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Common intrusive thoughts (top 7)

Amanda Knowles

In this blog, we discuss the common intrusive thoughts that people have. We will also answer the question ‘what are intrusive thoughts? And look into the characteristics, types, and some of the coping strategies to deal with these common intrusive thoughts.

List of common intrusive thoughts:

  • Excessively Aggressive or gruesome ideas such as killing or hitting someone.
  • Perpetual thoughts about getting injured, getting infected, and/ or contaminating self or others with germs.
  • Constant attention on religious, moral, and or superstitious beliefs and ideas.
  • The constant worry of losing everything and everyone.
  • Fear of losing control and harming self or others.
  • Strong need to keep things in order and neatly arranged until it feels perfect.
  • Sexually explicit thoughts and images such as engaging in violent sexual activities, or engaging in inappropriate sexual acts.
  • Excessive fear of forgetting or losing something
  • Profound worry about doing something extremely embarrassing

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are those thoughts that are recurrent, involuntary, and often distressing and could make you feel anxious or ashamed.

It is common for every individual to experience intrusive thoughts at some point in their life. However, for others, it could be more recurrent and cause more distress and anxiety making it extremely difficult to function optimally.

It might look as if you are stuck with a particular thought and might feel consumed or trapped by that thought although the thought could be distressing.

For example, Constant worry about falling sick or recurrent thoughts about sexual acts.

Some of the common characteristics of these intrusive thoughts are; they are:

  • Intrusive thoughts are Involuntary
  • Intrusive thoughts are Recurrent
  • Intrusive thoughts are Unwanted
  • Intrusive thoughts are Explicit
  • Intrusive thoughts are Distressing
  • Intrusive thoughts are Anxiety provoking

What are the common types of intrusive thoughts?

The common types of intrusive thoughts could be categorized based on common themes. They are:

  • Relationship-based intrusive thoughts:
  • Religion and morality based intrusive thoughts
  • Sexual intrusive thoughts
  • Violent or aggressive intrusive thoughts
  • Safety and health-based intrusive thoughts
  • Just right intrusive thoughts

Let us look into each of these categories in detail:

Relationship-based intrusive thoughts:

These are constant thoughts or excessive worry about relationships. This consequently might strain the relationship.

It is a vicious cycle. You might be worried about a relationship, this, in turn, might strain your relationship and this strained relationship is a cause of more worry about the relationship.

Some of the most common relationship-based intrusive thoughts might look like:

  • Suspicion of the fidelity of the partner
  • A constant need for reassurance
  • Over analyzing the dynamics of the relationship
  • Constantly thinking if you or your partner actually have feelings for each other
  • Recurrent thoughts about the rightness of the relationship
  • Constantly comparing your relationship with that of others
  • Constantly reflecting on your partner’s characteristics and personal qualities
  • Frequently reading about successful relationships to see if your relationship meets those standards.
  • Although your partner is good enough, you constantly think that you could have found someone better although it is different in reality.

Religion and morality based intrusive thoughts

These are unwanted, recurrent thoughts that are related to religious beliefs and moral standards. Here you might be overly concerned about right and wrong, fear of punishment from God, or about pleasing god, etc.

Some of the common religious and moral intrusive thoughts might look like:

  • Constant worry about offending God or committing a sin
  • Fear of misinterpreting religious teachings
  • Worry if one is praying the right and praying the right amount of time
  • Fear of not being faithful enough
  • Fear of going to hell
  • Worry about discriminating against people, or being a good person
  • Worry about lying, cheating, etc.

Sexual intrusive thoughts

These involve explicit thoughts and images about violent or aggressive sexual activity, inappropriate sexual behaviors, and/ or sexuality. 

Usually, this is followed by a fear of acting on these thoughts. What differentiates sexual intrusive thoughts from sexual fantasies depends on its frequency how recurrent it is and the emotional response (pleasurable or distressing).

Some of the common sexual intrusive thoughts are:

  • Frequent worry about one’s sexual identity and orientation
  • Recurrent images of certain sexual acts or behaviors such as with a child, touching someone inappropriately or involving with animals
  • Fear of acting out on these mental images
  • Fear of sexual attraction towards family members.

Violent or aggressive intrusive thoughts

These are thoughts about being violent or aggressive towards yourself or others, which could be distressing, anxiety, and fear-inducing.

Some of the common intrusive thoughts that are violent in nature include:

  • Fear of harming self or others
  • Constant thoughts about killing someone
  • Explicit images of harm such as poisoning someone, using dangerous weapons, etc.

Safety and health-based intrusive thoughts

These are unwanted and recurrent thoughts related to the safety and health of yourself and others. It is characterized by constant worry about the safety and health of yourself and your loved ones.

Some of the common intrusive thoughts related to safety are:

  • Fear about a fire breaking out, theft or burglary, etc.
  • Fear about meeting with an accident
  • Fear about catching an infection
  • Fear about spreading an infection etc.

Just right intrusive thoughts

This is marked by an excessive need for perfectionism, order, and symmetry. You might often perform endless repetitions of ordinary tasks out of frustration that they are not ‘perfect’ or that they are not ‘just right.’

Just right intrusive thoughts are thoughts and/or feelings that something is not quite right or that something is incomplete. You may feel very uncomfortable when confronted with situations where objects are misaligned or in disarray or when something does not appear perfect.

