What Do Intrusive Thoughts Mean?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and often distressing thoughts that pop into your mind seemingly out of nowhere. These thoughts or images are unexpected and undesirable.

An intrusive thought may involve bad memories, acts of violence, or sexual acts. They stick out because the thought content is not typical for you. One common example of an intrusive thought is hurting your newborn child.

Having an intrusive thought often brings shame and distress. However, intrusive thoughts don't make you a bad person. It is very normal to experience intrusive thoughts once in a while. Intrusive thoughts that happen more frequently could indicate obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or other mental health conditions.

In this article, learn more about intrusive thoughts and how to cope with them.

Close up image of a woman appearing sad or in distress

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Are Intrusive Thoughts a Sign of Something Serious?

If you experience intrusive thoughts, you may wonder what they signify and if you should be concerned. Having occasional intrusive thoughts happens to almost everyone. One study found that 93.6% of participants across six continents has had at least one intrusive thought in the past three months. In this way, intrusive thoughts can be considered a universal experience.

Often, people don't talk about their intrusive thoughts because of the stigma related to the thought content. By definition, intrusive thoughts involve something upsetting or shocking, and people often feel ashamed to share this and therefore keep them secret. Even if you've never spoken to someone else about your intrusive thoughts, you've likely met someone who has had them too.

However, sometimes intrusive thoughts can indicate a mental health condition, such as OCD. Talk to a trusted healthcare provider if you experience frequent intrusive thoughts that affect your daily life.

Examples of Intrusive Thoughts 

Intrusive thoughts may seem to rush into your mind out of nowhere. They can be incredibly disturbing and at odds with your values, personality, and history. Often, they involve something socially unacceptable, sexual, or violent.

You may imagine yourself doing something uncharacteristic, like hurting your child, jumping into traffic, or yelling blasphemy (lack of reverence for God) in a religious setting. Naturally, this may upset you; however, having these thoughts doesn't mean you would ever act on them.

Some common examples of intrusive thoughts are:

  • Inappropriate sexual acts against yourself, adults, or children
  • Violence against others or yourself
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Doubts or worries about relationships, decisions, sexual orientation, or identity
  • Traumatic memories
  • Thoughts about death or health
  • Blasphemous religious thoughts
  • Strange and nonsensical thoughts

Experiencing occasional suicidal intrusive thoughts does not mean you are suicidal. People fight against intrusive thoughts because the concepts feel alien and inappropriate to them; however, fighting these thoughts can make them more persistent.

If you experience suicidal intrusive thoughts that increase in frequency, speak to a healthcare provider or mental health professional about your experience and concerns.

Suicide Prevention Resources

If you have suicidal thoughts, dial 988 to contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect with a trained counselor. If you or a loved one is in immediate danger, call 911. Several treatment resources and support groups are available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) National Hotline at 800-662-HELP (4357).

What Causes and Triggers Intrusive Thoughts?

Scientists don't know the exact cause of intrusive thoughts. In many cases, they may come on with no identifiable cause at all.

Many people without a diagnosable mental health condition experience intrusive thoughts due to periods of increased stress and anxiety or a particularly stressful or traumatic event, all of which can trigger intrusive thoughts.

Additionally, hormonal changes such as those that occur after childbirth can trigger intrusive thoughts. There is a lot of stigma surrounding it, but it's actually very common for people who recently gave birth to experience intrusive thoughts of harming their child. Some scientists believe this is an evolutionary characteristic meant to keep new parents hyperaware of their child's safety.

In other cases, intrusive thoughts could be a symptom of a diagnosable mental health condition. Mental health conditions associated with intrusive thoughts include:

How to Work Through Intrusive Thoughts 

For many people, intrusive thoughts are natural and will occasionally occur before going away on their own. You can think of them as "junk thoughts"—thoughts that don't mean anything and will go away if you don't focus on them too much.

However, avoiding intrusive thoughts is easier said than done. These disturbing mental images can cause a lot of anxiety and worry, and unfortunately, the more you fixate and worry about them, the more likely they are to return.

Some strategies to help you work through intrusive thoughts include:

  • Notice when intrusive thoughts occur and label them as "intrusive thoughts."
  • Remember that intrusive thoughts are automatic, happen to everyone, and do not signify anything about you or your subconscious desires.
  • Do not try to push the thought away or engage with it. Just notice it without judgment.
  • Understand that intrusive thoughts will probably occur again, which is OK and normal.
  • Once the intrusive thought leaves your mind, continue what you were already doing as if it didn't happen. Don't try to figure out what the thought could signify.

Sometimes, it's not enough to cope with intrusive thoughts alone. It is acceptable to seek professional help. These thoughts don't signify anything terrible about you; they happen to everyone, and a mental health professional will understand.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is one type of therapy that is beneficial for treating intrusive thoughts. This therapy is the gold standard for treating OCD but can also help people with general intrusive thoughts.

Sharing Your Intrusive Thoughts

It is understandable to be scared and worried by intrusive thoughts or feel too disturbed to share your experience with loved ones. Your loved one may understand and have experienced their intrusive thoughts, too.

Other research has found that tangible and affectionate social support is protective against intrusive thoughts; in other words, receiving love and help from the people who care about you may help you cope with intrusive thoughts better.

If you still don't feel comfortable sharing intrusive thoughts with loved ones, that's also acceptable. Consider speaking to a licensed mental health provider who will keep your conversations confidential.

When Should You Worry About Intrusive Thoughts?

If your intrusive thoughts are increasing and distress or worry about these thoughts is affecting your daily life, it's time to talk to a trusted healthcare provider. Having an intrusive thought does not mean you subconsciously believe in this thought or want to act on it. Still, that can be hard to internalize. A healthcare professional can help you work through this.


Intrusive thoughts are sudden, unwanted, and disturbing thoughts that pop into your mind out of nowhere. Almost everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at some point. However, they can also indicate mental health conditions like OCD, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. Talk to a trusted friend or family member or contact a healthcare provider for support.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Bence
Sarah Bence, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist and freelance writer. She specializes in a variety of health topics including mental health, dementia, celiac disease, and endometriosis.