TikTok has recently been buzzing with discussions about intrusive thoughts. While some people use the term to describe random impulses, such as opening and closing their fridge door or throwing eggs on the ground, the true meaning of intrusive thoughts goes much deeper.
Intrusive thoughts refer to a psychological phenomenon involving disturbing thoughts that are difficult to shake off. So, what exactly are these thoughts, and are they as widespread as social media suggests?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, involuntary thoughts that cause distress and are challenging to manage or eliminate. They often involve unpleasant images or emotions that feel strange or bothersome. These thoughts may be violent or sexual, or they may express a fear of doing something inappropriate or embarrassing.
Navit Schechter, a CBT therapist and founder of Conscious & Calm, explains that intrusive thoughts are common and normal. “Intrusive thoughts are fairly common and normal. A 2020 study revealed the widespread occurrence of specific intrusive thoughts among ‘healthy’ individuals, emphasising the prevalence of this phenomenon,” she said.
Schechter further noted that intrusive thoughts can range from mildly upsetting to highly distressing. She explained: “Intrusive thoughts often appear to emerge unexpectedly, which contributes to their distressing nature, as opposed to being a direct reaction to a specific trigger.”
Schechter further elaborates that these thoughts may be experienced without causing significant distress and simply drift away, or they can be extremely upsetting, leading individuals to react or try to suppress them. She adds, “which actually intensifies them and makes them stick further.”
Intrusive thoughts are not always a cause for concern, but they can become increasingly troubling or dominate your daily life, warns Schechter. When this happens, it’s essential to seek help. “If you start to pathologise your thoughts and freak out about it, that’s when it becomes super distressing, and it’s time to get help,” she said.
These thoughts are often involuntary but can become repetitive and obsessive, with the same feedback loop playing repeatedly in your head. Schechter explained, “Every thought that we have, to some degree, is automatic, and we can’t actually control our thoughts that much, but we can control our perspective and how we approach our thoughts.”
Fear, shame, and guilt are common emotions associated with intrusive thoughts. While most people do not want to act on these thoughts, they can still be disturbing and hard to eliminate or manage. “Intrusive thoughts differ when people get caught in the rabbit hole and start blaming themselves for having certain thoughts or panicking over why they’re having these thoughts,” Schechter said.
Intrusive thoughts can take many forms, from concerns about germs or violence to sexuality, completing tasks correctly, or fear of being immoral. “Someone may have an intrusive thought about harming themselves, but if you ask them if they actually want to hurt themselves, they would say no and that they’re terrified. Most of the time, people don’t want to do that intrusive thing that they’re thinking,” said Schechter.
Intrusive thoughts are very common, with almost 94% of participants in a study published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders reporting experiencing at least one intrusive thought. “We can all have unpleasant thoughts, and sometimes we start to obsess over a particular situation that we may have gone through, but the difference really is how much we’re able to control,” Schechter explained.
When intrusive thoughts become disruptive to daily life, it’s time to consult a mental health professional. If you feel shame, embarrassment, or like you can’t discuss these thoughts with anyone, it’s better to connect with an expert sooner rather than later. Schechter emphasises that attaching negative meaning to intrusive thoughts and trying to suppress them can make them more frequent and harder to ignore.
“The problem is if we attach a meaning to having intrusive thoughts such as thinking having thoughts like these mean “I’m a bad person,” “there’s something wrong with me,” or “thinking something will make it more likely to happen.” When this happens and we try to suppress or avoid intrusive thoughts in some way, they become more frequent and harder to ignore,” Schechter said.
Intrusive thoughts can be triggered by various factors, with “ambiguous situations” being a common cause, according to Schechter. For instance, if someone isn’t overly friendly toward you or doesn’t respond to your text, that could lead to intrusive thoughts spiralling out of control. This often results in an internal dialogue such as “Did I do something wrong?”, “Am I in trouble?”, “Do they not like me anymore?”, or “Did I make someone mad?”
“Of course, thinking that having intrusive thoughts is abnormal, wrong or bad in any way means that we often feel anxious, guilty or ashamed as a result too. And there’s a rebound effect, so the more we try and suppress any thoughts, the more we tend to have,” Schechter explained.
“Adjusting what meaning you’ve given to having intrusive thoughts is really important in breaking the cycle. When I’m supporting clients with intrusive thoughts, we tend to focus on helping them to allow their thoughts and the accompanying feelings that come with them. Through a process called habituation, these feelings eventually pass, and without the associated fear and avoidance, we see that the intrusive thoughts tend to become less frequent and intense,” Schechter continued.
These thoughts can also be triggered by stress or anxiety, said Schechter. For example, arguing with your partner or having a disagreement with a coworker may provoke these unwelcome thoughts.
While intrusive thoughts are a common phenomenon experienced by many, it’s essential to recognise when they become problematic and seek help from mental health professionals. By understanding the nature of intrusive thoughts and learning how to manage them, you can prevent them from negatively impacting your life.
If you or a loved one has intrusive thoughts involving self-harm, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Hotline or head to the nearest emergency room immediately.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.