Unpleasant or disturbing thoughts can be an unsettling experience. Everyone experiences times where they think about upsetting ideas and images. These are known as intrusive thoughts, and they can leave you feeling scared and ashamed.
People who experience intrusive thoughts often want to keep them a secret. But acknowledging these thoughts is the first step to managing them. Here’s what you should know so you don’t feel alone.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted images or ideas that often pop into your mind suddenly and spontaneously. Intrusive thoughts can also be repetitive. No matter how hard you try not to think about them, they keep coming back.
Our brains are creative and complex. Types of intrusive thoughts can include:
- Sexual content and images.
- Violent content and images, such as harming or killing others.
- Socially unacceptable content and images.
- Doubts about relationships.
- Questioning your self-worth.
- Worrying over decisions both large and small.
- Questioning your sexual orientation or identity.
- Concerns about safety, risk, or death.
- Religious content and images, especially blasphemous thoughts.
- Ruminating over questions that don’t have an easy answer.
- Off-putting or strange thoughts that don’t make sense.
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Are Intrusive Thoughts Normal?
Intrusive thoughts can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you, but having these thoughts is completely normal. An estimated six million people experience intrusive thoughts, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Are Intrusive Thoughts Harmful?
On their own, intrusive thoughts are not harmful to your mental health. Although distressing, these thoughts are natural, common, and not a red flag for a deeper issue. Attaching meaning to these thoughts, and having them affect how you see yourself, can cause distress.
If you attach too much meaning to intrusive thoughts and these worries affect your everyday life, that is called obsessive compulsive disorder.
People more likely to have intrusive thoughts and attach meaning to them include those who:
- Have experienced trauma. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder can have intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event.
- Have major depressive disorder.
- Have anxiety.
- Are pregnant, and up to a year after giving birth.
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Anxiety About Intrusive Thoughts
Because intrusive thoughts are often disturbing or out of the norm, it’s understandable to want to figure out why they pop into your mind. There often is no specific reason or meaning as to why you have these thoughts. Intrusive thoughts can frighten or disturb you, but on their own are not red flags for a bigger issue.
People who have intrusive thoughts often feel ashamed or guilty. They worry that having these thoughts means they are a bad person. They may also worry that they’ll act out the thoughts and images in real life. Intrusive thoughts don’t mean you’re a bad person, and most people never act on their intrusive thoughts.
Many new mothers experience intrusive thoughts after giving birth. They may worry that they or someone else will harm their baby. Having postpartum intrusive thoughts does not increase the risk that you will harm yourself or your child. Although you’re not alone in having postpartum intrusive thoughts, it’s important to let your doctor or ob-gyn know right away if you are having thoughts of harming your baby or yourself. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can get the help you need for both of you.
Tips on Coping With and Managing Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts can impact your mental health and well-being. If you are having intrusive thoughts, talk with your doctor or a mental health professional. To prevent intrusive thoughts from causing anxiety or distress, follow these dos and don’ts from the ADAA:
- Consciously label them as “intrusive thoughts.”
- Recognize that these are thoughts, not facts. They do not define you. Rather than thinking “I am dangerous,” reflect that “I had the thought that I am dangerous.”
- Remind yourself that it’s normal to have thoughts that seem weird, taboo, or socially unacceptable.
- Remind yourself that it is your brain’s job to generate thoughts, and that these thoughts are automatic.
- Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Don’t try to push them away.
- Expect the thoughts to come back again.
- Continue whatever you were doing before the intrusive thought arose. Allow yourself to feel any anxiety it may have caused.
- Don’t engage with intrusive thoughts.
- Don’t worry about or try to attach a meaning to the thoughts.
- Don’t try to prevent the thoughts from happening. This can cause you to focus on them even more.
Outside help sometimes can change your reaction to — and perception about — intrusive thoughts. If intrusive thoughts cause distress or anxiety, reach out to a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on thoughts and emotions which can help you cope with and manage intrusive thoughts.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 412-624-1000 or 1-877-624-4100 (toll-free).
If you live in Allegheny County and need immediate help or mental health counseling, call the 24/7 resolve Crisis Services hotline at 1-888-796-8226 or visit the walk-in center at 333 North Braddock Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15208.
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About UPMC Western Behavioral Health
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.