How to Deal with Intrusive Thoughts

Have you ever found yourself in a mental tug-of-war with a thought that won’t let go? It could be a bizarre image, a disturbing concept, or a worry that seems entirely out of character. These persistent thoughts are intrusive and can dampen your mood and daily life.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted visitors that pop into your mind uninvited. They can be violent, sexual, or just plain upsetting. Research shows that up to 90% of people experience them at some point [1]. They can happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background.

Remember, intrusive thoughts don’t define you. Just because you have a strange thought doesn’t mean you’re inclined to act on it. However, if these thoughts are causing you significant distress or disrupting your daily life, it’s crucial to reach out for support. A therapist can equip you with coping strategies to manage these thoughts and enhance your well-being.


Understanding Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are like glitches in our brains. They might be linked to stress, anxiety, or even lack of sleep. For example, a college student stressed about exams might have random worries about forgetting their answers.

Intrusive thoughts can also be a symptom of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). People with OCD often have repetitive thoughts that cause anxiety, and they might feel the need to do certain things (compulsions) to manage those thoughts. But even without OCD, intrusive thoughts can be a pain.

Types of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts come in all shapes and sizes. They can be violent, like picturing yourself yelling at a friend. Or they can be scary, like the thought of getting hurt. Some people even have intrusive thoughts about harming themselves, even though they would never actually do it.

Here are some examples of Intrusive Thoughts:

  • Violent: “What if I punched that person in line?”
  • Self-harm: “I wonder what would happen if I jumped?” (Remember, this doesn’t mean you want to hurt yourself!)
  • Moral: “What if I stole something?” (Most people with this thought would never steal!)

Myths and Misconceptions about Intrusive Thoughts

Here’s the big one: having an intrusive thought doesn’t mean you’re wrong or dangerous. It means your brain is firing off weird signals sometimes. It’s also important to remember that intrusive thoughts differ from regular worries. Worries are usually about things that could happen, while intrusive thoughts are often outlandish or unwanted.

So, if you’re having intrusive thoughts, don’t panic! They’re normal, and there are ways to manage them.

OCD vs. Non-OCD Intrusive Thoughts: Telling Them Apart

In Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts come with repetitive actions or thoughts called compulsions. People feel intense anxiety due to thoughts about germs, harm, or needing things to be orderly. Doctors diagnose it using the DSM-5 guidelines.

Non-OCD intrusive thoughts happen without these repetitive actions. They’re linked to anxiety disorders, depression, or PTSD. Symptoms vary but involve unwanted thoughts of harm or disturbing images that cause a lot of distress.

Non-OCD Intrusive Thoughts

  • Pop up occasionally and don’t cause significant distress.
  • You might find them weird, but you can brush them aside.
  • There is no need for rituals or routines to feel better.

OCD Intrusive Thoughts

  • Frequent and cause significant anxiety or fear.
  • The thoughts feel sticky and hard to ignore.
  • You might feel compelled to do certain things (compulsions) to ease the anxiety caused by the thoughts.

Examples of OCD and Non-OCD Intrusive Thoughts


  • Walking past a knife and having a fleeting thought, “What if I stabbed myself?” (You quickly dismiss it and move on.)


  • Constantly worried about germs and having intrusive thoughts about getting sick. These thoughts might lead you to wash your hands repeatedly (compulsion) even though you know they’re clean.

Thought Patterns and Behaviors

The critical difference lies in how you react to the thoughts. Non-OCD intrusive thoughts are fleeting and don’t control your behavior. With OCD, the thoughts become overwhelming, and you feel the need to take action (compulsions) to manage the anxiety they trigger.

If you’re unsure whether your intrusive thoughts are OCD-related, it’s always a good idea to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you understand what’s going on and develop strategies to feel better. Remember, you’re not alone!

Taking Back Control: Therapy and Treatment Options

Many effective treatments can help you manage them and feel better.

Therapy Options

Here’s a breakdown of some popular options.

  • ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention): This therapy helps you gradually face your intrusive thoughts without doing any compulsions. Imagine being scared of dogs (intrusive thought). ERP would involve slowly exposing yourself to dogs in a safe way, like looking at pictures or watching videos, until your anxiety gets better.

  • CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy): CBT helps you identify unhealthy thought patterns that might be fueling your intrusive thoughts. You’ll learn practical skills to challenge those thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones. For example, if you have a scary thought about getting sick, CBT can help you challenge that thought with evidence that you’re healthy and taking good care of yourself.

  • ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy): ACT teaches you to accept intrusive thoughts without judgment and focus on living a meaningful life according to your values. Imagine your thoughts are like annoying pop-up ads. ACT helps you learn to let them go and focus on what matters most to you.

Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness exercises can help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. Think of it like strengthening a muscle. The more you practice mindfulness, the better you’ll observe your thoughts without getting hooked. Here are some easy mindfulness techniques to try:

  • Deep Breathing: Take slow, deep breaths through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on the feeling of your breath moving in and out of your body.
  • Body Scan: Close your eyes and pay attention to different body parts, noticing any sensations without judgment.

Medication Options

Medication options for treating intrusive thoughts and related disorders include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which can help regulate neurotransmitter levels in the brain associated with mood and anxiety. Pros include symptom relief and improved quality of life for many individuals. Cons may include side effects such as nausea or weight gain, and medication effectiveness varies by individual. Consultation with a healthcare professional is crucial to determine the most appropriate medication and dosage.

