So What Are Intrusive Thoughts (And What Can You Do About Them)?

Intrusive thoughts that aren't actually intrusive thoughts have flooded social media platforms. While there are many examples of legitimate intrusive thoughts on these sites, many have attributed the phrase to doing out-of-character stuff like dyeing your hair in the middle of the night, getting a weird tattoo, or repeating actions for no reason. These revelations are usually captioned with something like: "The intrusive thoughts won out." In reality, these aren't intrusive thoughts but impulsive thoughts. And it's important to distinguish between the two.

An intrusive thought is an unusual, unwanted, and highly distressing thought that's hard to shake. Examples include thoughts of harming yourself or others, doing something dangerous, constant doubts of competency, overwhelming worries about being surrounded by germs, and many more. These are the thoughts that you want to avoid at all costs because they'll bring anxiety, fear, shame, and disgust. In comparison, an impulsive thought doesn't play out like a broken record and is generally easier to push to the back of your mind. 

If you have a hard time distinguishing between the two, consider your reaction toward each. An impulsive thought like dyeing your hair can be pleasant, and you might welcome it to fantasize about how things would go, but an intrusive thought never is. Even in the terms themselves, a distinction can be drawn; an impulse is a sudden act whereas an intrusion is something unwanted. To manage intrusive thoughts better, you need to understand what's causing them. 

Intrusive thoughts can have several underlying causes

It's important to know that intrusive thoughts can be symptoms of mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and depression. So it's best to consult a mental health professional to figure out what these thoughts mean for you personally. Due to the shame and guilt that intrusive thoughts bring, you might not be willing to talk about them, but therapy is a place of no judgment, and finding the best therapist for you can make the experience more comfortable.

Intrusive thoughts are quite common. A study found that almost 94% of participants had dealt with an intrusive thought in the preceding three months. It's also good to know that while intrusive thoughts are disturbing, they are just that: thoughts. They're not an indication of your values or personality. As psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, explained to Women's Health magazine, "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." 

She added, "Most of the time people don't want to do that intrusive thing that they're thinking." The specific reasons behind intrusive thoughts aren't easy to pinpoint. Sometimes, a stressful or uncomfortable situation can be the trigger. Others, it can simply be a random occurrence caused by generally disordered thinking, or even overthinking. 

Here's how to deal with intrusive thoughts

Running away from intrusive thoughts might not be the best solution because eventually, they'll catch up to you. Instead, identify your intrusive thoughts and label them as such. Don't avoid thinking about them altogether because that'll just make you obsess about them more. Also, don't get lost in the thought — be mindful that you cannot control what you think. Remember that having a thought and acting on it are two very different acts. 

Likewise, thoughts are fleeting, you probably have thousands in a single day, and the intrusive ones will eventually join all the others you don't think about. Regain power over these thoughts and minimize the shame surrounding them by saying them out loud, or writing them down. Don't let intrusive thoughts govern how you live. To deal with the anxiety caused by these thoughts, meditate, go on a walk, or practice deep breathing

Effectively manage stress and get plenty of sleep too. If your intrusive thoughts prevent you from living a fulfilling life, consider therapy. As Natalie Dattilo, PhD, the director of psychology at Brigham & Women's Hospital Department of Psychiatry, explained to Insider, "We often teach behavioral relaxation skills, like breathing [techniques], to prevent anxiety-related intrusive thoughts or reduce the anxiety that the thoughts produce." Both cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy are popular options.