Intrusive Thoughts: Why You Have Them and How to Stop


What are intrusive thoughts?

An intrusive thought is one that unexpectedly pops into your head. Almost everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at some point. Some of them may be morbid or uncomfortable (for example, “I could jump from this bridge and hit the rocks below”). Others may just be bizarre or even funny (“What if I threw this ice cream cone out of the car window?”). These types of thoughts suddenly drift into your mind and often drift out just as quickly.

However, unwanted intrusive thoughts occur when a typical intrusive thought sticks in your mind and causes you distress. You might feel ashamed by a recurring sexual thought, for example. Or disturbed by a mental image of you harming someone you love. Instead of simply passing through your mind, these thoughts seem to stubbornly stick around and torment you.

Intrusive thoughts can impact both your behavior and your self-esteem. If you believe the thoughts are premonitions or indicators of your “true” nature, you may begin to avoid certain situations. For example, if you keep thinking about driving your car into pedestrians, you may avoid getting behind the wheel. Or if the intrusive thoughts involve reliving past failures at work, the negative self-talk can damage your self-confidence.

You may dread the arrival of these intrusive thoughts because you know they can derail your focus or even your entire day. You may spend lots of time and mental energy trying to tame or avoid them. However, the more effort you exert trying to run from your thoughts, the more your brain will treat them as if they’re actually dangerous. This can trigger or exacerbate anxiety whenever the thoughts surface.

No matter how disturbing they may seem, the contents of your intrusive thoughts don’t make you a bad person. And your lack of control over them isn’t a sign that you’re “broken” or “crazy.” The real issue you need to address is how you react to these thoughts. First, it helps to understand what’s going on inside your mind. Then, you can learn to reframe your perception of intrusive thoughts.

Common types of intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can come in various forms and will differ from person to person. Some of the most common types include:

Morally repugnant thoughts. This could involve thoughts such as, “I want to stab my brother,” or “I want to kick the dog.” This can also include thoughts about inappropriate sexual behavior or self-harm.

Big questions. You might be fixated on questioning reality. For example, “Is this all an illusion? How can I know if anything is real?” Or maybe you become preoccupied with questions regarding the afterlife and constantly feel overwhelmed by uncertainty.

Scrupulous thoughts. These can involve a preoccupation with judgmental thinking. You might think, “I’m a terrible person because I feel jealous of my friend’s success.” Or maybe you can’t seem to turn off judgmental thoughts about other people. “I feel ashamed because all I can think about is how stupid my sister is.”

Sexual orientation questions. For example, you might think, “Maybe I’m not as attracted to my partner as I thought I was. Maybe I’m not even interested in people of that gender.” You might feel distressed over the thought that everything you assumed about yourself is wrong.

Worrying thoughts. These can include “what-if” scenarios that loop in your mind because you can’t come up with a realistic solution. For example, “What if the power goes out and all my food goes bad?” The thoughts might also focus on relationships. “What if people are just pretending to like me?” This can all feed into cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing and jumping to conclusions.

Personal loss or failure. Maybe you think, “I’m not good enough to be in the position I’m in. I’m going to fail at this job.” You might also ruminate over past failures or mistakes. In some cases, this can tie into imposter syndrome, the internalized fear that you’re a fraud and might one day be exposed as incompetent.

Some people also experience intrusive visuals, like imagined scenes of death or vivid mental images of past traumatic events. It’s also possible to experience intrusive sensations, such as hyper-awareness of your heartbeat or the way your clothes feel on you.


Intrusive thoughts can be caused by a combination of environmental stressors and inherited traits.

Stress and anxiety. You’re more likely to experience unwanted intrusive thoughts during a period of major change or upheaval, such as navigating job loss or a breakup. Or they could intensify when you’re stressed out about finances or a health issue.

Genetic disposition. Another possible cause of intrusive thoughts is a characteristic that psychologists Martin Seif and Sally Winston call a “sticky mind.” This is when your mind has a tendency (likely inherited) to engage in repetitive worrisome thinking.

Your response to the thoughts. The way you respond to the thoughts is also important. Whenever you try to push thoughts away or disprove them, you may be unintentionally fueling them. By framing them as “unacceptable” or even “dangerous,” you’re inflating their importance and giving them more attention.

You can see this type of problem—known as paradoxical effort—play out in other situations in life. If you’re trying to focus on work, for example, but there’s a radio playing nearby, you may try to ignore the noise. But by trying to ignore it, you can inadvertently give it more attention. It can be helpful to imagine quicksand or a Chinese finger trap. The harder you struggle and resist, the more you’re stuck.

Factors that can worsen intrusive thoughts

Several factors may trigger or increase the severity and intensity of intrusive thoughts. When you’re fatigued or stressed out, for example, your mind is more likely to latch onto unwanted thoughts.

