Have you ever had an uncomfortable thought pop into your head without warning? You’re not alone. Our brains are powerful machines that can conjure up all sorts of random thoughts, including some that make us wonder if we’re normal. The truth is that intrusive thoughts are incredibly common.
Everyone has them from time to time, though some struggle with them more than others. Rather than beating yourself up over that weird thought that just came out of nowhere, cut yourself some slack. Your thoughts don’t define who you are. Here are seven intrusive thoughts you’re definitely not alone in having.
Table of Contents
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that pop into your head unexpectedly. They can be disturbing and distressing, but the good news is that you’re not alone in having them.
- violent or disturbing thoughts about harming yourself or others. These are actually very common and don’t mean you’re dangerous.
- socially inappropriate thoughts that make you cringe. Your mind can come up with the wildest scenarios at the worst times.
- Unwanted thoughts that seem to arise out of nowhere These unwanted thoughts are typically meaningless, so try not to read into them.
- Exaggerated worries or fears about health or safety. Our minds often go to the worst-case scenario, even if there’s no evidence to support it.
The key is not to engage with or ruminate on intrusive thoughts. Don’t argue with them or try to figure out what they mean. Simply notice the thought and let it go, bringing your focus back to the present moment. The more you practice this non-judgmental awareness, the less frequent and intense the intrusive thoughts may become.
Remember, you are not your thoughts. Just because a weird, scary, or socially inappropriate thought pops into your head doesn’t mean that’s how you actually feel or what you really want to do. Your thoughts alone cannot control you or make you act against your will. You’ve got this! Stay calm and carry on.
What are Intrusive Thoughts Examples
Intrusive thought examples are sentences or phrases that interrupt the flow of a text or speech. They can be used to provide additional information, clarify a point, or emphasize an idea. However, they can also make the text or speech less coherent, more complex, or less engaging. Intrusive examples should be used sparingly and appropriately.
1. Common Intrusive Thoughts and What They Mean
Common intrusive thoughts pop into your head when you least expect them. Don’t worry; you’re not alone.
- Fear of Losing Control: thoughts of suddenly yelling in public or acting violently These thoughts are disturbing, but don’t reflect your actual desires or intentions.
- Fear of Harming Yourself or Others: Visualizing yourself or loved ones in dangerous situations Again, these thoughts are not what you really want to have happen.
- Blasphemous Thoughts Having disrespectful thoughts about religious figures or during prayer. These thoughts do not reflect your actual faith or beliefs.
- Superstitious Thoughts An irrational fear that certain numbers, colors, or objects will bring bad luck. Try not to engage with these unrealistic worries.
The bottom line is that intrusive thoughts are meaningless noise in your mind. Don’t judge yourself for having them. The more you try to suppress intrusive thoughts, the more power you give them. Accept them and let them go. Your thoughts alone do not define who you are. You are in control of your actions, and that’s what really matters.
2. “What If” Worrying Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts often come in the form of worrying “what if” scenarios that pop into your mind. We all experience them from time to time.
- What if I lose my job? Even if you have no reason to believe you’re in danger of being fired, worrying about the possibility of becoming unemployed can cause anxiety and stress.
- What if I get sick? Wondering about potential health issues, diseases, or medical emergencies that could arise can fuel health anxiety and hypochondria.
- What if my partner leaves me? Relationship insecurities and fears of abandonment frequently manifest as intrusive thoughts about a partner ending the relationship.
- What if I fail? Self-doubt and worries about disappointing yourself or others by not achieving goals or meeting expectations. Fear of failure is a common source of intrusive “what if” thoughts.
Don’t feel alone in having these kinds of thoughts. The way to overcome them is through challenging negative thoughts and cognitive restructuring. Try to adopt a more balanced perspective by evaluating the evidence and probability of your worries actually coming to fruition. Putting situations in proper context can help ease anxiety and make intrusive thoughts feel more manageable. With regular practice, worrying “what ifs” lose their power over you.
3. Aggressive or violent thoughts
Intrusive thoughts can sometimes take the form of aggressive or violent urges that seem to come out of nowhere. Don’t worry; you’re not alone in experiencing these.
