Common Types of Intrusive Thoughts & Examples

April 26, 2024

Intrusive thoughts are a common experience, often manifesting as unexpected and unwelcome mental images or ideas that can cause distress. Intrusive thoughts can be distressing and overwhelming for some individuals. Through understanding these experiences, we aim to reassure you that these thoughts are not indicative of one's character and to introduce strategies for managing them effectively. This exploration seeks to offer clarity and guidance, helping you navigate the complexities of intrusive thoughts with confidence and understanding.

Key Takeaways

  • Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, distressing, and can occur in various forms such as violent, sexual, or fearful ideations and are common even among those without mental health conditions.
  • While frightening and challenging to control, intrusive thoughts do not reflect hidden desires to act on them, and professional therapy such as CBT and mindfulness can help to effectively manage them.
  • Intrusive thoughts can be symptomatic of mental health disorders like OCD and PTSD; seeking professional help is crucial for managing intense, recurring intrusive thoughts that disrupt daily life.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts, as the name suggests, are involuntary ideas and images that suddenly pop into our minds, often causing discomfort or distress. They can take many forms, including:

  • Violent
  • Sexual
  • Frightening themes
  • Related to phobias
  • Related to shame
  • Related to blasphemy

Despite the distress they cause, these thoughts can be quite common. In fact, many people experience such thoughts without any diagnosed mental health condition.

These disturbing thoughts often come uninvited and are recurrent, which can make them difficult to manage or control. Various factors can trigger intrusive thoughts, such as:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Hormonal changes
  • Significant life events like the birth of a child

But, worry not, as there are ways to effectively manage these involuntary thoughts. Treatment modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) have shown significant success in managing and reducing the frequency of intrusive thoughts.

Professional assistance is advised when such thoughts start disrupting daily routines or the ability to work or pursue hobbies. The therapists at Resilience Lab are experienced in a wide variety of effective therapy modalities to help manage intrusive thoughts.

Common Types of Intrusive Thoughts and Examples

It’s not uncommon to occasionally have an intrusive thought. A 2014 study revealed that 94% of participants experienced at least one intrusive thought within a 3-month period. Intrusive thoughts can be as diverse as they are distressing, often reflecting an individual’s greatest fears or most unwanted scenarios. Unwanted intrusive thoughts can be unusual, bothersome, and difficult to control, often disrupting an individual’s peace of mind. 

Regardless of their disturbing nature, it’s vital to understand that these thoughts don’t signify a concealed wish to act upon them. The fact that they are distressing is a clear sign that these thoughts are antithetical to your values, wants, and desires. A deeper understanding of common types of intrusive thoughts reveals categories like:

  • Self-harm
  • Sexual thoughts
  • Relationship concerns
  • Self-doubts
  • Health anxieties

Although unwanted intrusive thoughts can vary based on the individual, there are a few types of intrusive thoughts that are more common than others.

Intrusive Thoughts of Self-Harm or Harming Others

Undoubtedly, one of the most distressing types of intrusive thoughts are those involving self-harm or harming others. These violent thoughts can manifest as unwelcome ideas or images of:

  • Harming oneself
  • Harming others
  • Killing
  • Injuring
  • Hitting
  • Stabbing
  • Strangling
  • Mutilating

These disturbing thoughts can significantly interfere with a person’s daily functioning, causing intense distress, an anxiety disorder, and even manifesting as eating disorder symptoms.

In some cases, violent intrusive thoughts may involve fears of carrying out inappropriate sexual or aggressive behaviors, especially towards loved ones. This can potentially strain personal relationships, as seen in specific scenarios such as a mother having repeated visions of violence towards her infant. Identifying and addressing these thoughts are fundamental steps in preserving mental health and personal relationships.

Intrusive Sexual thoughts

Another category of intrusive thoughts involves sexuality. Intrusive sexual thoughts may involve thoughts about one’s own sexuality or thoughts of sexually harming others. Due to their inappropriate or taboo nature, these thoughts can cause significant distress and guilt.

