What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Does everyone have them? How do you handle them?

Written by Alison Dotson

01 Everyone gets intrusive thoughts. They're nothing to be ashamed of. But for OCD sufferers, the frequency and intensity of these thoughts is far higher, making it tough to perform certain activities and function on a daily basis.

02 Intrusive thoughts do not make you a bad person. In fact, most people struggling with them would never act on the thoughts in their head. It's important to not allow your intrusive thoughts to serve as a reflection of your character.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and distressing obsessive thoughts that feel contrary to a person’s nature. 

At one point or another, everyone experiences an intrusive thought. Most people can dismiss the thoughts and write them off as just weird or no big deal. Some people — people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — can’t shake the thoughts and assume they mean something more. For example, thinking “What if that bump I drove over was actually a person?” probably won’t have a lasting effect on a person who doesn’t have OCD, but someone with OCD might panic and drive around the block several times to check.

Some intrusive thoughts fall under the category of “taboo” because they include upsetting sexual, violent, and blasphemous thoughts. (This doesn’t mean the thoughts actually are taboo, but it can be a helpful descriptor when a person is trying to explain the nature of their thoughts.) People suffering from these intrusive thoughts often say they focus on what they cherish the most in life: children, pets, family, religious faith, and so on. So if a person wants nothing more than to be a parent someday, their intrusive thoughts may center around child molestation or other child abuse, or if a person is a devout Christian, they may struggle with the doubt that Jesus is really God. 

All intrusive thoughts are normal, and no matter their theme, they can be treated with different forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is the most highly recommended option for people with OCD. 

It’s normal to hope treatment means intrusive thoughts will disappear, but treatment should equip OCD sufferers with techniques to address any intrusive thought that may arise. Your anxiety won't fully go away, but you'll be better prepared to cope with it and live a happy, healthy life. 

About the author

Alison Dotson is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life. She was diagnosed with OCD at age twenty-six after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation, and the recipient of the 2016 International OCD Foundation Hero Award.

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