Remember, you don’t have to fight intrusive thoughts alone. You can manage them and live a fulfilling life with proper treatment and support.

Managing Intrusive Thoughts in Real Life

Intrusive thoughts can show up anywhere, anytime. Here are some tips to manage them in different situations:

At Work

  • Tech Professionals: Staring at a screen all day can fuel overthinking. Take short breaks to move around, stretch, or chat with colleagues.
  • Balance is Key: Don’t let intrusive thoughts hijack your work. Set small goals and reward yourself for completing them. If thoughts become overwhelming, take a short mindfulness break (see previous section!).
  • Talking it Out: If intrusive thoughts are affecting your work, consider talking to a supportive supervisor or HR rep about mental health resources available at your company.

Feeling Anxious or Down?

  • Coping Strategies: When anxiety or depression strikes, intrusive thoughts can get louder—practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation. Journaling can also help you untangle your thoughts and feelings.
  • Seek Help: If intrusive thoughts are overwhelming and getting in the way of daily life, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A therapist can provide tools and support to manage these thoughts and improve your well-being.

High-Stress Jobs

  • Identify Your Triggers: What situations cause your intrusive thoughts to flare up? Once you know your triggers, you can develop strategies to cope.
  • Challenge Negative Thoughts: High stress can fuel negative thinking. When an intrusive thought pops up, challenge it with a positive one. For example, if you think, “I’m going to mess up this presentation,” counter it with, “I’m prepared, and I’ve done well in presentations before.”
  • Take Breaks: Like a car needs a pit stop, so does your brain. Schedule short breaks throughout the day to clear your head and prevent intrusive thoughts from taking over.

Remember, intrusive thoughts don’t define you. Using these strategies and seeking help when needed, you can take control and live a happy, productive life, no matter the situation.

Practical Tools to Tame Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can be noisy roommates in your mind, but there are ways to turn down the volume! Here are some practical techniques to help you manage them:

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness is like strengthening a muscle in your brain. The more you practice, the better you observe your thoughts without getting stuck on them. Here are some easy ways to get started:

  • Guided Meditation: There are many free guided meditations online or in apps. Find one that focuses on your breath or a relaxing image.
  • Body Scan: Close your eyes and slowly focus on different parts of your body, noticing any sensations without judgment. Is your foot warm or cool? Does your chest rise and fall with each breath?
  • Daily Practice: A few minutes of mindfulness daily can make a difference. Try setting a timer for 3 minutes and simply focus on your breath.

Productivity Power-Ups

Intrusive thoughts can mess with your focus. Here are some tips to stay on track:

  • Tame the To-Do List: Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. This will feel less overwhelming and help you stay focused.
  • Time Management Magic: Schedule time for focused work and breaks throughout the day. Use a timer to keep yourself on track.
  • Create a Calm Zone: Clear your workspace of clutter and distractions. A clean, organized space can help you feel calmer and more focused.
  • Well-being Routine: Taking care of yourself is key! Ensure you get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise regularly. A healthy body leads to a healthier mind.

Remember, these are just some starting points. Experiment and find what works best for you. You can manage intrusive thoughts and live a productive, fulfilling life with some practice.

Neuroscience of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can be frustrating, but neuroscience (the science of the brain) can shed some light on what’s going on.

Imagine your brain is a busy city with many pathways (like streets) for information to travel. Usually, these pathways help you think clearly and focus on what matters.

But sometimes, there can be glitches or detours. Intrusive thoughts are like unexpected pop-up ads that appear on these pathways. They can be triggered by stress, lack of sleep, or random brain activity.


Here’s a simplified breakdown:

  • The Amygdala: This part of your brain is like the city’s alarm system. It’s responsible for detecting threats and keeping you safe. Sometimes, the amygdala can misfire and flag an intrusive thought as a danger, even though it’s not.

  • The Prefrontal Cortex: Think of this as the city’s control center. It helps you analyze information, make decisions, and filter out unimportant things. When working well, the prefrontal cortex can tell the amygdala to calm down and recognize the intrusive thought for what it is - just a weird thought.

The key is strengthening the connection between your prefrontal cortex (control center) and the amygdala (alarm system). This helps your brain filter out intrusive thoughts and prevent them from taking over.

Wrapping It Up: You’ve Got This!

Intrusive thoughts can be a pain, but remember, they’re normal and don’t define you. They’re just glitches in your brain’s fantastic wiring. The good news is there are ways to manage them and regain control of your mind.

Here’s a quick recap:

  • Intrusive thoughts are unwanted visitors that pop into your head.
  • They can be caused by stress, lack of sleep, or random brain activity.
  • Therapy and mindfulness practices can be powerful tools to manage them.
  • If intrusive thoughts are overwhelming and getting in the way of daily life, don’t hesitate to seek help from a therapist.

Many resources are available to support you on your journey to better mental health. Here are a few to get you started:

Remember, you’re not alone in this. With the right tools and support, you can manage intrusive thoughts and live a fulfilling life. Keep reaching out, keep learning, and keep taking care of yourself. You’ve got this!


[1] Wells, A. (2000). Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Theory, research, and treatment. Psychological bulletin, 126(5), 848.

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