Thoughts of harming yourself or others. At some point, most people have fleeting thoughts of suicide or violence that shock or disturb them. As long as you don’t act on them or develop a plan, these thoughts are usually harmless.
- random urges to scream, hit something or someone, or break something. Again, as long as you don’t act on these impulses, they are typically just bothersome intrusions and not a sign of danger.
- constant worry that you might lose control and become violent. This type of obsessive worrying is often a symptom of anxiety or OCD and not an indicator that you are actually dangerous. The truth is, most people have aggressive thoughts at some point.
- fear of what you might be capable of. Wondering things like “Am I a psychopath?” or “Might I be capable of murder?” can be a disturbing experience. But having the thought doesn’t make it so. You are not your thoughts, and intrusive thoughts say nothing about your character or abilities.
The bottom line is: don’t be afraid of your thoughts, and don’t feel like a bad person for having them. Your thoughts alone do not define you or make you dangerous. Focus instead on the choices you make and your actual behavior. If troubling thoughts are persistent or distressing, speaking to a therapist can help put them in perspective and give you strategies for coping. You don’t have to go through this alone.
4. Immoral Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts can be disturbing and make us question ourselves, but having strange or taboo thoughts pop into our minds is typically normal and outside of our control. Immoral thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere fall into this category.
5. Disturbing Thoughts
It’s not uncommon to have a weird or inappropriate thought flash through your mind, like about a friend, coworker, or stranger. These thoughts can make us feel ashamed or like there’s something wrong with us, but they are usually meaningless and not reflective of our actual desires or values.
Our brains are constantly generating thoughts, and some of them will be strange or shocking. The more we try to suppress intrusive thoughts, the more power we give them. The best approach is to accept them as normal quirks of the mind, not judge yourself for them, and then refocus your attention on the present moment. If the thoughts are frequent or distressing, speaking to a therapist can help address the underlying anxiety or obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
The bottom line is that you are not your thoughts. Don’t let fleeting mental blips define you or shake your confidence in who you are. Keep calm and remember that weird, disturbing thoughts happen to everyone at some point. You’re totally normal, and this too shall pass!
6. Religious Obsessions
Intrusive thoughts can manifest in the form of obsessive religious worries or fears. Have you ever had these kinds of thoughts plague you?
- fear of sinning or offending God. Constant worries about whether your actions or thoughts have offended or angered God in some way
- Excessive praying. Feeling compelled to pray for long periods of time each day to avoid feelings of guilt or anxiety.
- Scrupulosity. Obsessive concern over moral or religious issues often manifests as excessive guilt or worry over minor sins. For example, worry that you didn’t pray “correctly” or had an impure thought.
- Fear of the afterlife Excessive worrying or fearful thoughts about what will happen after death, e.g., fear of going to Hell or eternal punishment
- Doubting core religious beliefs Unwanted doubts or thoughts that contradict or question your faith or belief in God can be deeply troubling, but they are not a reflection of your true faith or values.
The good news is that these kinds of obsessive religious thoughts are quite common and do not mean there is anything wrong with your faith or relationship with God. The key is learning strategies to better manage intrusive thoughts, accept uncertainty, and find meaning and purpose. Speaking with a religious counselor or mental health professional can help gain perspective and find peace of mind. You are not alone.
7. Contamination Fears
Do you ever have intrusive thoughts about contamination that you just can’t seem to shake? You’re not alone. Many people experience irrational worries about coming into contact with germs or “unclean” substances.
- Fear of public places Crowds of people in small spaces like buses, trains, and movie theaters can trigger contamination anxiety. You may worry about picking up illnesses from surfaces that many people have touched.
- obsession with hand washing. Excessively washing your hands to avoid imagined germs is a common sign of contamination in OCD. While good hygiene is important, washing for longer than 20–30 seconds at a time can dry out and damage your skin. Disgust with bodily fluids. Coming into contact with sweat, saliva, urine, or feces, even in small amounts, may make you feel extremely unclean. But these fluids are a normal part of life and do not actually contaminate you.
- difficulty sharing spaces. You may have trouble using public restrooms, sitting in a waiting room chair, or staying in a hotel room that other people have occupied before you. Remind yourself that normal cleaning practices are effective at removing harmful germs, and you are unlikely to catch anything from these brief encounters.