These thoughts can be particularly distressing due to societal norms and expectations around sexual behavior. Nevertheless, it’s key to identify these as uninvited intrusive thoughts, not a reflection of one’s character or desires. Acknowledging them as just thoughts and not something one wishes to act upon can help manage them and reduce their impact on one’s mental well-being.

Intrusive Thoughts About Relationships

Intrusive thoughts can also intrude upon our relationships, causing undue stress and anxiety. These thoughts can include:

  • Fears of not loving one’s partner enough
  • Concerns about a partner’s fidelity
  • Feelings of attraction towards others
  • Obsessing over the idea that they are in the wrong relationship or could be happier with someone else

These thoughts can strain relationships and lead to behaviors like constantly seeking reassurance regarding the relationship’s stability or a partner’s loyalty and love. Identifying these thoughts as intrusive, and comprehending that they may not reflect reality, can assist in managing such thoughts and preserving healthy relationships.

Intrusive Thoughts About Self-Doubts or Past Mistakes

Our past mistakes and self-doubts can also become fodder for intrusive thoughts. For instance, thoughts like “What if I’m actually not good at my job?” or “What if I made a mistake?” can persistently nag us, causing unnecessary stress and anxiety.

However, it’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and has self-doubts. Identifying these thoughts as intrusive and concentrating on personal development and learning from these experiences can aid in effectively managing such thoughts.

Intrusive Thoughts About Health Concerns

Last but not least, health-related concerns can also lead to intrusive thoughts. Thoughts like, “What if my hands have germs?” or “What if I have cancer?” can induce a great deal of anxiety. Health concerns are natural, but if they become intrusive and disrupt daily life, seeking professional assistance becomes necessary.

Practices like self-care and regular medical check-ups can also help manage intrusive thoughts, ensuring better control over these health-related concerns.

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The Connection Between Intrusive Thoughts and Mental Health Disorders

While intrusive thoughts are a common experience for many, they can sometimes be indicative of an underlying mental health condition. Conditions like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often feature intrusive thoughts as a central symptom. If these thoughts linger, causing distress and disruption in daily activities, it becomes essential to seek professional aid.

A closer look at this connection within the context of OCD and PTSD, as well as the anxiety and depression association, can offer further insight.


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric condition marked by persistent, intrusive thoughts, ideas, or feelings (obsessions) that compel a person to engage in repetitive actions or behaviors (compulsions). These obsessions can cover a wide range of concerns, including disorder symptoms such as:

  • Fears of contamination
  • A need for symmetry or orderliness
  • Distressing thoughts about harm or aggression, often represented by morbid obsessions such as violent intrusive thoughts.

Individuals with OCD often develop compulsions that manifest as repetitive behaviors or mental actions, such as:

  • Excessive cleaning
  • Checking
  • Counting
  • Engagement in strict routines
  • Silent mental repetitions or checks

It’s important to mention that intrusive thoughts and OCD may affect women during pregnancy (perinatal OCD) and immediately after pregnancy (postpartum OCD). During these often stressful times, some people may have violent and other intrusive thoughts, and up to 1-2% of women may experience OCD. Signs of pregnancy-related OCD may include obsessions with fear of harming the new baby, compulsive behaviors to stop these obsessive thoughts or to protect the baby, trouble sleeping, and feelings of depression. Unfortunately, many people may forgo seeking treatment due to fears that others will deem them psychotic or homicidal, even though it is extremely rare for those with postpartum or perinatal OCD to act on their intrusive thoughts.

Through professional help, these thought patterns can be shifted, and the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts can be effectively managed.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another mental health condition where intrusive thoughts play a significant role. PTSD arises from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, and it often leads to intrusive thoughts related to that trauma. These thoughts can be repetitive, difficult to control, and can significantly interfere with an individual’s daily life and emotional regulation.

While PTSD is often associated with veterans, it can affect anyone who has experienced severe trauma, such as an accident, disaster, or violent assault. Seeking professional help, specifically trauma-focused therapy, can provide immense relief and help manage these intrusive thoughts.

