Intrusive Thoughts: Coping Methods to Deal with Unpleasant Thoughts

intrusive thoughts

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Do you ever wake up with a persistent and unpleasant worry nagging in the back of your head? Or, when you look down from a great height such as from a rooftop or mountain, do you ever wonder what would happen if you jumped off the edge? These are examples of intrusive thoughts. About six million people in the United States suffer from them. This form of thought can make it difficult to continue with your day, as it often causes anguish, confusion and anxiety in those who experience it.

The world is a blend of positivity and negativity, and each individual reflects this duality. It is impossible to avoid having the occasional negative thought because as people we experience a mix of good and bad. We want the best to happen in our own lives and in the lives of our loved ones, so we often worry about situations going awry or danger falling into our paths. These negative thoughts sometimes become all-consuming and bizarre, which is when they enter the realm of intrusive thoughts.

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What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are those that one cannot get rid of, resulting in anxiety and distress. These thoughts appear to come from nowhere with a suddenness that makes them difficult to fight. The thoughts often focus on images and ideas that are socially unacceptable, disturbing, highly sexual or have violent themes. They can also seem completely nonsensical and scattered, which can confuse those afflicted by them. It is not uncommon that intrusive thoughts urge people to perform certain unacceptable behaviors.

Some examples of these upsetting thoughts are topics revolving around sex, decision making, continuous relationship doubts, and identity questions. Despite common belief, intrusive thoughts do not show people their subconscious desires. On the contrary, the thoughts that people find most abhorrent are those that people fight the most. The thoughts become more persistent and pervasive the harder they are fought. Intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of a person’s authentic identity or secret wishes, in fact, they often reveal people’s worst fears and insecurities.

Intrusive thoughts are often related to certain disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD have frequent unwanted thoughts that are often terrifying and bizarre such as, “If I don’t turn out the light right now, my family will all die and it will be my fault.” The “obsession” part of OCD is the intrusive thought. The “compulsion” component is the action a person feels is necessary to remedy the thought. Those who suffer from this disorder can have difficulty functioning in society, depending on how intense their thoughts are.



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Types of Intrusive Thoughts

There are many kinds of intrusive thoughts, ranging from sexual to religious to death-related. No matter the theme, an intrusive thought brings distress and anxiety to the person it affects, making it difficult to continue with life unburdened. Intrusive thoughts are more than nagging doubts; they can be all-consuming and impossible to bear. Below are some of the most common categories of intrusive thoughts that plague affected people around the world.

Sexual Thoughts

Sexually intrusive thoughts are about any sexual act or idea you find distressing. Sometimes they are about violent or socially unacceptable sexual acts, and sometimes they revolve around questioning one’s sexual identity. Although these thoughts are in the mind and don’t involve a physical act, arousal usually happens as a normal physiological response. However, it is important to remember that although arousal may occur, it does not signify any truth or bearing in real life.

Religious Thoughts

Some intrusive thoughts are about religious topics, and they typically include strong urges to act inappropriately during services or commit acts against one’s religious code. For example, a disturbing religious act could be about committing sexual acts with a religious figure or swearing during prayer. These can be particularly distressing, especially for very religious people. Many people fear there is something fundamentally wrong with them if they think about such things. However, these thoughts reflect nothing about a person’s commitment to their religion nor speak to their moral integrity. They are simply thoughts.

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Violent Thoughts

Violent intrusive thoughts are typically persistent and repetitive images or ideas about causing physical or emotional harm to another person. They are sometimes specifically centered on children, but they are not limited to this. Fear often consumes people who suffer from violent thoughts. They worry they will commit the acts they are thinking about, which provokes more anxiety. Violent thoughts can be about causing physical harm, such as punching your boss in the face. They can also be about emotional harm, such as verbally attacking a friend.

Family-Related Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts about family often revolve around socially unacceptable actions with loved ones, including sexual acts with a sibling or parent. They can include naked images of a family member, picturing oneself kissing a family member, or any other unwanted sexual thought. These can lead to confusion and disgust. It is important to remind oneself that these thoughts mean nothing about actual desires. They can be scary, confusing, and anxiety-provoking, but they do not show your secret wishes as some people believe.

Thoughts about Death

As human beings, we are constantly grappling with our morality and trying to come to terms with the reality of death. Intrusive thoughts about death display this fear and insecurity. These thoughts can include images of one’s own death, death of a loved one, or any other distressing thought regarding the end of a life. Unwanted thoughts about death can be particularly scary and distressing because they remind us that death is just around the corner.

Thoughts about Safety

Another common type of unwanted thought is regarding the safety of one’s self or others. This can lead people obsessively check on their loved ones to ensure they have not had an accident or come into harm’s way. This type of disturbing thought leads people to worry excessively and become overprotective of their children and loved ones. Distressing thoughts about safety come in all forms, but they always involve the worry of danger that leading to extreme emotional distress.

How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts

There are a variety of coping methods to deal with these unpleasant thoughts, but the most important aspects of coping are developing patience and persistence. To overcome these thoughts, the affected person must take power over their own mind. They must choose how much they will allow a negative thought to affect them.


The first step to coping with intrusive thoughts is to see them for what they are. You must recognize that your thoughts are taking control over your mind and emotions. Understand these thoughts reflect nothing about you as a person. Intrusive thought disorders such as OCD take control of the sufferer through the reaction they create. The first step to overcoming these thoughts is deciding to not take them so seriously. Rather than letting them take over by following the instructions they give toward compulsion, gently acknowledge your thoughts. Acknowledging them will prevent them from taking control of your mind.


It is crucial to accept the stressful and disturbing thoughts that plague your mind rather than fight them, because the more you fight a thought, the more persistent it becomes. Allow thoughts into your mind when they appear rather than trying to push them away. Wait patiently for them to disappear. Know they will reappear again and again, but try to accept this calmly rather than allowing anxiety to take hold. Attempt to disengage from any compulsions attached to your thoughts and try to experience the thought without acting on it or actively fighting it.

Continue with Life

Continue with what you were doing when you experienced the intrusive thought, no matter how distressing or unpleasant it was. This is the best way to ensure that your life isn’t affected too significantly. Moving on with your day allows you to practice the casually acknowledgement of the thought without letting it take hold of your life. Do not dwell on the thought or attempt to dissect it into interpretations and hidden meanings. Go on with your day. Be patient with yourself and know the thought will return, but try your best to resume normal daily activity after having a distressing and unwanted thought.


The mind can be incredibly powerful, but it only has as much power as you allow it to have. Intrusive thoughts can be extremely distressing and difficult to cope with, but if you have patience and determination, you can rid your mind of these unwanted visitors. A distressing thought is only as powerful as its interpretation, so it is important to remind yourself that it is only a thought.

A thought holds no value or truth about who you are as a person. As terrible as an intrusive thought can be, you have the choice to either give it power over your life or to let it fade away. Letting it fade leaves you free to continue your life without unwanted disturbances.

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