The truth is, while we should all practice good hygiene and be mindful of actual health risks, most contamination fears are exaggerated or unfounded. Don’t let intrusive thoughts like these take over and limit your ability to live life freely. With self-help strategies and possibly professional counseling, you can overcome contamination OCD.
Doubting Yourself and Your Perceptions
It’s normal to doubt yourself and question your own perceptions and memories at times. Our minds can play tricks on us, and it’s easy to second-guess our instincts or wonder if we really saw what we thought we saw. Some common doubts and intrusive thoughts include:
- Did I lock the door? Turn off the stove. Close the garage? Even after double-checking, you might still have nagging worries that you forgot something important. • Was that person really angry with me, or did I misread their tone? We can’t always accurately gauge other people’s emotions or intentions. Don’t assume their reaction was about you.
- Did I already tell this story, or am I repeating myself? As we get older, our memories aren’t quite as sharp. Don’t be too hard on yourself if details get mixed up or you rehash the same tale.
- Am I overreacting or being irrational? Our anxieties and worries don’t always match the situation. Take a step back and try to look at the issue objectively. Get a second opinion from someone you trust.
- Why did I say that stupid thing? We all have moments of regret over a clumsy comment or awkward interaction. Don’t dwell on it; simply apologize if needed and work on responding with more grace next time.
The bottom line is that some self-doubt is normal and even healthy. But if frequent negative thoughts are damaging your confidence or relationships, it may help to speak to a therapist. They can offer coping strategies and a more balanced perspective. You’re doing fine; go easy on yourself!
Causes and Triggers of Intrusive Thinking
Intrusive thoughts can be triggered or worsened by a number of factors. Some of the most common causes and triggers of intrusive thinking include:
1. Stress and anxiety
When you’re stressed or anxious, your mind can go into overdrive. This can increase the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts. Finding ways to relieve stress and anxiety, such as exercising, meditating, or practicing self-care, can help.
2.. Lack of sleep
Not getting enough sleep impairs your brain’s ability to regulate emotions and filter out unwanted thoughts. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to allow your mind to rest.
3. Substance use
Using various substances can intensify symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression that contribute to intrusive thoughts. Reducing or eliminating recreational activities may help decrease intrusive thinking.
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and hopelessness associated with depression can fuel intrusive thoughts. Seeking treatment for depression, such as therapy or medication, may help improve your mood and decrease negative thought patterns.
When your mind is unoccupied, it may generate random thoughts to fill the void. Keeping your mind engaged with hobbies, social interaction, learning a new skill, or other enjoyable activities can help prevent boredom and the intrusive thoughts that may accompany it. The good news is that there are many strategies you can try to better manage intrusive thoughts. Identifying potential triggers is the first step.
From there, make a plan to avoid triggers when possible and find healthy ways of coping with them when you can’t avoid them. With time and practice, intrusive thoughts may become less frequent and intense.
When do intrusive thoughts become problematic?
Intrusive thoughts become problematic when they significantly disrupt your life and cause distress. If your intrusive thoughts are:
Occur frequently throughout the day, interfering with your ability to focus or function normally.
- cause intense feelings of anxiety, guilt, or disgust that are difficult to cope with. Compel you to engage in repetitive behaviors (like excessive hand washing) to try and relieve your anxiety or distress.
- make you question your own values, intentions, or self-worth.
If any of these apply, your intrusive thoughts may be a symptom of an underlying anxiety or OCD-related disorder. Some signs that it may be time to speak to a doctor or mental health professional include:
- You have trouble controlling or dismissing the intrusive thoughts, even though you know they’re irrational. They persist and loop in your mind.
- They cause panic attacks or severe anxiety.
- You engage in compulsive behaviors like excessive cleaning, checking, or reassurance seeking to ease your distress.
- They significantly interfere with your day-to-day activities, relationships, work, or school performance.
- You have thoughts of harming yourself or others.
Speaking with a professional therapist or counselor can help determine if your symptoms warrant an anxiety or OCD diagnosis. They can also recommend treatment options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you better manage intrusive thoughts. CBT techniques teach you how to challenge irrational thoughts, adopt a healthier thinking style, and develop coping strategies.