Managing Intrusive Thoughts: Techniques and Strategies

Despite the distress they can cause, the good news is that there are several effective techniques and strategies for managing intrusive thoughts. These include:

  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Seeking professional help

A detailed exploration of these methods can offer further understanding.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the gold standard treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Unlike Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which can unintentionally reinforce reassurance-seeking behaviors that are characteristic of OCD compulsions, ERP focuses on exposing the individual to their fears or triggers without engaging in the compulsive behaviors that typically follow. This method helps to break the cycle of obsession and compulsion by teaching tolerance of discomfort and reducing the compulsion to respond.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes accepting what is out of personal control while committing to action that enriches one’s life. In the context of managing intrusive thoughts, ACT helps individuals to accept these thoughts as mere mental events without judgment or the need to act upon them. The core principle of ACT is to develop psychological flexibility, which allows individuals to recognize and adapt to various situational demands, shift mindset when needed, and balance competing desires, and values.

Mindfulness and Acceptance

Mindfulness and acceptance are two more powerful tools in managing intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness involves being fully present in the moment, observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment. Acceptance, on the other hand, involves acknowledging and accepting our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they occur, without further exploration or reaction.

Accepting intrusive thoughts without resisting them can help reduce associated anxiety, easing their management even before professional aid is sought. Mindfulness practice can be enhanced by focusing on the senses, acknowledging and accepting wandering thoughts without judgment, and being kind to oneself throughout the process.

Seeking Professional Help

When intrusive thoughts become common, distressful, and affect daily functioning, it’s vital to seek professional assistance. Mental health professionals can help manage the emotional energy consumed by intense intrusive thoughts and address underlying problems like anxiety, stress, or a history of trauma.

At Resilience Lab, our therapists provide personalized care with measurable outcomes that are customized towards each client. Our clinicians can help you understand and address intrusive thoughts that are negatively affecting you, and assist with making diagnoses for any existing mental health conditions.

The Impact of Stress and Life Changes on Unwanted Thoughts

Stress and life changes can often trigger intrusive thoughts or the severity of these unwanted thoughts. Some common triggers include:

  • Acute stress, which can impair intentional memory control and increase the frequency of intrusive thoughts
  • Significant life changes, such as moving or starting a new job
  • Hormonal shifts, such as after childbirth or during menopause

While these factors can exacerbate intrusive thoughts, attempts to suppress these thoughts over time can decrease their frequency. This suggests that we have the ability to manage these thoughts even amidst stress.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are normal intrusive thoughts?

Normal intrusive thoughts are ideas and images that come to mind uninvited and typically unwanted, varying from feeling a little uneasy to being wholly disturbing. Depending on the individual they can range from random images to disturbing thoughts that don't benefit the character of the individual. It can be difficult to label "normal intrusive thoughts'' because of how unique the experience can be for each individual.

What are examples of intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are like unexpected guests in the mind, often arriving without warning and leaving a trail of unease in their wake. These thoughts can vary widely in content and intensity, covering a spectrum of themes from the mildly annoying to the deeply distressing. Understanding the common types of intrusive thoughts can be the first step towards recognizing that you're not alone in experiencing them and that they don't define your character or intentions.

Below are a few examples of intrusive thoughts:

  • Self-harm: Thoughts of hurting oneself accidentally or intentionally, such as imagining jumping in front of a car.
  • Sexual thoughts: Unwanted sexual thoughts about strangers, acquaintances, or even non-consensual acts.
  • Health anxieties: Constant worry that one might have a serious illness despite lack of symptoms, or fears of suddenly falling ill in public.
  • Relationship concerns: Intrusive doubts about the loyalty or love of a partner, like imagining them being unfaithful without any reason.
  • Self-doubts: Persistent fears about one's competence, such as worrying incessantly that a presentation may go wrong despite being well-prepared.

How can I manage intrusive thoughts?

Managing intrusive thoughts involves acknowledging them as mere thoughts without overemphasizing their significance. Practicing mindfulness helps you observe these thoughts passively, reducing their impact. Consider working on shifting your focus to engaging activities. Seeking professional help is also an effective option and should be considered as a distinct approach, as it is not on par with simply shifting focus. Remember, it can be normal to have these thoughts, and with consistent effort and therapy if needed, you can learn to control their influence on your life.

If these thoughts start to cause distractions or issues with your day to day life, then it is important to speak with a mental health professional.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

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