Everyone has intrusive thoughts, but chances are you only register the negative thoughts as being intrusive. However, they’re not the only intrusive thoughts we have, and those negative ones we notice tend to only be registered due to them being unwanted thoughts.
Simply put, intrusive thoughts are any thoughts that pop into our minds that don’t appear to have a link to any intentional thinking, which are often quickly forgotten (Winston and Seif, 2017). However, for some people, such thoughts aren’t easily dismissed.
Negative Intrusive Thoughts
Even though intrusive thoughts are common and fleeting (Winston and Seif, 2017; and Clark, 2018), they can often provide a moment of weirdness and uncomfortableness, or even make us smile over the absurdity of it (Winston and Seif, 2017). Even the most disturbing thoughts can just come and go without any concern.
However, this can differ from person to person as we’re all individuals, so we all have our own ways of reacting to such thoughts (Clark, 2018). As such, the frequency and distressing nature of these intrusive thoughts can have an effect on some people, which can lead to mental health issues.
As I’ve already said, everyone has intrusive thoughts, and in case you were wondering, everyone also has negative and unwanted intrusive thoughts as well, with the average person also reporting immoral and disturbing intrusive thoughts (Clark, 2018).
The problem with these negative intrusive thoughts isn’t the fact that you’re having them, because that’s standard, it’s your reaction to having them that causes an issue. These thoughts, if left unchallenged and ignored, would simply pass with no problem, but when you worry about them and focus on them, or even fight them, you stop them from disappearing (Winston and Seif, 2017). You’re giving these negative thoughts power over you by giving them your energy and attention.
It’s understandable to be concerned about negative intrusive thoughts, especially if they’re particularly extreme in nature, as they can be upsetting. We don’t want to believe we’re capable of having these kinds of thoughts, so it can cause us to react when we have them. The problem is, these aren’t your real thoughts, so you needn’t be concerned in the first place.
Clark and Rhyno (2005) noted that the key difference between non-clinical negative intrusive thoughts and clinical ones is simply down to the degree rather than the content.
However, because we find it hard to ignore such dark thoughts, we actually turn these intrusive thoughts into a problem for ourselves. The act of rejecting it and trying to push it out of our minds can turn these meaningless negative intrusive thoughts into recurring thoughts (Winston and Seif, 2017). Support for the creation of unwanted recurring problem thoughts by giving them attention comes from Clark and Rhyno (2005), who stated that there is ample evidence of this happening.
The people that can often find negative thoughts hardest to handle and thus turn them into a problem for themselves are those who have the opposite personality. Therefore, a gentle person may cause violent intrusive thoughts to get stuck, because they’re the opposite of what they consider themselves to be, so it’s hard for them to believe they’d have such thoughts popping into their head (Winston and Seif, 2017).
Another example would be people in the caring profession who value human life, equally. They will more than likely have negative intrusive thoughts of abusing or harming a patient, which they can’t help but challenge rather than ignoring them.
Random intrusive thoughts about stuff like thoughts of the beach popping into your head for no reason, don’t become recurring thoughts because they’re emotionally neutral. We don’t feel compelled to attack neutral thoughts, thus they can be easily ignored, often without even realising we’re having an intrusive thought (Winston and Seif, 2017).
It might help to add a little definition here. For me, I see negative intrusive thoughts as thoughts that can be horrible but come and go without any issues. Whereas unwanted negative intrusive thoughts are the ones that won’t go away or keep coming back. Do you guys see it the same way?
With all that said, even knowing all this doesn’t always stop the emotional distress caused by these intrusive thoughts, such as the ones that accompany a mental health condition (Clark, 2018). I learnt that the hard way with my anxiety-induced psychotic episodes.
One of the reasons people can be bothered about their negative intrusive thoughts is because they fear that it’s actually an impulse they have, which it isn’t. Impulsivity and impulse control disorders are something different, these don’t come with thinking (Winston and Seif, 2017). The fact that you’re only thinking about them is a sign they’re not an impulse issue. But if you get hooked on fighting these thoughts, you will develop an overcontrol issue.
