Are intrusive thoughts common?
Intrusive thoughts do not necessarily mean a person has a mental health disorder or condition. Research suggests that intrusive thoughts are a natural part of the human experience and that nearly everyone experiences them at some point. However, suppose intrusive thoughts are causing significant distress, anxiety or interfere with a person’s daily functioning. In that case, speaking with a mental health professional for support and guidance may be helpful.
It is important to note that the term “normal” is not commonly used in mental health as it can be subjective and vary depending on cultural, social, and personal factors. What is considered normal for one person may not be for another.
Why do we have intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can occur due to various factors, including anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, or other underlying mental health conditions. They may be due to imbalances in brain chemistry, environmental stressors, or learned thought patterns.
What is the difference between impulsive thoughts and intrusive thoughts?
While intrusive thoughts are unwelcome and often distressing, impulsive thoughts refer to sudden urges or thoughts that drive impulsive actions without much consideration of consequences. These thoughts often arise from strong emotions, desires, or impulses and can lead to impulsive actions without adequate reflection or planning.
Examples of impulsive thoughts could include sudden urges to buy something impulsively, engage in risky behaviour, or react impulsively to emotional triggers. Impulsive thoughts can be a feature of various conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), or substance abuse disorders.
Why causes intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are more common in individuals with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions. Intrusive thoughts can cause significant distress and interfere with daily life if left untreated.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
One of the most common symptoms associated with OCD and other anxiety disorders is intrusive thoughts – these are recurring, unwanted, and distressing thoughts or images that can cause significant distress and interfere with daily functioning. Intrusive thoughts can manifest in different ways, such as repetitive worries about contamination or harm, intrusive sexual or violent thoughts, or excessive concerns about one’s morality or values.
Living with OCD and managing intrusive thoughts can feel like being stuck in a never-ending loop of negativity and compulsions. It is easy to feel like these thoughts are a reflection of an individual, but they’re not.
While it is common for people to ruminate from time to time, in OCD, this rumination is impacting significantly on daily life. In the UK, OCD is thought to be much more common than people realise, with estimates of those with the condition suggesting between 1–2% of the population have OCD. That’s anywhere between 600,000 and just over one million people.
People living with undiagnosed OCD often don’t realise the impact of the intrusive thoughts, and so these cases can get missed, misunderstood or misdiagnosed as another mental health condition.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
In the context of PTSD, intrusive thoughts often relate to the traumatic event that the individual experienced. These thoughts can be vivid and intense and cause significant distress as they replay the traumatic experience or aspects of it. The thoughts may involve reliving the event itself, specific details, or associated emotions. They can be distressing and overwhelming, leading to feelings of fear, anxiety, or a sense of being trapped in the memory.
Intrusive thoughts experienced in PTSD can trigger various reminders of the traumatic event, such as certain sounds, smells, or situations that resemble the original trauma. These triggers can activate a cascade of intrusive thoughts, making it challenging for individuals with PTSD to control or suppress them.
How to stop intrusive thoughts?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a widely used and practical approach for managing and identifying negative patterns of thinking and developing new, more positive ones. A BABCP-accredited CBT therapist can work with individuals to identify the root causes of their intrusive thoughts and develop practical strategies to manage them.
The aim of CBT Therapy in treating intrusive thoughts is not completely to get rid of these thoughts. A person cannot avoid how they think, but instead, CBT helps a person with OCD to identify, challenge and manage the patterns of thought and compulsive behaviours that cause their anxiety and distress.