Symptom Explainer: Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, cognitively and emotionally disruptive thoughts. These thoughts are characteristic of anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive class disorders. They are also found in mood, eating, trauma & addiction disorders. Intrusive thoughts are usually thoughts about actions, scenarios or fears the person finds upsetting and often taboo in their culture. Common topics include inappropriate sexual acts, acts of violence, harm to children & family, death, suicide, disasters and ones based on religion (like going to hell).
Intrusive thoughts generally start as normal transit random thoughts. Random thoughts become intrusive based on your emotional reaction to them, and when you dwell on the thoughts. This does not mean we’re a fault, what it does mean is the way the brain reacts changes how they pass through your consciousness making them stick and the emotional reaction grows the more anxious you become. It becomes a vicious cycle of thinking, reaction, emotional flooding and back around to thinking. Intrusive thoughts can be random manifestations of our normal transient thoughts but are also often triggered by external stimuli.

They don’t have to be realistic at all or based on an event that happened to us. They are often tied to our life experience but the images and ideas are not replaying trauma directly just using the thematic content. Intrusive thoughts can be a thought without a strong visual or can be an intense moment of a visual like seeing a burned down house or whatever your intrusive thoughts are about.

Intrusive thoughts are not always impulses as intrusive thoughts do not have to incite actions or are even things you could do. Along with that, they are related to overthinking and trying to control situations not losing impulsive control. So you can still be obsessed with action even without compulsions. But they do often present with compulsive behaviours, especially in OCD experiences. Intrusive thoughts are often related to obsessive thought patterns but are not entirely the same as some intrusive thoughts are abrupt experiences where obsessive thoughts/rumination last for a long time.

Obsessive and compulsive behaviour always includes intrusive thoughts and rumination. With OCD your life becomes consumed with anxious intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours intended to alleviate some degree of distress. The compulsions work as best as the body can handle but can also be shifted so the behaviours no longer intrude on life and decrease the distress the thoughts cause.

(C)PTSD can also include intrusive thoughts. These intrusive thoughts are a lot more likely to be connected to traumatic content. Like having more sexual thoughts for CSA survivors. They also start to overlap with post-trauma experiencing symptoms and can cause confusion.

Many people believe that our intrusive thoughts are like our base desire this is completely untrue. That don’t show a lack of control over our own body but it shows us trying to control our own behaviour and our surroundings. Intrusive thoughts by definition are unwanted and are things we don’t want to do or think about. Another thing we believe is we might one day just do the thing we have intrusive thoughts about like harming other people, especially children, and that scares us. But intrusive thoughts are made of scarry content in our brain that produces in normal function that our anxiety, trauma and other factors turn them into thoughts that cause great distress.

You can recover from this and we have resources on dealing with intrusive thoughts. Coping Skills: Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts


Seif, M., & Winston, S. (2018, April 26). Unwanted intrusive thoughts. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Retrieved January 21, 2022

Ackerman, C. E. (2020, October 15). What are intrusive thoughts in OCD & how to get rid of them? Retrieved January 21, 2022, from

Bilodeau, K. (2021, October 1). Managing intrusive thoughts. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from,the%20birth%20of%20a%20child

Butterfield, A. (2020, June 1). Intrusive thoughts. The OCD & Anxiety Center. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from

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