The 8 Most Common Intrusive Thoughts People Experience

Trigger warning: This article mentions self-harm.

The average person has about 70,000 thoughts per day (via the Cleveland Clinic). Most of these pass in and out of our heads without much notice. But sometimes, thoughts can be repetitive and disturbing. These are called intrusive thoughts, and they are quite common.

Intrusive thoughts are unexpected and often disturbing ideas or images that flash through your mind, seemingly out of nowhere. These thoughts can be graphic, violent, or even taboo, covering a wide variety of themes that may challenge your personal values or morality. Their sudden and persistent nature can trigger anxiety, guilt, or shame, leaving you questioning your own character.

Common intrusive thoughts often revolve around themes such as fear of causing harm to oneself or others, sexuality, past trauma, and negative self-talk. These thoughts don't usually reflect your actual desires or intentions, but rather stem from the complex and occasionally unpredictable functioning of the human mind. While almost everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at some point in their lives, for some, these thoughts can become intrusive to the point of interfering in their daily lives.

Controlling intrusive thoughts, to a certain extent, requires self-acceptance. However, when intrusive thoughts become disabling, cognitive-behavioral techniques, mindfulness practices, and therapy can help. By learning to acknowledge these thoughts without judgment and understand that they do not define your character, you can gradually reduce their impact and regain a sense of control.

Read on to find out more about the most common kinds of intrusive thoughts, and how you can learn to manage and accept them.

Thoughts about harming others

This is one of the scariest types of intrusive thoughts. Maybe you're driving and suddenly think about swerving your car off the road to hit a pedestrian. Or you're in the kitchen with your spouse, and the thought of grabbing a knife and stabbing them flashes into your mind. As quickly as you think the thought, it's gone — and you haven't hurt anyone.

These kinds of thoughts are surprisingly common in new mothers, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. The good news is that the researchers found that women who have intrusive thoughts about hurting their babies are no less likely to actually inflict harm than mothers without these thoughts. 

But for some people, these thoughts can be frequent and distressing. A type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called harm OCD causes people to obsessively have these thoughts (via GoodRx Health). The thoughts can be quite violent and graphic, and they can leave the individual questioning their safety and that of the people around them. These obsessive thoughts can lead to compulsive behaviors or mental rituals to alleviate their fears and prevent any perceived harm. These thoughts, compulsions, and rituals can consume their life. However, people with harm OCD also aren't violent, evil, or likely to act on their thoughts. 

Thoughts of harming yourself

On bad days, many people have thoughts about wanting to end it all. But it's just a passing thought with no real intention. As long as you're not considering acting on it and it doesn't happen frequently, it's not something to worry about too much. 

But intrusive thoughts about harming yourself that are more specific and occur more often are worrisome. Self-harm OCD involves having obsessive thoughts about hurting yourself. People with self-harm OCD don't want to harm or kill themselves, but they often have specific thoughts or mental images of how they might do it, such as stabbing themselves or jumping off a balcony (via nocd). They may constantly question their safety when they're alone and fear actually acting on their suicidal thoughts. And certain situations may trigger them, such as proximity to potentially dangerous things like knives or chemicals, or hearing or reading about self-harm and suicide. These obsessions can turn into compulsions, such as avoiding being around anything they could possibly use as a tool to harm themselves. 

Another type of intrusive self-harm thought is passive suicidal ideation. This is when a person has frequent invasive thoughts about killing themselves but no plan — and often no intention — to actually do it (via Psycom). However, passive suicidal ideation is not something to ignore because it typically is a warning sign of or coexists with a mental disorder. And passive ideation could become active ideation, in which the person actually makes plans to end their life.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

Sexual thoughts

Humans are sexual beings, and frequent thoughts of sexuality are perfectly natural. It's common for people to have these thoughts completely out of the blue, and they aren't anything to be ashamed of. 

But for some people, these thoughts can be quite distressing, especially when they are of explicit or taboo scenarios, including unwanted sexual acts, violent sexual imagery, or morally inappropriate thoughts. Examples of these thoughts include sexual attraction to family members or children, sexual acts with animals, and performing violent or criminal sexual acts. Despite not aligning with a person's actual desires or values, the thoughts can trigger intense anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame.

These thoughts are a product of the mind's tendency to latch onto threatening or taboo subjects rather than a reflection of one's actual wishes. They often have to do with something or someone you care about. As an example, a man who loves his family might have a recurring incestuous thought. It disgusts him and it's not something he would ever act on, but he can't get rid of it (via Begin Again Institute).

When these types of thoughts occur often, there's usually something deeper driving them. It could be past trauma, OCD, sex addiction, or an eating disorder. People experiencing these thoughts may feel a loss of control and fear that these thoughts might reflect their true desires, creating significant distress and discomfort.

Thoughts of past trauma

Intrusive thoughts about past traumas are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the American Psychiatric Association, 1 in 11 people will have PTSD in their lives. Serious accidents, sexual assaults, witnessing a violent crime or terrorist attack, or surviving a natural disaster are types of traumatic events that can cause you to have intrusive thoughts for years afterwards. 

With these involuntary and distressing memories, images, or sensations related to a past traumatic event, it can feel as though you are reliving the experience. The intrusive nature of these thoughts can be highly disruptive, impacting daily functioning and causing intense emotional distress. You might experience flashbacks, nightmares, or sudden and unwelcome recollections of the traumatic event, often accompanied by feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror. People who suffer from intrusive thoughts related to PTSD will desperately try to avoid things that trigger these flashbacks and may spend a significant amount of their time and energy doing so.