Examples of Just Right OCD include:

  • Thoughts that your hand is unclean, and continuing to wash it till you think did it just right. 
  • Thoughts that your book is not placed properly on the table and needs to be fixed. 
  • Excessive need to express oneself precisely and working through your expression again mentally till it seems perfect.  

What causes intrusive thoughts?

Research has found that most individuals experience intrusive thoughts in their lifetime. It is a natural phenomenon, wherein just like how we have involuntary happy thoughts we also have negative intrusive thoughts.

It is whether you are able to just see them as just thoughts and get past these intrusive thoughts which define if they are normal and natural or a pathological condition.

Intrusive thoughts are also associated with several mental health conditions such as Obsessive-compulsive disorder, Panic and anxiety-related disorder, depression, etc.

How could you cope with these common intrusive thoughts?

Although experiencing these common intrusive thoughts could lead to feelings of distress and anxiety, you could learn several skills and strategies to be able to cope with them better.

Some of the commonly used strategies are:

  • Identify and label these intrusive thoughts: 

Identifying and labeling these thoughts can help you get a better understanding of what these thoughts are. Awareness of these thoughts itself could be relieving.

  • Gently remind yourself that these thoughts do not define you:

Often these intrusive thoughts could make you think that you are a bad person, however, it is important to remember that your thoughts are just thoughts.

  • Be aware that these thoughts are automatic and involuntary and not up to you:

Intrusive thoughts are those that are involuntary. You do not bring it to your conscious awareness out of the will. Therefore it is important that you do not beat yourself up for these involuntary thoughts.

  • Accept and acknowledge that you are having these thoughts:

Every individual will have thousands of thoughts during their lifetime which also includes negative intrusive thoughts. It is important to accept and acknowledge that having these thoughts are normal and natural.

  • Embrace and stay with these thoughts and allow them to pass with time:

Trying to manipulate these thoughts, distracting or suppressing these thoughts will only make these thoughts stronger.

 In the process of avoiding we are spending more time in conscious effort over the thought. Just let the thoughts be and pass with time

  • Practice Mindfulness:

Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention and complete focus in the present moment, with a non-judgmental and curious attitude. Here you do not try to manipulate your experience but simply accept them.

You could cope with your intrusive thoughts by simply paying attention to them, observe your thoughts without judging, with curiosity, and without making an attempt to manipulate or control them.

  • Practice postponing or scheduled intrusions

You could simply choose to pay attention to what you are doing and revisit these intrusive thoughts at a later point and time.

  • Continue to do, what you were doing before the intrusive thoughts could come.

By doing this, you are simply not letting the thoughts overpower you and consume you. You are just letting them be and going on with your activities.

  • Practice meditation regularly:

Researchers have found meditation to have a significant impact on intrusive thoughts by increasing their ability to let go of these unwanted thoughts

  • Seek professional help:

While intrusive thoughts are a normal and natural occurrence in human life, excessive, recurrent, and more frequent intrusive thoughts could cripple your everyday functioning. You might require help from a mental health professional.

Conclusion:

Frequently Asked Questions:

What are the examples of common intrusive thoughts?

Some examples of the common negative intrusive thoughts are:

  • Excessively Aggressive or gruesome ideas such as killing or hitting someone.
  • Perpetual thoughts about getting injured, getting infected, and/ or contaminating self or others with germs.
  • Constant attention on religious, moral, and or superstitious beliefs and ideas.
  • The constant worry of losing everything and everyone.
  • Fear of losing control and harming self or others.
  • Strong need to keep things in order and neatly arranged until it feels perfect.
  • Sexually explicit thoughts and images such as engaging in violent sexual activities, or engaging in inappropriate sexual acts.
  • Excessive fear of forgetting or losing something
  • Profound worry about doing something extremely embarrassing

Why do we get intrusive thoughts?

The human brain experiences quick fleeting thoughts in its daily life. The thought goes away just as they came; most often we might not even pay conscious attention to these fleeting thoughts.

Since negative intrusive thoughts are distressing we tend to pay attention and it might look like we are stuck with these thoughts. However, it is common to have intrusive thoughts as well.

Negative intrusive thoughts are also characteristic of a number of mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, OCD, depression, etc.

Can Intrusive thoughts be triggered?

Yes, while intrusive thoughts could be completely involuntary, there could be certain factors that trigger these intrusive thoughts such as stress and trauma.

 

References:

Carey, P. 7 Different Types of OCD & Intrusive Thoughts | OCD Subtypes. Retrieved 17 June 2021, from https://www.treatmyocd.com/education/different-types-of-ocd

Fielding, S. (2019). I Used to Panic Over My Intrusive Thoughts. How I Learned to Cope. Retrieved 17 June 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/intrusive-thoughts-coping

Kandola, A. (2020). Intrusive thoughts: Types, myths, causes, and treatment. Retrieved 17 June 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/intrusive-thoughts

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) - Symptoms and causes. (2021). Retrieved 17 June 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20354432

Amanda Knowles

Sara Quitlag is an Applied Psychologist, with a deep interest in psychopathology and neuropsychology and how psychology impacts and permeates every aspect of our environment. She has worked in Clinical settings (as Special Ed. Counselor, CBT Therapist) and has contributed at local Universities as a Faculty member from time to time. She has a graduate degree in English Literature and feels very connected to how literature and psychology interact. She feels accountable and passionate about making a "QUALITY" contribution to the overall global reform and well-being. She actively seeks out opportunities where she can spread awareness and make a positive difference across the globe for the welfare of our global society.