Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, repetitive thoughts that pop into your mind without warning or control. They can be about anything from a past event to an image of something you fear. Sometimes we are confronted with thoughts that are not pleasant, such as unpleasant memories, images, or worries. Even though we prefer not to, the thought can be retrieved when this happens, making us think about it again even if we don’t like it. While being reminded this way may not be a problem if our thoughts are positive, our thoughts may be very damaging if the topic is traumatic. Our inability to control our thoughts daily can negatively affect our quality of life and wellbeing.
Are Intrusive Thoughts Normal?
Intrusive thoughts are usually harmless. In fact, everyone experiences intrusive thoughts from time to time. The brain creates intrusive thoughts as part of normal thought processes. One example is if you see something scary, your brain automatically generates an alarm response so that you’ll be prepared to react quickly. This helps ensure safety. However, excessive worrying about safety is called “intrusion,” and this is considered abnormal.
Common Types of Intrusive Thoughts and Unwanted Thoughts
These are some types of thoughts or intrusive images that might run through your stream of consciousness if you are experiencing an abnormally strong fear response toward something safe.
Worrying about the future – Worrying about what will happen next can cause distress and interfere with daily life. People who worry excessively often have trouble controlling their worries and tend to dwell on them. They usually feel anxious and depressed.
Worrying about past events – Sometimes, it’s hard to let go of things that happened in the past. These memories can become very vivid and upsetting. The person may think about how they acted back then, whether others were hurt by their actions, and even whether they were responsible for causing harm.
Thinking about bad things happening to loved ones – Thinking about losing close family members or friends causes great emotional turmoil. Most people try to avoid situations that remind them of painful losses. Others get upset when someone else mentions a sad event.
Thinking about sex – Sexually related thoughts aren’t always pleasant. Some people struggle with unwanted sexual images and urges. Sexual obsessions occur when such unwanted thoughts take over one’s mind and prevent the individual from functioning normally.
Thinking about violence – Violent thoughts don’t just belong to criminals. Most people have violent thoughts sometimes. But they’re more likely to act out those thoughts than most people realize. A few people actually commit acts of physical aggression after engaging in violent thoughts.
Thinking about death – Death is inevitable. Therefore, it makes sense that we should spend time contemplating its meaning. Unfortunately, though, some people obsessively focus on dying.
Thinking about suicide – Suicide is a tragic end to a troubled existence. Those who attempt suicide typically have psychiatric disorders. However, there are other reasons why people might consider taking their own lives. If you experience suicidal thoughts, talk to your doctor right away for help and support.
Thinking about harming oneself – Harmful self-injuring behaviors include cutting, burning, hitting, banging, scratching, biting, poisoning, hanging, jumping off buildings, drowning, driving recklessly, running into traffic, and using drugs or alcohol. Self-harmers use these methods because they don’t like being alive. In some cases, people engage in harmful behavior without having any conscious desire to die. Instead, they simply need help coping with unbearable pain.
Mental Health Disorders Connected to Intrusive Thoughts
Many different mental health disorders can cause intrusive thoughts. Some common causes include:
- Depression – The mental disorder depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in adults and children. It affects how people think, feel, behave and relate to others. People with depressive symptoms often experience negative feelings such as sadness, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, anger, agitation, suicidal ideation, self-harm behaviors, and/or suicide attempts.
- Anxiety Disorders – Generalized anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental health problems in children and adults. It affects how people feel emotionally, think and behave. People who have anxiety often worry excessively about things they cannot change, such as death, illness, accidents, financial difficulties, relationship issues, etc. These worries cause them distress and prevent them from doing what they want.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder – OCD is characterized by obsession symptoms and compulsion symptoms. Common obsessions and repetitive behaviors usually involve fears related to contamination, aggression towards others, symmetry, orderliness, perfectionism, religious beliefs, doubts about oneself, doubt about others’ judgment, doubting whether actions were morally right, etc.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD occurs when someone has experienced a traumatic event that results in intense feelings of terror, helplessness, horror, grief, anger, guilt, numbness, confusion, disbelief, detachment, dissociation, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviors, numbing/dissociative symptoms, and physiological arousal.
- Substance Abuse – Substance use disorders include addiction to substances such as tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, prescription painkillers, sedatives, stimulants, hallucinogens, inhalants, and over-the-counter medicines. Some substances affect brain chemistry which leads to changes in thinking patterns and compulsive behaviors.
- Sleep Deprivation – Sleep deprivation refers to not getting enough sleep at night. This includes both insomnia and hypersomnia. Not sleeping enough increases levels of cortisol, a hormone released during times of high stress.
How The Brain Controls Intrusive Thoughts
The inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA helps the brain regulate anxiety levels and prevent unwanted thoughts. The higher concentration of GABA in the hippocampus portion of your brain, the better-equipped the brain’s prefrontal cortex can make unwanted thoughts go away. Certain neurologic and psychiatric conditions can be related to malfunctioning in GABA signaling. Medications are available to help with these conditions.
Intrusive thoughts tend to increase during times of stress, which increases the release of cortisol. Cortisol has been shown to decrease the production of GABA in the hippocampus. This leads to an increased concentration of glutamate, another excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate stimulates neurons, making them fire faster and stronger. When this occurs repeatedly, it becomes difficult for the prefrontal cortex to control impulses.
Treatment Options For Intrusive Thoughts
Integrative professional treatment that combines traditional therapy with medication is considered the best practice. Talk therapy involves working on identifying triggers and coping strategies. Medication may help reduce or eliminate some of these triggers.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Cognitive therapy focuses on changing negative thought processes into more positive ones. CBT also teaches patients ways to cope with their emotions without acting out physically. Exposure therapy and response prevention, a form of cognitive behavior therapy, use exposure techniques to teach patients new responses to situations that trigger obsessive thoughts. They may also teach patients mindfulness exercises and relaxation techniques to avoid getting overwhelmed by their thoughts.
Medication Treatment – A medication treatment plan may also be used to treat intrusive thoughts. Many different types of medications can be used to treat anxiety or mood. They work differently depending on their specific chemical makeup. Most antidepressants take several weeks or months before working effectively. Antianxiety drugs may also need time to kick in. However, some medication treatments for anxiety and depression can begin working immediately after taking it. Antidepressant medications like SSRIs or SNRIs, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, tricyclics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, mood stabilizers, anticonvulsants, beta-blockers, alpha agonists, and other drugs work well for some people. Still, they do not always eliminate all types of intrusions.