You’re going about your day, and suddenly you’re hit with a thought that’s bizarre, uncomfortable—even shocking. Maybe you’re talking to someone, and you suddenly picture yourself punching them in the face. Or you can’t stop picturing random people naked. You don’t want to think about this stuff, so why does it keep happening?
These are called intrusive thoughts, and just about everyone has them from time to time. Usually, people are able to ignore the thoughts and move on. But sometimes, intrusive thoughts can get out of hand. If your thoughts are causing you a lot of distress or getting in the way of your daily life, it could be a sign of mental illness. Seeking treatment can help you learn to manage the thoughts.
Let’s look at a few different types of intrusive thoughts, and what they might mean.
Thinking about hurting yourself or someone else
Sometimes intrusive thoughts can be violent. You might think about hurting yourself or someone else. Usually, there’s no intent behind it—you don’t actually want to do those things; it’s just a random thought that pops into your head. But you might be afraid that deep down inside, part of you does want to act out, and that’s why you’re thinking about it so much.
Thoughts like these may be a sign of an anxiety disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People experiencing post-partum depression may also have intrusive thoughts about harming their baby.
If you do have any intent to follow through on these thoughts, or if you’re already acting out, that’s beyond intrusive thoughts. If you’re having trouble controlling aggressive behavior, you’ll need to learn how to manage your emotions in a more constructive way. If you’re thinking of committing suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK, or text “MHA” to 741-741 to talk to a trained counselor from the Crisis Text Line.
Intrusive sexual thoughts
Most people—regardless of gender—think about sex quite a bit. It’s completely natural. But if you’re ashamed of these thoughts, or you think having them makes you a bad person, you can get fixated on them. Remember that thoughts are just thoughts—even if the thoughts are shocking or frequent, they don’t define who you are as a person.
It’s also common for people to have intrusive thoughts about their sexual or gender identity. Working out your identity can be a long and difficult process. It can be stressful, and it makes sense that you’d be thinking about it a lot. But it’s also common for people with OCD to obsess over thoughts that don’t seem to line up with their identity. For example, you might identify as lesbian, but have intrusive thoughts about sex with a man.
Negative thoughts about yourself are a common symptom of depression. When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to get stuck on thoughts like “I’m such a loser,” or “I’ll never amount to anything.” The emotion behind these thoughts can be so strong that they feel like facts, rather than intrusive thoughts.
Negative thoughts often fall into common patterns, called thinking traps. These are mental shortcuts we take that can lead us to get stuck in our negative thinking. One way to deal with them is to reframe them—find new, more positive ways of thinking about the same situations. You can find a list of common thinking traps and ways to reframe them here.
If your thoughts are bizarre or paranoid, you might be experiencing signs of psychosis. For example, you might feel like the FBI is watching everything you do, or that someone is trying to poison you. You might even see or hear things that no one else does. Psychosis can be a sign of a mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Sometimes drugs can also cause psychosis.
Other intrusive thoughts
These are just a few of the most common types of intrusive thoughts. There are many more. The important thing is to realize that intrusive thoughts are something that happens to you, not something that defines you. If you think you might be experiencing any of the types of mental illness discussed here, take one of our mental health screens to find out if you’re at risk.