The bottom line is that intrusive thoughts are only normal up to a point. If they start to rule your life and cause significant distress, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from a mental health professional. Overcoming problematic intrusive thoughts is possible with the right treatment and support.
You Are Not Your Thoughts: Coping With Intrusive Thinking
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that seem to come out of the blue and cause distress. Everyone experiences them at some point, so know that you’re not alone and it’s not your fault. Here are some common intrusive thoughts and ways to cope:
You’re a failure.: This thought discounts your accomplishments and strengths. Remind yourself of your wins and good qualities. Your worth isn’t defined by any one failure.
No one really likes you.:This is a very common, intrusive thought that is not based on reality. Write down examples of people in your life who care about you to combat this false belief.
You might hurt someone.:Having a violent thought doesn’t mean you’ll act on it. Avoiding triggers and practicing self-care can help lessen their frequency. Seek professional help if needed.
Life is meaningless.: It’s normal to sometimes question life’s meaning, especially when distressed. Connecting to purposeful activities, loved ones, or spiritual or religious beliefs can help provide meaning and fulfillment.
You’re not good enough.: Perfectionism fuels this intrusive thought. Practice self-compassion; you’re deserving of love as you are.
The bottom line is that you are not your thoughts. They are temporary and do not reflect your true self or what you’re capable of. Challenge intrusive thoughts with evidence that contradicts them. Stay connected to your values and purpose. Speak to a professional if needed; you don’t have to go through this alone. With coping strategies, intrusive thoughts can be better managed and their power over you diminished. You’ve got this!
1. Managing and Coping with Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
Managing intrusive thoughts can be challenging, but there are effective coping strategies to help.
Acknowledge the thoughts.
Accept that these random thoughts happen and that you are not alone. Everyone has strange thoughts pop into their heads from time to time. Label them as intrusive thoughts and realize they are not actually harmful.
Don’t engage with the thoughts.
Try not to focus on the thoughts or analyze them. Do not argue with yourself about whether they are right or wrong. Just let the thoughts pass through your mind without judgment. The more you engage, the more power you give them.
Redirect your mind.
Shift your attention to something else to take your mind off the unwanted thoughts. Do some light exercise like walking or yoga, call a friend, get out in nature, read a book, or engage in a hobby. Redirecting your mind can help break the cycle.
Challenge any distressing thoughts.
If an intrusive thought is particularly upsetting, examine the evidence that the thought is not realistic. Try to adopt a more balanced perspective. Talk to someone you trust about the thoughts to help gain clarity.
Make sure to engage in regular self-care to minimize stress and anxiety, which can increase intrusive thoughts. Exercise, eat healthy, pursue hobbies, connect with others, and get enough sleep. Staying in good shape, both physically and mentally, will boost your ability to cope.
With practice and patience, you can learn strategies to better manage intrusive thoughts. Remember, they are normal and do not define who you are. Do not hesitate to speak to a therapist if needed for support in developing skills to overcome unwanted thoughts. You’ve got this! Stay strong.
2. Lifestyle Changes That Can Help With Intrusive Thoughts
To help decrease intrusive thoughts, making some lifestyle changes can help. Here are a few to try:
Reduce stress and stay busy.
When your mind is idle, intrusive thoughts tend to pop up more frequently. Keep your schedule full of hobbies, socializing, and other activities that you find meaningful or enjoyable. Exercise is also a great way to release pent-up energy and tension. Even taking up meditation or yoga can help you relax and center your mind.
Limit substances and caffeine.
These substances can worsen symptoms of anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Cut them back or eliminate them from your daily routine. Your mind and body will thank you.
Make sure to schedule time for yourself to rest and recharge. Lack of sleep, poor diet, and not taking good care of yourself physically or emotionally can intensify intrusive thoughts. Focus on eating healthy, well-balanced meals, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, and doing things each day that boost your mood and self-esteem.
Challenge negative thoughts.
Notice when an intrusive thought pops into your head and try to adopt a more balanced and realistic perspective. Ask yourself questions to challenge the thought, look for evidence that contradicts it, and reframe it more positively and compassionately. Over time, this can help reduce the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts.
Connect with others.
Call a friend or family member, join a local support group, or see a therapist. Let others in and talk about your experiences with intrusive thoughts. Getting support from those who understand what you’re going through can help you feel less alone and find new ways of coping.
