Some people experience intrusive thoughts without ever hearing that term before. Living with these thoughts may cause a person to think they’re alone or weird because they experience thoughts that feel wrong. Intrusive thoughts are often overlooked, and most of the time, the term is learned by accident. It isn’t a topic that is talked about often, so few people are familiar with the term— and when they are, it is usually because they have stumbled upon it, not because they were ever taught what it really was.
So, what are intrusive thoughts? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines them as, “stuck thoughts that cause great distress.” Essentially, they are graphic thoughts that come into a person’s mind suddenly and are difficult to get rid of. In some cases, the harder someone tries to get it out of their head, the more the thought persists. They usually consist of unpleasant, socially unacceptable images or ideas that are disturbing to the person. This habit is involuntary and can result in serious distress.
Different themes can emerge in intrusive thoughts, depending on the person and their worries. They can be centered around violence, sexual acts, relationships or religious fears. These are just a few examples of the many possibilities that can arise. No matter the subject, the ideas are troubling and people often dwell on them, wondering why they are having thoughts that do not align with their values.
These thoughts are not grounded in reality, however. People who experience them have no desire to actually follow through with any of them, as they are often disgusted by them. A common myth is that the person having intrusive thoughts wants to act on them. If this were true, the thought would not be considered intrusive—it would just be a normal idea. Another myth is that they have to have meaning or represent something. If the person does not want to act on the thought, then it does not mean anything. It can be troubling to try to dissect and figure out why that thought came to mind, and this often causes anxieties about personal character, but in the end, they are just thoughts.
While the whole concept of intrusive thoughts can sound bizarre, they are fairly normal. As long as it is just a passing thought that has no real effect on one’s day to day life, then it is not something to be concerned about.
However, for some people, it is more than that. These thoughts can create serious anxiety, and that is when real problems arise. This type of intrusive thought can be a symptom or byproduct of a few things. For example, it is often seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and can sometimes be present in people with Parkinson’s or dementia. This is not to say that if someone has one of these conditions, they must also deal with intrusive thoughts, or vice versa, but having debilitating intrusive thoughts does often point to an underlying mental health condition.
There are treatment options. The goal is not to get rid of these thoughts, but to reduce sensitivity to them. This is why cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are common forms of treatment. This type of therapy helps people cope, accept their thoughts and keep moving forward. Another form of treatment is medication. Types of medication that assist with the underlying mental health conditions previously mentioned, such as OCD or PTSD, are the most effective. The type of medication varies, and it is always determined by a medical professional based on symptoms and diagnoses.
If intrusive thoughts are a problem, but not serious enough to warrant medication or in-depth therapy, there are some ways to make coping with them easier. The first step is to accept these thoughts for what they are—involuntary and invasive—and allow them to exist. Trying to push them away often only makes it worse. Practice being mindful and letting time pass without getting stressed about what is going on inside your head. Not engaging with or analyzing the thoughts is the best way to ensure that they come and go quickly. Accepting that these passing thoughts do not define a person is a healthy way to move past them and continue to live a happy life.
If you or a friend needs help dealing with intrusive thoughts or another mental health concern, you can seek help at Help4WV, the WVU Caruth Center or find resources for other areas in West Virginia here.