These negative intrusive thoughts can also lead to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), resulting in repetitive tasks being performed to remove or counter these distressing thoughts (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2016). Basically, overcompensating by challenging these thoughts can cause conditions like OCD and anxiety. For me, the latter became true.
Examples Of Negative Intrusive Thoughts
Negative intrusive thoughts can basically cover any and all topics you could possibly think of. But sometimes you need to see an example to help you feel ok about having them. So here are a few to put you at ease.
Forbidden sexual thoughts
- Thinking about a sexual encounter with a relative.
- Thinking about having sex with your pet.
- Thoughts of raping someone.
These may all be abhorrent to you and would be something you wouldn’t act upon, but that doesn’t stop them from invading your mind as negative thoughts.
Violent intrusive thoughts
- Harming yourself.
- Hurting your newborn baby.
- Killing your boss.
Again, just because you’re having these thoughts doesn’t mean you actually want to do them. It’s also common for women to have thoughts about harming their newborn, especially if they have postpartum depression.
My personal examples
I thought I’d also share with you some of my intrusive thoughts which I, unfortunately, turned into recurring thoughts.
For the longest time, I was troubled by thoughts about an attack I suffered when I was in high school. Whenever my mind wasn’t occupied, it would drag me back there and consume itself with thoughts about that event. It was so bad that it caused insomnia. Sometimes these thoughts would be violent, but more often than not they were just re-traumatizing thoughts that I just couldn’t let go of.
I’m currently doing a placement to get the 100 clinical client hours I need to finish my postgraduate, and even though I need those hours, every day I have intrusive thoughts wishing my clients won’t attend.
Whenever I eat food, I always get thoughts about eating ground-up cockroaches in my food or finding some other sort of nasty and disgusting thing in my food. This was all kicked off by something I watched on TV as a child, where someone put maggots in someone’s food on Grange Hill. For a while, these thoughts made it difficult to eat, but now I’m used to them.
One time when I went to meet a friend who had recently broken up with their partner, I was greeted with intrusive thoughts of cheating on my partner. Thoughts like this had been a problem for me most of my life. I stopped going out drinking with my friends once I committed to my partner because these thoughts normally lead to action in my younger years. Before that, I avoided relationships so I could go out without these thoughts being a problem. Nothing like that should happen to me nowadays, because I no longer crave external validation of needing to be wanted. Nevertheless, it’s worrying these thoughts and images still pop into my head.
Lastly, my most troubling thoughts were the ones related to my anxieties, which occasionally fluctuate. Because I used to be a reckless drug taker, due to my BPD, I suffered a psychotic break. That one episode caused recurring intrusive thoughts that could then trigger further psychotic episodes. I couldn’t trust my sense of reality, and thus my thoughts told me that other people were aware of stuff about me that I wasn’t, and that they were laughing at me because I’d lost bladder or bowel control.
I never lost bladder or bowel control, but my thoughts would keep telling me I had, I was just unaware because my reality was messed up. These were massively debilitating and unwanted negative thoughts.
Not Entirely Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
Not all disturbing intrusive thoughts are bad, some can actually serve a function. When I would have violent revenge thoughts against the people that ruined my childhood, it can be our mind’s way of trying to manage these painful events. According to Winston and Seif (2017), this escape into fantasy helps us to feel less helpless about the realities of what happened and what can’t be changed.
This may be the reason why I had these thoughts, but it didn’t fix the trauma of it all. I was deeply messed up by what happened to me. Maybe because I was already traumatised, the helpful effects of escaping into a revenge fantasy weren’t enough, like a bandaid on a broken leg.