Blasphemous thoughts

Blasphemous thoughts often plague devoutly religious people. Unsettling and distressing, these thoughts involve the involuntary appearance of blasphemous ideas or images that challenge a person's religious beliefs or morals. They can clash with a person's deeply held faith or spiritual convictions, making them feel guilt, fear, or shame. They might include thoughts that question or insult religious figures, doubt one's faith, or engage in sacrilegious actions.

Experiencing blasphemous thoughts doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of religious devotion or personal integrity. In fact, like many intrusive thoughts, they often occur because the subject is of great importance to the person. It's more a distortion of the mind than a reflection of core beliefs. This leads to a great amount of internal conflict and stress, often causing people to question their moral standing or relationship with their faith community.

Many people will have the occasional blasphemous thought, but repetitive intrusive thoughts of this nature could be a manifestation of OCD (via Industrial Psychiatry Journal). The distress and anxiety caused by the thoughts leads to obsession and ensuing compulsive behaviors and rituals. 

Negative self-talk

Negative self-talk every now and then is normal. But some people have an inner monologue that is repeatedly self-critical, derogatory, or self-deprecating. And it's as if the individual has no control over it. This persistent mental chatter often revolves around self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, or a harsh internal judgment of one's abilities, appearance, or worth. These intrusive thoughts can become an automatic and ingrained pattern, coloring a person's perception of themselves and their capabilities.

Negative self-talk may reinforce feelings of unworthiness or failure, leading to decreased self-esteem and increased anxiety. This cycle can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where one's beliefs about themselves become reality. Constant exposure to such detrimental self-assessments can contribute to stress and depression, and can even affect relationships and professional performance.

Negative self-talk is often a symptom as well as a cause of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. And when it becomes seemingly involuntary — as if you can't turn it off no matter what you do — it may be a symptom of OCD (via Kairos Wellness Collective). 

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Thoughts about death and dying

Death is a part of life. But it's a part of life that many people find difficult to live with. Occasional thoughts about your own death or the death of a loved one are normal and nothing to worry about. But they can often become more frequent and disturbing. You might constantly imagine yourself dying in a car crash or losing a loved one suddenly, or wonder how your family would cope if you suddenly passed away. Your thoughts may become graphic, and you may have visions of blood, corpses, or graves. You might continually worry about what happens after you die, whether there is an afterlife, or whether your death will be painful.

To cope, people often avoid conversations about death and events such as funerals. The thoughts may bring on intense fear and panic, and people may isolate themselves and delve into depression. When the thoughts become obsessive, they are often a symptom of OCD. Sufferers may develop rituals they believe they must perform to prevent their own death or the death of a loved one (via Psychology Today).  

Paranoid thoughts

It's normal to have paranoid thoughts every now and then. Maybe you suspect a coworker is trying to sabotage you, or that someone's listening in on a private conversation. After some rational consideration, you realize it's probably not true and the thought goes away and never returns.

Paranoid intrusive thoughts, on the other hand, are repetitive and involuntary and involve irrational fears or suspicions of being harmed or betrayed by others (via Mantracare). They can cause anxiety and distress, and interfere with daily functioning. People with intrusive paranoid thoughts have these feelings very often and for no reason. For example, repetitive ruminations that their partner is cheating on them, that their friends and family are plotting against them, that they're being followed, or that their food or drink is being poisoned.

Paranoid intrusive thoughts can have various causes, such as stress, trauma, lack of sleep, mental fatigue, or substance use. They can also be a symptom of a mental health condition, such as OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. People with these conditions may experience paranoid intrusive thoughts more frequently and intensely, and may have difficulty distinguishing them from reality.

What to do about intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are stressful and upsetting, but the good news is that there are ways to cope with them and reduce their impact on your life. The first thing to do is identify the thoughts as intrusive. Recognize that the thought is not a reflection of who you are or what you want to do. Label it as an intrusive thought, and try not to judge yourself for having it. 

Next, don't try to fight it. Trying to suppress or avoid the thought can make it stronger and more persistent. Instead, accept that the thought is there, and let it pass without engaging with it or giving it any importance. Also, remember that having an intrusive thought does not mean you have to or will act on it. You are in control of your actions, and you can choose not to follow the thought.

You can also try challenging the thought. Ask yourself if the thought is realistic, and if you have any evidence to support or refute the thought. You can also think about what you would tell a friend who had the same thought. 

Lastly, practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a powerful technique that helps you focus on the present moment and observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment. You can practice mindfulness by paying attention to your breath, your body sensations, or your surroundings. This can help you calm your mind and reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts.

When to seek help

If intrusive thoughts are interfering with your daily functioning, causing you significant distress, or leading to compulsive behaviors, you will benefit from seeking professional help. A counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist can help you understand the causes and triggers of your intrusive thoughts and teach you coping skills and techniques to manage them. Some of the evidence-based therapies for intrusive thoughts are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure and response prevention (ERP), eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (via GoodRx Health). Often, getting rid of intrusive thoughts requires healing an underlying trauma or treating a mental health condition like OCD or PTSD. 

Medication may also be an option for some people. Specifically, medications can help with symptoms of OCD and PTSD that contribute to intrusive thoughts. Some medications that may be helpful include fluoxentine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), fluvoxamine (Luvox), clomipramine (Anafranil), sertraline (Zoloft), and venlafaxine (Effexor).