Intrusive Thoughts

What are they and what causes them?

Intrusive Thoughts: what are they?

Let’s explore



Have you ever had disturbing, unwanted thoughts or images pop into your mind? Usually, these thoughts will come and go without a second look, however, occasionally they can stick around, making you feel uneasy. These are known as intrusive thoughts and can range from distracting images to uncomfortable and violent ideas such as hurting someone you love. They can come out of nowhere or be a reoccurring fear that causes you constant anxiety. However, the more you push them aside, the more they can seem to persist. 


You can identify an intrusive thought by identifying if it is unusual, bothersome, and hard to control. When it persists and you focus on them too much, it can interrupt your daily life and functioning, negatively affecting relationships, self-image, and work life. If you feel fear or guilt around these thoughts and a need to take action to control them, this is when it may be something more serious. Additionally, they can be a sign of other mental health issues such as anxiety, PTSD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 


Types of intrusive thoughts 

There are a diverse range of intrusive thoughts people can experience and will differ from person to person. If you feel shocked by your thoughts or that they are a bit disturbing, it is crucial to remind yourself that these do not have a particular meaning and importantly, these do not define you. They are just passing automatic thoughts. Some include: 

  • Germs, infections, or other kinds of contamination. 
  • Violent thoughts of aggression or causing harm to others. 
  • Worries about doing something wrong or embarrassing oneself. 
  • Religion, blasphemy, or being an immoral person. 
  • Sexual acts or situations. 


Are intrusive thoughts common or normal? 

If you’ve ever had an intrusive thought, don’t worry, you are not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, intrusive thoughts affects around six million Americans. In fact, almost everyone experiences them! A global study conducted in 2014 found that about 94% of participants had at least one intrusive thought in the 3 months prior to the study. 


What causes intrusive thoughts? 

Intrusive thoughts don’t always have a cause. They can be completely random and leave no lasting impression. Intrusive thoughts can be triggered by stress or anxiety or even short-term problems such as hormonal changes. However, in some instances, they can be caused by things such as brain injury, Dementia and Parkinson’s Disease. 


Conditions that include intrusive thoughts  

As mentioned, there are mental health conditions that include intrusive thoughts. These include: 

OCD: When thoughts become so troublesome or distressing that it prompts you to make significant efforts to prevent or suppress them from occurring by engaging in repetitive behaviours or compulsions. 

PTSD: Intrusive thoughts or memories may be related to a traumatic experience. These can bring on symptoms of PTSD such as high alertness or insomnia. 

Eating disorders: Eating disorders may cause intrusive thoughts about one’s body, losing weight or what they eat. These can cause extreme stress, guilt and shame around food or body image, leading people to change their behaviour in order to control these aspects. 


 Seeking support for mental health 

Although they’re just thoughts, they can be extremely powerful and linger, causing significant impairment in an individual’s life. If your intrusive thoughts are becoming too overwhelming, it is crucial you seek support from someone you trust or from your doctor. The best way to manage intrusive thoughts is to reduce your sensitivity to them and their contents. Doctors can refer you to professionals who can help you gain skills to overcome them or help target any deeper problems which may be occurring.  


Making an Appointment with Axis Clinic

To make an appointment with one of our experienced psychologists, counsellors or mental health social workers please contact our helpful reception team on 07 3254 0333 so that we can support you further.  



Bilodeau, K. (2021, October 1). Managing intrusive thoughts. Harvard Health. 

Holland, K. (2022, May 20). Why Do We Have Intrusive Thoughts? Healthline. 

Moulding, R., Coles, M. E., Abramowitz, J. S., Alcolado, G. M., Alonso, P., Belloch, A., Bouvard, M., Clark, D. A., Doron, G., Fernández-Álvarez, H., García-Soriano, G., Ghisi, M., Gómez, B., Inozu, M., Radomsky, A. S., Shams, G., Sica, C., Simos, G., & Wong, W. (2014). Part 2. They scare because we care: The relationship between obsessive intrusive thoughts and appraisals and control strategies across 15 cities. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 3(3), 280–291. 

Sreenivas, S. (n.d.). What Are Intrusive Thoughts? WebMD. Retrieved August 18, 2023, from