Other factors can include:

  • Hormonal changes, like those that occur during menstruation.
  • The use of caffeine, alcohol, and some strains of marijuana.
  • The use of certain over-the-counter and prescription drugs, such as medication to treat asthma.

The intensity can also fluctuate throughout the day. The thoughts might seem especially persistent just before bedtime or when you first wake up.

Obsessive and intrusive thought patterns can also thrive when you feel isolated, as many people experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

Mental health conditions associated with intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts could be a symptom of a broader disorder. If the thoughts seem to frequently take a toll on your well-being, talk to a mental health expert about whether you meet the criteria for one of the following diagnoses.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Intrusive thoughts can be a sign of OCD, a condition in which you engage in repetitive behaviors to calm obsessive thoughts, such as fears of germs or losing items.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Intrusive thoughts commonly occur in PTSD. You might feel plagued by unwanted thoughts or mental images related to past traumatic events.

General anxiety disorder (GAD). If you have GAD, you might notice that you struggle with worrisome thoughts that can feel uncontrollable. Looping concerns about uncertain situations make it hard for you to relax or concentrate.

Eating disorders. If you suffer from an eating disorder, your behaviors might be shaped by intrusive thoughts about your appearance or the need to exercise.

Postpartum mood disorders. Intrusive thoughts are common in new mothers who are experiencing mood and anxiety issues. You might have graphic thoughts of accidentally harming your child. Some research even found that it’s common for mothers to experience thoughts of intentionally harming their infant.

How to stop intrusive thoughts

Dealing with intrusive thoughts is a tricky task because many efforts to fight them may only amplify them, instead. The key is often to change your relationship with the thoughts. Rather than aim to “make them go away,” it may help to change how you evaluate and react to them.

If you simply treat them as if they’re uninteresting, they often lose their power. It can also help to take steps to reduce your overall stress and anxiety levels, which often contribute to intrusive thoughts.

A mental health professional who practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach you to reframe and manage intrusive thoughts. The following tips can also help.

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Tip 1: Understand the nature of your thoughts

Many people have misconceptions about thoughts, including what they mean and how they work. By gaining a better understanding of them, you can be better prepared to deal with unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Accept what’s out of your control. You might mistakenly believe you can consciously control all your thoughts. However, the truth is many of them are out of your control. You can, of course, direct your focus on particular thoughts. But, that’s not the same as making your unwanted intrusive thoughts go away entirely.

Know that you are not your thoughts. Some of your anxiety might come from the belief that your thoughts represent your “true” self. Maybe you believe your intrusive thoughts about violence indicate that you’re a blood-thirsty monster, for example. Understand that your true character is determined by the choices you make, not by the thoughts that drift around your head. In fact, intrusive thoughts are often the opposite of your actual values, which is why they upset you in the first place.

Acknowledge that not every thought is significant. You might believe that if a thought is looping in your brain, it must be significant, or a warning of some future disaster. “I keep thinking about murder because one day I’ll snap and lash out.” Or maybe your belief works the opposite way: You believe that worrying about something will reduce the chances of it coming to pass. But remember that thoughts aren’t facts or accurate readings of the future.

Tip 2: Adopt stress-busting habits

The following strategies can help to reduce stress and anxiety, so may also reduce the severity and frequency of your intrusive thoughts. Even if the intrusive thoughts don’t entirely go away, these strategies can also help to ease related conditions like OCD and PTSD.

Improve sleep quality. Sleep gives your brain a chance to repair and recharge itself. So, fatigue due to sleep deprivation can increase stress and worsen any aspect of anxiety, including intrusive thoughts. Aim to get between seven and nine hours of rest each night.

[Read: How to Fall Asleep Fast and Sleep Better]

Reduce drug and alcohol use. Take time to assess and cut down on any substances that may be spiking your anxiety. Commonly used substances like caffeine and alcohol can worsen anxiety, either directly or by disturbing your sleep. High doses of THC, a compound in marijuana, may also increase anxiety.

Reach out. Talking to someone—whether it’s a loved one, a trusted friend, or a therapist—can be a good way to reduce stress and anxiety and boost your mood. The person doesn’t have to be able to give you tips on managing intrusive thoughts; it’s the act of listening that helps. Sometimes, spending time with others can also help you get out of your own head and take a break from unwanted thoughts.

When talking to someone, though, try to avoid persistently asking if they think you’re capable of acting on your intrusive thoughts. By constantly seeking this reassurance and collecting evidence to disprove the thoughts, you become further entangled in them, rather than learning to ignore them.

