What are Intrusive Thoughts and How Can We Manage Them?

What are Intrusive Thoughts and How Can We Manage Them?

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Experiencing thoughts or images that seem to pop up out of nowhere and are difficult to stop thinking about can be a scary, but common occurrence. Some can experience minor intrusions while others experience great distress due to the content and persistence of the thought. Those who experience distress and discomfort often feel this way because they perceive the thoughts they are having as socially or morally unacceptable and this leads to negative perceptions or assumptions about themselves. Intrusive thoughts are defined by the APA as” mental events that interrupt the flow of task-related thoughts despite efforts to avoid them”. While minor intrusions are fairly common upsetting intrusions can become disruptive and cause a great deal of distress in the person experiencing them.

Intrusive thought content can be violent, focus on an individual's fears, sexual or other things that seem socially or morally unacceptable. This can lead to individuals thinking that they want to carry out these thoughts, that they are morally corrupt, or carrying out compulsions to avoid fears. The truth about Intrusive thoughts is that they are just thoughts and do not reflect you or things that you want to do.

If this were the case, you likely wouldn't consider them a problem or be distressed by them. Individuals can begin to experience upsetting and disruptive intrusions of significance after experiencing trauma or as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, they do not have to relate to a mental health disorder as they can occur on their own.

Examples of Intrusive Thoughts

Experiencing intrusive thoughts can feel confusing or scary, or shameful for some. This can lead to one hiding these thoughts or isolating from others, often due to the belief these thoughts are unacceptable. 

Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at some point, while others will struggle more or even experience interference in their lives. Intrusive thoughts that are disruptive can include bizarre, socially unacceptable, or violent content. Most commonly they involve fears like forgetting something, humiliation, or self-doubt. Intrusive thoughts can be about anything really, but here are some examples of common intrusive thoughts:

  • Contamination, germs, infections

  • Sexual acts

  • Violent acts

  • Harming self or others

  • Worry about doing things wrong or forgetting to do them

  • Causing public humiliation 

The most important aspect of intrusive thoughts to understand is that they are distressing or disruptive because you believe they are unacceptable or fear what they indicate about you. If you have no intention to act on these thoughts they are not a cause for alarm.

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

The onset of intrusive thoughts can be connected to trauma or obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, intrusive thoughts can occur on their own without the presence of a mental disorder. Some can experience upsetting and disruptive intrusions of significance after experiencing a stressor or traumatic event or relate to obsessions, which lead to compulsions to avoid the undesirable or feared occurrence.

These intrusive thoughts often start becoming problematic when trying to place meaning and importance on them. People might worry about why they are having these thoughts, how they reflect on them as a person, and feel ashamed. This starts a cycle of shaming and working to “get rid of” the thoughts. Fighting with intrusive thoughts is extremely unhelpful and will only worsen the distress and anxiety experienced. The more you fight with the thoughts the more you are reinforcing the thoughts. 

It’s also common to try to seek reassurance that the thoughts will not happen. While this might temporarily help you will eventually become reliant on reassurance for relief. The truth is that intrusive thoughts are just thoughts, they do not indicate desire, impulse, or reflect on character.

Before we go over what to do to manage intrusive thoughts let's go over what not to do again. Don’t try to create meaning in the thought, engage with the thoughts, seek reassurance, or “fight” the thoughts. 

How to Manage Intrusive Thoughts

Effectively managing intrusive thoughts and the anxiety caused by them requires first, understanding there is no meaning to or implications about you associated with them. Second, is accepting them as just thoughts and letting them pass. The less attention and significance you give them the quicker they will fade away.

  • Tell yourself that these thoughts are what you're doing and they occur automatically

  • Identify these thought patterns as “intrusive thoughts” rather than a part of yourself. They are separate. 

  • Accept the thoughts and allow them to flow through, practice allowing time for them to pass

  • Accept the thoughts and expect the thoughts might come back again

  • Remind yourself that there is no urgency in getting rid of the thoughts

  • Continue with your day as normal when the thoughts pass

Some who experience a lot of anxiety relating to these thoughts may benefit from implementing relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises. Remember to stay calm and not engage with the thoughts. The less attention they get the quicker they pass.

If you start to feel like areas of your life are being negatively impacted due to intrusive thoughts after utilizing these tips, it could be helpful to set up an appointment with a mental health professional to help manage your struggles with intrusive thoughts and other impacts it may have on you.


Intrusive thoughts can be confusing and alarming when you first experience them. This can cause fear of them occurring again, struggling to find meaning behind them, wondering what they mean about you, and struggling with them to get rid of them as fast as possible. It's important to understand these thoughts are separate from you and focusing on them or struggling with them will only make them harder to deal with. 

Accepting the thoughts and allowing them to flow through without rushing and placing little significance on them is key. If you find yourself struggling to manage intrusive thoughts or notice that it is impacting important areas of life, please reach out to Heritage Counseling & Consulting at 214-363-2345 for information on meeting with one of our amazing clinicians that can provide helpful guidance.