Positive Intrusive Thoughts
There is a very good reason why we have intrusive thoughts, and that reason is that it’s important for human survival, as well as being essential to how the human brain works (Clark, 2018). A good example of the benefits of positive intrusive thoughts is when you suddenly come up with an answer to a problem you’ve been stuck on. Therefore, if you were in a life-or-death situation, such thoughts could be the difference between staying alive and dying.
Furthermore, the sudden hits of inspiration are also intrusive thoughts, so without them, our creative endeavours as a species would be very different. This is often why we can get our best hits of inspiration or problem-solving when we’re not actively thinking about it, leaving our undirected thoughts to give us what we need.
Inspiration often comes when you stop banging your head against a wall to figure out how to solve a task or get past writer's block Click To Tweet
In short, intrusive thoughts are both a curse and a blessing, but they only become a problem when the negative ones get out of control by us giving them attention.
Tips For Managing Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
What you need to remember when you have these unwanted intrusive thoughts is that they’re fleeting thoughts that will disappear as quickly as they came, rather than believing it’s an impulse of something you actually desire to do (Winston and Seif, 2017).
Please remember that having such negative thoughts isn’t a commentary on your morality or even your sanity and that it’s perfectly normal (I hate using that word in such contexts, but I lack for a better one that fits the context) to have these thoughts, as we all have them.
Therefore, identify and recognise that your intrusive thoughts are, in fact, just that, intrusive, and thus unworthy of your time and energy if they’re not beneficial thoughts to have.
Changing how I responded to my own anxiety-based intrusive thoughts changed my life. The day I stopped fighting these thoughts, though hard, had the biggest impact on my quality of life. These thoughts are barely an issue to me anymore.
Don’t waste time trying to figure out what these thoughts mean, don’t engage with these thoughts, don’t give them any of your time and energy, and then these thoughts won’t bother you.
However, as irrelevant as they are, they may return, and that’s also ok too. Just because they return it doesn’t mean anything. I spent my entire childhood having thought about sticking my arm or leg out in front of an oncoming bus or lorry to see what would happen, but I never actually did it. It was just a recurring, intrusive thought.
Positive psychology interventions can also be useful by helping you to reframe your mind to be more positive. The more positive you are, the more positive your intrusive thoughts are likely to be. If you’d like to check out my Positive Psychology article to try to become more positive, you can do so by clicking here.
Remember that these intrusive thoughts aren’t under your control, and are thus involuntary in nature, making them irrelevant to you if they’re not beneficial to you in any way. Much like with thinking errors, whereby you may confuse your feelings as being a fact, you also shouldn’t confuse unwanted thoughts as being your truth either.
If these don’t work, then you could try doing meditation, mindfulness, or any number of breathing and grounding exercises. This will allow you to distract yourself from the thoughts if ignoring them isn’t a strategy that works for you.
Lastly, it’s also important to remember that if you’re struggling with mental health issues, then chances are you’ll have more problems with dealing with intrusive thoughts. Thus, dealing with your mental health concerns will also help with these negative thoughts. There is nothing wrong with seeking help from a therapist or a doctor, nor is there anything wrong with taking medication prescribed to you to help improve your quality of life.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences with unwanted thoughts in the comments section below as well. If you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
Lastly, if you’d like to support my blog, then you can make a donation of any size below as well. Until next time,
Unwanted Life readers.
Clark, D. A. & Rhyno, S. (2005). Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts in Nonclinical Individuals: Implications for Clinical Disorders. D. A. Clark (Ed.), Intrusive Thoughts In Clinical Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment (pp. 1-29). New York: The Guilford Press.
Clark, D. A. (2018). The Anxious Thoughts Workbook: Skills to Overcome the Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts That Drive Anxiety, Obsessions, and Depression. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [Internet]: DSM-IV to DSM-5 Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Comparison. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t13.
Winston, S. M., & Seif, M. N. (2017). Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
65 thoughts on “What’s The Truth About Intrusive Thoughts?”
This was so helpful and very informative. I do love looking into different ways of thinking and why we think certain things. Thanks for sharing.
