . This is especially the case in disorders like OCD, and when such obsessions begin, the individual may also develop actions or rituals to avoid these thoughts.
Why do we have Intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are a common phenomenon in people . Many individuals find themselves thinking about unwanted topics and situations, for instance, finding themselves thinking about the death of a loved one.
There’s speculation about the origins of intrusive thoughts, and one hypothesis considers them a part of the problem-solving capacity of a human. They are like a “brainstorming” session, and the problems raised might be attention worthy if the situation differed.
Nonetheless, researchers have identified that Intrusive thoughts are often related to mental health conditions. These include:
- Personality Characteristics: Some researchers have highlighted the role of personality characteristics like high sensitivity, neuroticism, and conscientiousness in being more prone to Intrusive Thoughts .
- Stress: individuals experiencing stress are more prone to intrusive thoughts and are less able to ignore or control them . Studies show that when an individual is going through a difficult time or has been experiencing stress, the incidence of intrusive thoughts increases along with the individual’s ability to identify stress-related words (or stimuli) .
- Depression and Anxiety: In depression, ruminative thinking about the past and anxiety disorder, cognition causing worry about the future have been linked with intrusive thoughts .
- Trauma: especially in individuals with PTSD, recurrent and intrusive thoughts of the memory of trauma events are common .
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: most research on intrusive thoughts has been in the context of OCD. Individuals with OCD experience intrusive thoughts which are highly distressing. They often become obsessed with the thoughts and may also develop compulsive behavior to avoid them .
It’s important to remember that experiencing intrusive thoughts does not necessarily indicate that someone has a mental health condition. However, if intrusive thoughts interfere with daily life or cause significant distress, seeking professional support from a mental health provider may be helpful. United We Care Platform has a range of experts who provide support for intrusive thoughts and other mental health conditions.
How to deal with Intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can cause significant anxiety, and people tend to suppress or avoid them when distressed. However, this causes a rebound effect and can make these thoughts come back stronger with higher frequency .
Thus, using thought suppression techniques (such as avoiding them, distracting yourself, or using thought-stopping) may not be helpful. Instead, one can deal with intrusive thoughts using some of the following techniques:
- Accepting and naming the thought: Instead of fighting, identifying that one is having intrusive thought and naming it as such can help separate the self from the thought. This, along with a reminder that intrusive thoughts are common, can help in reducing distress 
- Cognitive restructuring: This approach involves challenging negative or distorted thoughts and replacing them with more positive or realistic ones. For instance, when an individual has a negative intrusive thought, they can consciously challenge it with a positive and real thought.
- Mindfulness: Components of mindfulness that require the individual to observe thoughts, be non-judgemental towards them, and perceive self to be larger than thoughts help manage intrusive thoughts .
- Avoid engaging with thoughts: It can be helpful to avoid building on these thoughts and identifying their meaning. Instead, allowing the self to observe them from a distance and not engage with them can reduce the impact .
- Psychotherapy: Particularly when intrusive thoughts are causing dysfunction, one can visit a psychologist and discuss how to work on these thoughts. Usually, professionals use therapies like CBT and ACT to work on intrusions and help an individual.
In individuals where these thoughts may be a part of a disorder like OCD, anxiety, depression, or PTSD, medication may also help manage intrusive thoughts. Medicines may help reduce other symptoms, increasing the person’s capacity to deal with these unwanted thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are everyday experiences, but they can cause significant distress and anxiety in some individuals. While no research conclusively explains why these thoughts occur and they can be challenging to manage, there are several effective strategies that individuals can use to reduce their impact on daily life. Acceptance, cognitive restructuring, mindfulness, and seeking professional help are all practical approaches to help individuals manage intrusive thoughts. Contact the United We Care platform experts if you are struggling with intrusive thoughts. At United We Care, our team will provide you with the best solutions for your overall well-being.
- C. Raypole, “How many thoughts do you have per day? And other faqs,” Healthline, (accessed May 9, 2023).
- “Apa Dictionary of Psychology,” American Psychological Association, (accessed May 9, 2023).
- C. Purdon and D. A. Clark, “Perceived control and appraisal of obsessional intrusive thoughts: A replication and extension,” Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 269–285, 1994. doi:10.1017/s1352465800013163
- D. A. Clark, C. Purdon, and E. S. Byers, “Appraisal and control of sexual and non-sexual intrusive thoughts in university students,” Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 38, no. 5, pp. 439–455, 2000. doi:10.1016/s0005-7967(99)00047-9
- D. A. Clark, D. A. Clark, and S. Rhyno, “UNWANTED INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS IN NONCLINICAL INDIVIDUALS Implications for Clinical Disorders,” in Intrusive thoughts in clinical disorders: Theory, research, and treatment, New York: Guilford Press, 2005, pp. 1–25
- L. Parkinson and S. Rachman, “Part III — intrusive thoughts: The effects of an uncontrived stress,” Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 111–118, 1981. doi:10.1016/0146-6402(81)90009-6
- J. Bomyea and A. J. Lang, “Accounting for intrusive thoughts in PTSD: Contributions of cognitive control and deliberate regulation strategies,” Journal of Affective Disorders, vol. 192, pp. 184–190, 2016. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.12.021
- J. S. Abramowitz, D. F. Tolin, and G. P. Street, “Paradoxical effects of thought suppression: A meta-analysis of Controlled Studies,” Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 21, no. 5, pp. 683–703, 2001. doi:10.1016/s0272-7358(00)00057-x
- K. Bilodeau, “Managing intrusive thoughts,” Harvard Health, (accessed May 9, 2023).
- J. C. Shipherd and J. M. Fordiani, “The application of mindfulness in coping with intrusive thoughts,” Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 439–446, 2015. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2014.06.001
- “Unwanted intrusive thoughts,” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, (accessed May 9, 2023).