Your Cart
Phonelines open 9am - 5.30pm Monday to Friday
intrusive thoughts

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts – like those annoying party guests, they show up uninvited, make everyone uncomfortable, and refuse to take the hint to leave. But, instead of spilling red wine all over your carpet floor, they spill anxiety all over your brain. Throw them out the front door, they simply climb back in through a window. Fight them, they only grow in intensity. Run away, they follow wherever you go, forever whispering in your ear. Nothing seems to get rid of them!

Recently, the concept of intrusive thoughts has been gathering steam, with videos about the topic going viral on social media. TikTok videos featuring the hashtag #intrusivethoughts has earned over one billion views, which you might think would have provided an opportunity to share some much-needed awareness and education about the unwelcome affliction that is intrusive thoughts. But, while some TikTokers get it right, a lot get it quite wrong. The average video under this hashtag goes something like this; an idea pops into a TikToker’s mind, such as mowing the lawn or getting a tattoo. Overcome by an irresistible urge to act, they then cut to a video of themselves mowing the lawn or getting the tattoo.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this type of video is not necessarily depicting an intrusive thought, but more so describing the arguably less unsettling phenomenon of impulsivity; the TikTok creator gets an idea and acts on impulse (though, funnily enough, not so impulsive that they forgot to record it!).

intrusive thoughts

What are intrusive thoughts?

So, what then exactly are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are described by the American Psychological Association as “mental events that interrupt the flow of task-related thoughts in spite of efforts to avoid them”. They also state that minor intrusions are normal and widespread, and can often come about as a result of mind wandering, in which one’s thoughts fail to focus solely on the task at hand, but jump widely and spontaneously across different topics.

More upsetting and convincing intrusive thoughts can be related to cases of trauma, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, or other mental health difficulties.

For reference, let’s look at a common example of an intrusive thought.

Have you ever been at the top of a tall building or cliff, glanced over the edge, and, despite not having any reason or desire to, you experience an involuntary and intense urge to jump? Presumably, if you are reading this today, you didn’t give into the temptation!

And that’s the thing with intrusive thoughts; though sometimes disturbing and extreme in nature, they are rarely acted upon. The majority of people who experience intrusive thoughts, beyond a momentary shudder, continue calmly about their day in spite of the impulsive thought that has presented itself. In other cases, an individual may find themselves giving the thought too much attention, and an unsettling cycle of intrusive thinking can incur. But we’ll get to that.

Types of intrusive thoughts

If we placed intrusive thoughts on a spectrum from mild to extreme, the thought of jumping off a building would actually lie somewhere towards the mild to moderate end of the scale when we consider the grand scheme of where intrusive thoughts can go. Other common intrusive thoughts that would lie at the milder end of the spectrum include thoughts of having left the door unlocked or the oven switched on after leaving the house. Some more unsettling intrusive thoughts can include fears of something bad happening to a loved one, or imagining what could go wrong in one’s life – the ‘what if’ scenarios. As we move further along the spectrum, intrusive thoughts can become even more unexpected and extreme, with no explanation or reasoning to support them.

What causes intrusive thoughts?

The truth of what causes this phenomenon is not certain and, in fact, theories differ. For example, evolutionary psychologists believe intrusive thoughts such as those related to checking the door lock or the cooker to be an adaptive mechanism. After all, it is only by securing our territory that we have been around long enough to continue to evolve at all.

While these adaptive mechanisms have allowed us to continue to evolve over millions of years, they sometimes go a little haywire. Whereas we may understand excessive lock-checking to be disproportionate, we can, at least from an evolutionary perspective, grasp the mechanism that might be at play here.

Alternative explanations offered from other schools of psychotherapy suggest that intrusive thoughts occur as a result of events that happened in childhood that have caused an individual to feel fundamentally unworthy or self-loathing, with intrusive thoughts serving as a means of confirmation of these feelings, ensuring that the individual’s self-esteem remains as low as possible.

But, as stated, these are suggested theories and whether there is one tangible explanation for intrusive thinking remains unknown. Considering this, many fairly deem the phenomenon as merely one of the many mysteries of the human psyche.intrusive thoughts

The cycle of intrusive thinking

Sometimes intrusive thoughts can take over one’s mind, and can lead to intense feelings of anxiety and shame.

Just think, an individual is going about their day, when, out of nowhere, their brain is hijacked by some version of the intrusive thoughts outlined above. Perhaps if the individual suffers from an existing mental health difficulty such as OCD or PTSD, they may view an intrusive thought as holding more weight than it does, believing it to be true or necessary, and their fear can continue to grow around this thought. This, in turn, can induce crippling anxiety. As the individual continues about their day, they find it difficult to let the thought pass and may start to believe that the thought reveals something of their true nature. This belief often leads to further feelings of shame and guilt, and, in not wanting to expose the thought to others, the individual may begin to feel trapped and isolated.

And this cycle can repeat. The arrival of each intrusive thought can induce a fresh round of anxiety. Each intrusion strengthens the belief that the individual is their thoughts, filling them with a deeper sense of shame. When not anxious about those intrusive thoughts occurring in the present, they also become anxious about those that might arrive in the future. And sometimes it can feel that the more power you exert in fighting these thoughts, the more powerful they become. The weight of carrying these thoughts with them grows, and the individual can become overwhelmed due to feelings of anxiety and shame, with each cycle further validating these feelings.

How to deal with intrusive thoughts

Sometimes, in the case of an individual with OCD perhaps, the only solution they believe they can access in order to relieve an intrusive thought is through a responding compulsion. For example, in order to cope with paranoid thoughts that they have left the door unlocked, the individual ensures to check that their door is locked an excessive number of times.

But this is not the most ideal, and certainly not the only, solution.

Efforts to control intrusive thoughts can sometimes end up lending them a power that they don’t deserve. When, in actual fact, intrusive thoughts should just be viewed as junk thoughts; random and meaningless. Getting caught in a cycle of trying to fight these thoughts only risks becoming entangled in their sticky web. Really, the most effective course of action is to view intrusive thoughts for what they are: irrelevant and unimportant. Through deploying this tactic, the thoughts should simply float back out on the tide, and their once omnipotent power will dissipate. And, the more you practice this tactic, the easier and more naturally it should become.

For more intense cases of intrusive thinking, therapeutic treatments like CBT can certainly be helpful for reframing these unhelpful thought patterns and learning to let go of the power they hold.

intrusive thoughts

Particularly in cases where excessive intrusive thinking is believed to be a result of some form of trauma or formative childhood event, working with a therapist can be helpful for getting to the root of these feelings. On entering the therapeutic relationship, the individual, who may have been sorely judged by others in childhood and who now harshly judges themselves in the present, encounters in the therapist someone who casts a non-judgmental and empathetic eye. Over time, the individual can come to understand themselves and develop self-compassion, learning not to judge themselves so harshly, and how to let go of the power their intrusive thoughts may be holding over them.


In conclusion, intrusive thoughts, though sometimes unsettling and distressing, are generally not harmful, and are usually a very normal part of the human experience.

In fact, in writing this article, every time I thought it complete – I could be standing in a queue, or walking in the park – an edit would suddenly present itself to my mind; add a sentence here or a clause there; delete a word here or a paragraph there. And another here, and another there. And then another! And another! In writing this article, I have come to realise that – in the relentless pursuit of perfection – I too am plagued by intrusive thoughts!

Though generally an experience that is common and very manageable, if you are struggling with intrusive thoughts and feel that they are impacting your daily functioning, don’t hesitate to seek help through therapy. Find out more about our therapy services by getting in touch.

Ready to talk? Get in touch

Centric Mental Health
Email Us
Book Online