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What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By Dr. Sarah Gaumer

Imagine that you are getting ready for work. You get dressed for the day and make your morning coffee. You eat some buttered toast and eggs before heading out the door.

As you are walking to your car, you randomly think, Did I turn off the coffee pot? What about the stove? What if I left them on and they burn down the house? or Did I put the butter knife away? What if my child accidentally hurts themself with it?

Corresponding images flash across your mind and your chest tightens. 

Initially, you shake the thoughts off and walk to your car. And still, you have the urge to go inside and check just to make sure.

It couldn’t hurt to check, right?

Eventually, you tell yourself you are being ridiculous and back out of the driveway to head to work. 

Throughout the day, the thoughts and images continue to come back no matter what you do to stop them. They even become more distressing and graphic.

What if I did leave the knife out? Since I didn’t check, does that mean I want my child to hurt themself? Do I want to harm others? 

The thoughts make it hard to concentrate or pay attention to anything.

Why am I thinking these things? I know I don’t want them to happen, you say to yourself as you try to refocus on the present. Or do you?

You question yourself as you try to speak with your coworker. This just throws you back into the spiral of you trying to assure yourself you are not a bad person. 

Finally, you rush home at the end of the day. The first thing you do is check the coffee pot and stove. They were turned off.

The knife was safely in the drawer where you had put it and your child was injury-free.

You sigh a breath of relief and start planning the rest of your night, hoping those thoughts never return. 

Intrusive Thoughts

The story above provides an example of intrusive thoughts and how they may impact someone’s life. 

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are involuntary thoughts, images, urges, or sensations. They are unwanted and are frequently bizarre or upsetting. Some may even be violent, sexual, or disturbing.

They appear out of nowhere, outside of your control, and usually when you are doing something unrelated. They can cause a sense of shame, confusion, guilt, and fear.

Intrusive thoughts commonly center around specific themes related to harm to self or others, relationships, sexuality, physical health, and more.

Everyone experiences invasive and bizarre thoughts, like “what if I jump in front of that car?” or “what if I have cancer?” These are a normal and natural part of life, and most people are able to quickly disregard them and move on with their day.

Other times, thoughts become “stuck” and it is more difficult to not let them impact your day like shown in the example above. 

“My intrusive thoughts won today”

People tend to refer to intrusive and impulsive thoughts interchangeably. The phrase “my intrusive thoughts won today” is even trending on social media, but most of the time it’s not used correctly.

The viral phrase is frequently paired with a post actually describing or showing impulsive thoughts. 

While intrusive and impulsive thoughts are similar in that they are difficult to control and could interfere with your day to day life, there is a distinct difference between the two.

As described above, intrusive thoughts are more severe, graphic, and frightening than impulsive thoughts. If someone would act on their intrusive thoughts or if they came true, the consequences would be dire.

People who have intrusive thoughts do not want to act on them and often take measures to make sure these thoughts do not come true. 

Intrusive thoughts vs. Impulsive thoughts

On the other hand, impulsive thoughts are spontaneous desires to engage in behaviors without consideration of the consequences. They are fleeting urges that are typically short lasting and cause little to no distress. These impulses can be unpleasant but they aren’t inherently harmful if acted out. 

People that have impulsive thoughts may actually like the thought or would find some type of pleasure, satisfaction, or humor from engaging in them. Simply, they do not feel guilty, ashamed, or frozen in fear at having these impulses.

Example impulsive thoughts:

  • Knock that cup off the counter
  • Cut off your hair
  • Shove the wash cloth in your mouth
  • Rip up a piece of paper
  • Jump off the couch

It might seem nit picky to distinguish between the two. However, if someone’s intrusive thoughts truly “won,” that person would be in legal trouble or physical danger.

If someone’s impulsive thoughts “won,” their cup would be on the floor or their hair would be cut. 

Though they are similar, confusing the two minimizes the gravity of intrusive thoughts and the problems that emerge from them.

Knowing accurate information can mean a world of difference to someone who is suffering from intrusive thoughts and encourage them to reach out for help. 

Behavioral Control

Another way to think about the difference between these two types of thoughts is that someone with intrusive thoughts is over-controlling their behavior, whereas someone with impulsive thoughts is under-controlling their behaviors.

If we put the concept of behavioral control on a spectrum as pictured below, intrusive thoughts and impulsive thoughts would actually be on opposite ends.

The middle of the spectrum is the average person who doesn’t experience an excess of impulsive or intrusive thoughts.

OCD Therapists Fort Lauderdale - Intrusive Thoughts vs Impulsive Thoughts Spectrum

The venn diagram below summarizes the differences between intrusive and impulsive thoughts.

OCD Therapists Fort Lauderdale - Intrusive Thoughts vs Impulsive Thoughts Venn Diagram
Intrusive Thoughts vs Impulsive Thoughts Venn Diagram

If intrusive thoughts are beginning to impact your daily life, it’s a great time to seek help and speak to a mental health therapist.

Know there’s hope and effective treatments that help manage intrusive thoughts.

Copyright © 2023 The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale, LLC

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