The more you make your mental health and self-care a priority, the easier it will be to overcome problematic thoughts and live with more peace of mind. Be patient through the process and remember that intrusive thoughts are very common—you’ve got this!
3. Medications That Can Help With Intrusive Thoughts
Medications can be very effective at reducing intrusive thoughts, especially when combined with therapy. The most commonly prescribed medications for intrusive thoughts are:
- antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs like escitalopram (Lexapro) and sertraline (Zoloft) can help improve mood and reduce obsessive thoughts.
- anti-anxiety medications, such as buspirone (Buspar). These medications target anxiety and worry, which can fuel intrusive thoughts.
- Antipsychotic medications, such as quetiapine (Seroquel) or risperidone (Risperdal), in low doses. These medications work by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain that may be involved in obsessive thoughts.
If you and your doctor determine medications could be helpful for you, it may take some trial and error to find the right treatment and dosage. Medications can take several weeks of use before becoming fully effective at easing symptoms. They also often have side effects like nausea, dizziness, or sleepiness.
However, the benefits of reduced distress from obsessive thoughts usually outweigh these temporary side effects for most people. While medications alone may provide some relief, therapy or counseling is typically needed to learn strategies to better manage intrusive thoughts in the long run.
A combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is often the most effective approach. Medications can help make these therapies more effective by easing anxiety and distress, allowing you to fully engage in the therapeutic process.
With the right treatment plan, intrusive thoughts can become much more manageable. Don’t lose hope; help is out there. Talk to your doctor about options for medication and therapy so you can start to regain control over your thoughts and feel like yourself again.
4. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for intrusive thoughts
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most effective treatments for intrusive thoughts. CBT works by helping you challenge irrational thoughts, recognize thought patterns, and develop coping strategies. Some key techniques in CBT for intrusive thoughts include:
Exposure and Response Prevention
Exposure and response prevention expose you to intrusive thoughts in a controlled setting. This helps desensitize you to the thought and lessens the distress. For example, you may purposely conjure an intrusive thought and then prevent yourself from engaging in any compulsions. Over time, the thought loses its power.
Learn to identify irrational thoughts and replace them with more balanced ones. Ask yourself questions like: What evidence do I have that the thought is true? What are alternative explanations? What would I tell a friend in this situation? Replace words like “always” and “never” with “sometimes” or “occasionally.”
Mindfulness teaches you to observe your thoughts without judgment. Notice when an intrusive thought arises, then shift your focus back to your breath. Say to yourself, “It’s just a thought,” and let it go. Over time, you can weaken the connection between the intrusive thought and your emotional reaction.
Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Reducing overall anxiety and stress can help decrease intrusive thoughts. Take a few minutes each day to unwind and de-stress.
CBT requires effort and practice, but sticking with it can help overcome unhealthy thought patterns. Don’t lose hope; with the right treatment and coping strategies, intrusive thoughts can become more manageable. The key is to learn to live with uncertainty and accept that you can’t control everything. With time and practice, CBT techniques can help transform your relationship with your thoughts.
And there you have it—10 intrusive thoughts that you’re definitely not the only one having. We all experience unwanted thoughts from time to time, even the weird or disturbing ones. The key is not to beat yourself up over them or assume there’s something wrong with you. Our brains are powerful machines that can generate all kinds of random mental noise, and intrusive thoughts are often just a glitch in the system.
The next time one of these weird thoughts pops into your head uninvited, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re perfectly normal, and it will pass. Don’t engage with the thought or try to figure out what it “means”—just let it go as quickly as it came. Your thoughts alone don’t define you, and there are more constructive ways to spend your mental energy. You’ve got this! Stay strong and remember to be kind to yourself. The voices of self-doubt and worry will always be there, but you have the power to redirect your focus to the positive.
- OCD and Contamination by Fred Penzel, PhD
- What to know about religious OCD By Rosie Slater
- Intrusive Thoughts: Why We Have Them and How to Stop Them By Kimberly Holland
- Immoral thoughts: how does the brain react? Scientists discover that the left side of the brain reacts more to immoral stimuli by Marc Abrahams
- Anxiety: ‘What-if’ thoughts and how to stop them in 3 easy steps
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