What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Simply defined – intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that arise in unwarned situations. Patterns of intrusive thoughts can often present as repetitive and can lead someone to experience distress when acknowledged. 

Stress and anxiety are often responsible for intrusive thoughts. A biological factor, such as hormone shifts, may also cause a short-term problem. 

Sometimes intrusive thoughts are associated with mental health disorders. The topics that transpire from intrusive thoughts can focus on sexual, violent, or socially unacceptable thoughts that can produce anxiety. 

Various Types of Intrusive Thoughts

Although intrusive thoughts can encompass various themes one experiences, four are most commonly identified: sexual, violent, negative, and other types. Below is a further description of each matter. 


Sexual thoughts can consist of a person experiencing fears relating to the following – 

  • Fears of being a pedophile or becoming a pedophile
  • Fears of being sexually attracted to animals
  • Fears of being sexually attracted to siblings, parents, or other relatives
  • Fear of becoming aggressive or violent during sex
  • Fear of losing control and acting out sexually
  • Mental rituals aimed at forcing unwanted sexual thoughts away 


Violent thoughts can also produce fears of the person thinking the following- 

  • Dark or violent themes of hurting oneself
  • Thoughts of hurting or becoming violent with others
  • Imagery of hitting, stabbing, strangling, mutilating family members, animals, or even themselves
  • Impulsivity to push or throw themselves in front of trains or cars, out of windows, or off high places
  • Parents could experience repeated thoughts of acting violently towards their infants or small children


Negative thoughts can arise from the individual’s “critic”, leading to the following – 

  • Engaging in unhealthy self-talk with oneself
  • Telling yourself you’re a “loser” or you’re “not good enough”
  • Filtering and magnifying negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all the positive ones
  • Personalizing is when someone ends up blaming themselves if something bad as happened
  • Catastrophizing is when a person automatically anticipates the worst in a situation that has occurred

Other Types

At times, people might encounter a level of intrusive thoughts that don’t necessarily fit into sexual, violent, or negative categories. Below is an example of additional thoughts that can arise for an individual that are significant to point out – 

  • Bizarre thoughts
  • Weird thought content
  • Paranoid thought process

What are Mental Health Diagnoses Linked to Intrusive Thoughts?

Sometimes the intrusive thoughts can go beyond just the thought process. People can begin to feel the urge or engage in different behaviors or actions connected to repetitive thoughts. Common diagnoses that are linked to intrusive thoughts can include the following:


Common thoughts reported in this diagnosis are:

  • Aggressive of disturbing ideas
  • Concerns about unwittingly causing injury
  • Constant worry about catching a deadly disease and/or contaminating others with your germs
  • Disturbing sexual and/or religious imagery that might include sexual assault or inappropriate sexual acts
  • Fears about contamination with environmental toxins
  • Fear of harming inanimate objects
  • Fears of forgetting or losing something
  • Intense fear that something horrible will happen to a loved one
  • Profound worry about doing something extremely embarrassing
  • Strong need to reorder things until they feel “just right”

Schizophrenia/Bipolar/Psychotic Features

Different delusions and intrusive thoughts can include:

  • Constant worry and anxiety that leads to paranoia
  • Delusions tied to government conspiracies
  • Distress over paranoia tied to contamination fears
  • Holding false beliefs

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Common thoughts that can arise are:

  • Thoughts connected to an experienced traumatic event
  • Flashbacks to past trauma
  • Intense psychological stress tied to memories
  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares for individuals

Eating Disorders

Typical thoughts associated with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder can include:

  • Repetitive thoughts about food, body weight, and body image
  • Constant worry that leads to ritualistic behaviors such as body checking or frequent weighing
  • Engaging in negative self-talk
  • Obsessive thoughts centered around the ability to control

How to Manage or Treat Intrusive Thoughts?

Steps a person can take towards changing and overcoming unwanted thoughts can be:

  • Label these thoughts as “intrusive thoughts”
  • Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you
  • Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away
  • Float, and practice allowing time to pass
  • Remember that less is more, pause, give yourself time, there is no urgency
  • Expect the thoughts to come back again
  • Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present
  • Seek professional help for treatment 

Tips on what to avoid:

  • Engage with the thoughts in any way
  • Push the thoughts out of your mind
  • Try to figure out what your thoughts “mean”
  • Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts

How to Help Manage or Treat Intrusive Thoughts?

If intrusive thoughts begin to disrupt your day to day life and make functioning difficult it might be time to seek professional help. Even if they arent making a severe impact, seeking a therapist might be a good idea. 

Our residential mental health facility in California gives individuals the tools to achieve a happy and fulfilling life. To learnmmore about residential mental health treatment in Orange County, contact us today