Tip 3: Get moving to ease anxiety

Physical activity can offer numerous benefits for anxious thoughts. Firstly, it’s a quick way to boost your mood and reduce overall stress, which helps to reduce the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts. Exercise can also serve as a distraction. It’s difficult to think about two things simultaneously. So, directing your attention elsewhere can be a useful technique for short-term relief.

Consider calming, immersive exercises. Exercises in which you have to pay attention to your breath and movement can take your mind off intrusive thoughts. Some examples include yoga and tai-chi.

Take your routine outside. Some research indicates that time in nature can boost your mood while reducing your focus on negative thoughts. With that in mind, look for physical activities that you can enjoy in nature, such as hiking through the woods or walking in a local park.

Stick with it. Physical activity can have immediate benefits, such as improved sleep and reduced anxiety. However, if you make it a long-term habit, you’ll reap more benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases. This, in turn, can contribute to lower stress and an increased sense of well-being.

Tip 4: Build a meditation habit

Meditation can enhance mindfulness, a nonjudgemental awareness of your present thoughts and experiences. Some research shows that increased mindfulness can help you cope with intrusive thoughts. Like physical exercise, meditation can also direct your attention away from your thoughts for a short time, giving you a break and helping reduce stress and anxiety.

Use your senses to be present. Some forms of meditation, such as body scan exercises or breathing exercises, direct your attention toward internal or external sensations. This pulls you away from your thoughts and offers relief.

[Listen: Guided Mindful Breathing Meditation]

Visualize your flowing thoughts. One useful visualization exercise is to imagine your thoughts as clouds that pass through the sky. You can’t control them, but they’re harmless and fleeting. Observe them with a nonjudgmental mindset and decide whether each one is worth your attention.

Another version of this exercise is to imagine thoughts as items on a conveyor belt. You can pick them up and inspect them closely. You can label each item “good” or “bad.” Or you can choose to simply passively observe them as they move down the line.

In addition to helping you practice letting go of thoughts, this can also help you distinguish you as a person from your negative thoughts.

Tip 5: Adjust your perception of your thoughts

In the book “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts,” authors Sally Winston and Martin Seif offer a six-step process to change how you view intrusive thoughts. The method incorporates a mindfulness approach, so you can pair it with meditation.

  • Recognize. Take a moment to label the experience as it happens. Say, “I am having an intrusive thought.”
  • Just thoughts. Remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts. They can be automatic, random, and not worth engaging with.
  • Accept and allow. Don’t try to reason away the thoughts or distract yourself. Don’t try to evaluate whether they are true or not. Just observe them and take a nonjudgemental stance. After all, the contents of your thoughts aren’t a problem that you need to solve or disprove.
  • Float and feel. Return to the present by moving from your thoughts to your senses. What can you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch around you?
  • Let time pass. Don’t keep checking to see if the thoughts are still there. Just let them be. Let go of your sense of urgency.
  • Proceed. Continue doing whatever you were doing before the thought drifted into your mind.

Metaphors can be useful in helping you incorporate these steps. You could imagine intrusive thoughts as bullies and hecklers who try to grab your attention by shouting things you know to be untrue. You can argue with them or try to shush them. However, doing that will draw you into a useless conflict that leaves you feeling upset. They will feed off the attention and interaction.

Your other option is to simply not engage. You notice them but also notice they can’t actually hurt you. So, you float by and continue with your day. The hecklers will eventually tire themselves out.

Tip 6: Invite the intrusive thoughts in

Exposure therapy is the opposite of avoidance, and it’s a common approach to overcoming anxiety issues. For instance, if you have a fear of cats or dogs, you may benefit from gradual exposure to the animals in a safe environment. Over time, your brain stops identifying every cat as a threat. The association between feline and fear breaks down.

You can do a similar exercise with unwanted intrusive thoughts. Confronting the thoughts will help you realize that they only have as much power as you give them.

Get creative. If you have intrusive thoughts about riding your bike into oncoming traffic, for example, write it down in as much detail as you can tolerate. If you keep imagining yourself losing control and yelling obscenities in public, make a song about it. You can also draw pictures, write poems, or simply repeat the thought to yourself in a mirror. Use humor to minimize the seriousness of the thought.

Decide what’s manageable. Accept that the exercise will feel uncomfortable at first. So, rather than overwhelm yourself, move at your own pace. If you have multiple types of intrusive thoughts, you might want to address them one by one.

Stick with it. The more often you do this exercise, the more your perception of the thoughts will change. Remember that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, so they may not stop showing up entirely. However, they will begin to seem boring or even absurd. Eventually, they won’t be worth serious consideration, and you’ll begin to see them as they truly are—harmless and fleeting.

Last updated or reviewed on April 22, 2024


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