Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that seem to become stuck in your mind. They can cause distress, since the nature of the thought might be upsetting. They may also reoccur frequently, which can make the concern worse.

Intrusive thoughts may be violent or disturbing. They may be thoughts of a sexual nature, including fantasies. They can also be about behaviors you find unacceptable and abhorrent.

These thoughts, however, are just thoughts. They seemingly appear out of nowhere and cause anxiety, but they have no meaning in your life. They’re not warning messages or red flags. They’re simply thoughts.

What gives them power is that those who experience them become worried about their significance. People may fixate on them and become ashamed, intent on keeping them secret from others.

As long as you recognize that these are thoughts only and you have no desire to act on them, intrusive thoughts aren’t harmful.

Read on to learn more about why intrusive thoughts happen and how you can manage them.

Anyone can experience intrusive thoughts. More than 6 million people in the United States may experience them. Many more people may not report them to their doctors or therapists.

Intrusive thoughts aren’t always the result of an underlying condition. They’re also not likely to indicate you have a problem that requires medical attention.

However, for some people, intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of a mental health condition.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when intrusive thoughts become uncontrollable. These intrusive thoughts (obsessions) may cause you to repeat behaviors (compulsions) in the hope that you can end the thoughts and prevent them from occurring in the future.

Examples of this type of intrusive thought include worrying about locking doors and turning off ovens or fearing bacteria on surfaces.

A person with OCD may develop a routine of checking and rechecking locks several times or washing their hands multiple times a day. In both cases, this is an unhealthy result that interferes with their quality of life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience intrusive thoughts that may be connected to a traumatic event. These thoughts may trigger some of the physical symptoms of PTSD, such as increased heart rate and sweating.

In some cases, these thoughts can be so severe they lead to flashbacks and intense psychological distress.

Eating disorders

People who have developed an eating disorder may experience intrusive thoughts that are harmful to their mental health. The thoughts can eventually damage their physical health.

People with an eating disorder frequently worry about the physical impact food will have on their body. That, in turn, leads to great distress about eating. It may also cause additional behaviors, such as purging, in an effort to stop the thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts can just happen randomly. Some thoughts wander into your brain. Then, just as quickly, they exit. They create no lasting impression.

Mundane thoughts leave, but intrusive thoughts last longer and often return.

In some cases, intrusive thoughts are the result of an underlying mental health condition, like OCD or PTSD. These thoughts could also be a symptom of another health issue, such as:

Changes to mental health are nothing to take lightly. Early symptoms of some conditions may include:

  • changes in thought patterns
  • obsessive thoughts
  • thoughts of disturbing imagery

These thoughts are nothing to be ashamed of, but they are a reason to seek a diagnosis and treatment.

The best way to manage intrusive thoughts is to reduce your sensitivity to the thought and its contents. These strategies may help.

Ways to manage intrusive thoughts
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Talk therapy is a way for you to discuss distressing thoughts with a mental health expert. You’ll learn ways of thinking and reacting that can help you become less sensitive to the intrusive thoughts. In a controlled setting, your therapist may also expose you to triggers for your intrusive thoughts so you can develop healthy responses.
  • Medication. A healthcare provider may prescribe you medication to help balance chemicals in your brain. This is common for conditions like OCD and depression. These prescription drugs include antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
  • Self-care. A good step toward treating intrusive thoughts is recognizing what they are: just thoughts. You can learn to label them when they happen and recognize that thoughts are not the same as intent or behavior. Also learning to manage stress through self-care and the development of active coping strategies can help reduce the frequency or intensity of unwanted thoughts.

The first step toward a diagnosis is talking with a healthcare provider. They’ll review your symptoms and health history. They may conduct a full physical exam and, in some cases, a preliminary psychological evaluation.

If they find no physical issue that could be leading to intrusive thoughts, they may refer you to a mental health professional. These individuals are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of possible causes for intrusive thoughts, including OCD and PTSD.

Through one-on-one sessions, you and your therapist will work to uncover the thoughts when they occur and how you respond to them. This will help them come to a diagnosis and decide whether there’s another possible cause.

Treating and preventing intrusive thoughts may take some time, but don’t give up. For conditions like OCD and PTSD, sticking to your treatment plan can help ease symptoms as well as prevent unwanted thoughts.

If you experience intrusive thoughts as a result of a chronic condition like dementia or Parkinson’s disease, sticking to your treatment plan can also help reduce unwanted thoughts.

CBT is also helpful in these cases. You can learn techniques for coping with these thoughts and moving past them quickly.

Intrusive thoughts are powerful because they “stick” in your mind. Their unusual nature can cause distress and anxiety. They’re upsetting because they feel so foreign.

Having intrusive thoughts doesn’t always mean you have an underlying issue or behavior. They are, like so many other thoughts you have in a day, just thoughts.

But if your intrusive thoughts are interfering with your day-to-day life, talk with a healthcare provider about your experiences. Getting treatment can help you reduce your sensitivity to the thoughts and react in a better manner if they occur.