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What Intrusive Thoughts Are – and When Do They Signal a Problem

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You’re in the middle of sweeping your kitchen when suddenly a disturbing thought appears in your mind. Where did it come from? What does it mean? And most importantly, should you be concerned? Here’s what to know about intrusive thoughts.

Social media platforms are filled with mental health buzzwords – “narcissist,” “OCD,” and “ADHD” being just a few. The latest term du jour, “intrusive thoughts,” has been used in viral TikTok videos and even spurred the phrase “intrusive thoughts win,” which has garnered a whopping 851 million views on the platform.

Unfortunately, these buzzwords are often used incorrectly to describe behaviours that aren’t actually representative of the disorder or issue they are supposedly referring to. So while TikTokers have been busy posting about “intrusive thoughts,” very few of them are actually describing this challenging and disturbing symptom of several different mental health conditions. Understanding what intrusive thoughts really are, and when they signal a deeper problem, is important in promoting good mental health.

So What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that randomly appear and are unwanted and unpleasant. Often intrusive thoughts can involve subjects which may be taboo, frightening, or antisocial. Common types of intrusive thoughts can include things like:

  • Sexual situations or acts
  • Violent acts or harming others
  • Ideas around religion or morality
  • Doing something that will shock or offend other people
  • Medical issues, like infection, or contamination
  • Fears that you have done something wrong or left something unfinished

Experiencing an intrusive thought every now and then can be disturbing, but is a relatively common occurrence and isn’t cause for alarm. Though the subject matter of an intrusive thought can make us take pause, if it is just a passing thought in an otherwise normal context, it is typically not a concern.

Dr. Paul Nestadt, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic agrees that periodic intrusive thoughts come from the same place as other random thoughts:

“We have internal monologues, and our brain will present us with certain thoughts, like a song that gets stuck in our head or a random memory that doesn’t cause us anxiety…It’s the nonsensical stuff the brain creates, and we don’t read too much into it.”

However, persistent intrusive thoughts, especially those that occur during times of high stress or trouble, can signal that a deeper issue may be at play.

What Can Cause Persistent Intrusive Thoughts?

If you are having intrusive thoughts that are repeated, unusual, and causing you distress, it is important to talk to a medical professional. Elevated levels of stress and anxiety can be behind intrusive thoughts, as can hormonal changes. In other cases, intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of an underlying mental health issue, and indicate a need for further treatment. Mental health conditions that can cause intrusive thoughts include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – if intrusive thoughts are caused by PTSD, the thoughts will often revolve around the traumatic event. These thoughts can be triggered by something that the brain perceives is related to the past trauma, or may come on completely unexpectedly. PTSD-related intrusive thoughts can be overwhelming and disorienting to the person experiencing them.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – intrusive thoughts are an essential factor in an OCD diagnosis, as they tend to drive compulsive behaviours. People with OCD often try to cope with these intrusive or “obsessive” thoughts by ignoring them, or performing certain actions or rituals in an attempt to get rid of them.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder –  people with generalised anxiety disorder may find themselves consumed with worries about things that have happened, or events that they think may occur but have not actually happened yet. These intrusive thoughts can cause stress and feed into further anxiety, creating a cycle that is difficult to break out of.
  • Eating disorders – intrusive thoughts around eating disorders often revolve around body image and food, and can persist throughout the day. 

It is important to remember that repeated intrusive thoughts are rarely indicators of violent or abhorrent behaviour – in fact, people experiencing intrusive thoughts often experience extreme guilt or anxiety about them. However, they are signs that there may be an underlying issue or condition that needs to be addressed in order to help manage these upsetting thoughts.

How Are Intrusive Thoughts Treated?

Having occasional intrusive thoughts that aren’t disruptive to your daily life doesn’t necessitate further treatment. For recurring intrusive thoughts, a visit to your doctor or a mental health professional can help in determining the root cause of the thoughts, and devising a treatment plan based on their origin. 

Many people experiencing intrusive thoughts will avoid talking about them because they feel ashamed of them, and may feel worried about being judged for their content. However, mental health professionals understand that intrusive thoughts are thoughts alone, and do not reflect the intentions of the person experiencing them. Treatment for conditions that cause intrusive thoughts can include psychotherapy, stress management practices, and medication.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Broadly, CBT is a form of talk-based therapy that focuses on identifying root causes of negative patterns of thought and behaviour, and learning alternative responses. For intrusive thoughts, CBT will focus on teaching you ways of thinking to help make these thoughts less affecting, and in some cases, may trigger these thoughts in order to practice ways to respond to them in a safe and supportive setting. 

Wellness practices

Since stress and anxiety can fuel intrusive thoughts, learning how to manage these is critical. Your therapist may work with you on fundamentals of wellness, such as proper nutrition, exercise, and good sleep habits, as well as introduce you to other stress-management tactics like breathing techniques, yoga, and mindfulness meditation. 


In some cases, a doctor may prescribe you medication to help manage symptoms of your condition. However, medical professionals often agree that medication is most effective when used in tandem with other treatment methods as part of a holistic approach to healing.

Finding Peace at The Dawn

Client Finding Peace at The Dawn

If you have been struggling with intrusive thoughts and other symptoms of a potential mental health disorder, The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand helps clients from around the world. The Dawn is a mental health retreat and rehab centre that offers a highly personalised mental health retreat programme that helps clients to gain a deeper understanding of their symptoms and learn skills to effectively manage their conditions.

The Dawn’s areas of specialty include:

A Mental Health Retreat in Thailand

Stress, worry and lack of downtime are known triggers of most mental health conditions. The Dawn’s tranquil riverside location, surrounded by picturesque rice fields and traditional Thai villages, immediately transports you into an oasis of calm, completely removing you from all your stressors – the people, places and things in your daily life that contribute to your condition. Internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International (AACI) and nationally licensed by the Thai Ministry of Health, The Dawn offers diverse programming led by an experienced, internationally-trained staff.

If you are struggling with symptoms of a mental health condition, call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can help you heal.

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