I’m glad you found it helpful and informative
What a great post! This is so informative! I didn’t know there was a word for this. I have a lot of trouble with intrusive thoughts, especially violent (against myself mostly but sometimes others) and it’s really hard on my anxiety, especially the ones that take me back to my trauma, which happens often because they’ve just become so associated with each other. I saved your article and will read it again in depth when I have some more time. Then I can check out your post on positive psychology also. Thank you!
I hope my article helps put your mind at ease about some of your intrusive thoughts, as trauma can be especially bad for such negative intrusive thoughts
This is a great article – I used to have a negative intrusive thought about when I was attacked. Whenever I was feeling down on myself the intrusive thought returned and haunted me. And haunted me. I finally put it to rest when I climbed a mountain and decided I was going to leave it all up on that mountain tops if I made it to the top. And I did – and I left those thoughts up there. I think it was deciding for myself that if I could climb that mountain that thought didn’t deserve my time anymore. That I was stronger than that. And it worked!
I’m glad you were able to ditch your intrusive thoughts and congratulations on climbing a mountain, that can’t have been easy
To be honest, I just knew about this haha. I mean I might experience it but haven’t it yet specify it. This is very helpful. Thank you for sharing it.
If you haven’t really noticed that you have these, then the thoughts that pop into your head clearly aren’t of a problematic nature
Good post. Very brief, precise and informative. You did good research on it. Pls keep it up.
Once again, another helpful and informative post! I really appreciate your detail and research. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you ☺️
This is such a well researched post. Extremely impressive. And thank you so much for sharing examples of your own thought patterns. That just makes it easier to connect the information to real life.
Thank you ?
This is a very well written post. I struggle a lot with negative thoughts, mostly towards my own self, and it’s really hard not to give in sometimes. I really have a hard time controlling them and reframing them. Thank you for this post, it’s really helpful !
Intrusive thoughts can be overwhelming if you give them too much attention
I’m glad that you mentioned that having some of these negative thoughts doesn’t mean you’re going to act on them. That being said, recognizing that you are having those thoughts is the first step towards dealing with other mental health conditions. For example, if you can find it in yourself to admit that you have been thinking about harming your new baby, that could be the open door to get help for postpartum depression before it becomes a bigger situation. Admitting that you’re struggling is an important part of the journey towards help and recovery.
People needn’t be shamed of having intrusive thoughts of harming there child, nor should they feel ashamed of needing help. It doesn’t make you any less of a parent to ask for support when they could benefit from it
This was something I never read in letters but definitely experienced. I am glad I found this article. Thank you for posting this…
Thanks for stopping by
This is truly fascinating, thank you so much for sharing this. It is so important to recognise these thoughts as what they are.
Indeed it is
This is an amazing post! I’ve always hated when a random negative thought popped into my brain because sometimes it would happen and it wouldn’t be anything relating to what I was doing or thinking before. I’m glad there’s actually a word for it and a meaning behind it because it’s kinda scary to have random negative intrusive thoughts that you don’t actually believe in or want to act on. Thank you for posting!
It can be a real weight off your shoulders to know the dark intrusive thoughts aren’t your real thoughts
I had recently been discussing something similar to intrusive thoughts so it was interesting to read such a well researched post on it. Thanks for sharing
Thank you, I’m glad you liked it
Ah, intrusive thoughts! I used to have such trouble with too many negative intrusive thoughts; I would just see people and instantly my mind would think things I did not want to think. I still have some intrusive thoughts but they are no longer taking up most of my life; changing the way I hated them and tried to fight my unwanted thoughts definitely helped a great deal! Once I began to think negative thoughts just ‘are’ they became fewer and fewer. 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and tips!
I’m glad you were able to overcome the issues your unwanted intrusive thoughts caused
This is so informative!
You’re welcome ?
I hadn’t considered that intrusive thoughts could be positive. The term “intrusive” implies negative and unwanted to me. But I like your examples and citations. Eye opening stuff
I guess the word intrusive can be pretty misleading given what they really are
So well written! I’ve never really even considered positive intrusive thoughts until now. Your posts always make me think (which is good)
I hadn’t either untill I started researching the topic
This was such an engaging read. I have OCD so get a lot of overbearing intrusive thoughts and I’ve never read a blog post that describes them so perfectly! I often forget about the positive intrusive thoughts that occur when I write in my journal too, so thank you for the reminder.
I’m glad you enjoyed it and it reminded you of the otherside to intrusive thoughts. I hope you’re getting the support you need to tackle and overcome your OCD
Having intrusive thoughts are normal. Talking with close friends, we often share intrusive thoughts about work, relationships or personal issues and we usually laugh about them. I mean you can’t help having these thoughts! Communication is always an important factor. The thing is we are all different, for others it can be disturbing and yes causing anxieties. And most importantly leave it just a passing thought, don’t analyze and don’t do anything. Thanks for this article!
I wonder what it’d be like to no intrusive thoughts at all, good or bad ones
This is such an informative, and personal post. For those without mental health disorders, it’s post like this one that create both empathy and knowledge. Well done and best of luck in your practicum.
This is a brilliant post, one of the best I’ve ever read on a mental health topic. I suffer from intrusive thoughts too and the way you have explained so much about them and how to see them and deal is very comforting. Really great post ?
Thank you very much ?
Timely post for me. I’ve been, as one of my kids says, too crusty of late. I need to stop analyzing. Thanks for the virtual pep talk!
Glad to have been of indirect service
This was a mind blowing article for me. Sometimes many random things just pop up in my head. This article is very informative and useful for mental health. Thank you so much for sharing this.
Glad I could help
Great Post! Thank you! I just ordered a book to help me with this! It’s called “What to say when you talk to yourself”. It’s something many of us struggle with. Thanks again for this post.
Is it wrong to talk to yourself? Surely it’s only a problem when a different inner voice replies?
This is hands down the best thing I have read today. I live on the 3rd floor so you can imagine the kind of instrusive thoughts you get up here. Something similiar to the “sticking your hand out of the window” is the “sticking your head out of the train window.” I leaned a lot here, no doubt you will soon clock up that 100 hours.
Followed and will read more.
Just a point on your awesome blog. I am reading it on a laptop and the black share bar on the left hand side of the screen blocked some letters. This doesn’t take anything away from the quality but it dents the reading experience. Thought you’d like to know.
Thanks for the heads up on the share bar, it doesn’t come anywhere near the text on my laptop, so I’ll have to check it on someone else’s to try and troubleshoot the problem
You make a good point. I always think of intrusive thoughts as negative but they certainly don’t have to be.
Great and informative post!
This post is very informative and well researched!
Thank you for this very informative article.
There’s a lot of really great information here. You explained positive and negative intrusive thoughts really well and it was easy to understand and follow. I’ve been looking into positive psychology more recently, specifically mindfulness, to help deal with my anxiety and it’s such a fascinating field
Positive psychology is fascinating, I wrote a post about it last year after being introduced to it on my course. I’d like to find ways use it more to help others
Thank you so much for writing this post! I have wondered if there is something wrong with me for having violent/immoral intrusive thoughts. This is the first time I have seen it addressed and I love you for it. I’ve now learned to do just what you said, don’t give them my energy or replace them with positive affirmations. I also have a problem with just general intrusive thoughts where my mind won’t stop running about everything I have to do. Mindfulness and meditation clear my mind. Thank you for talking about the stuff nobody talks about! ❤️❤️
I’m glad my article was able to help you, because there is nothing wrong with you ?
I occasionally get these, due to my traumatic birth experiences. Ptsd. It gives me anxiety, but in know it was un the past and I have to forget it now. Move on. Good post
Thanks for reading