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What Are Intrusive Thoughts? And How Can You Manage Them?

by Andrea M. Darcy

Worry that you are a terrible person because of the things that run through your head? Do you wish you could control your intrusive thoughts, but feel at a loss?

What are intrusive thoughts?

An intrusive thought is a thought, urge, or visual that flashes into your mind unbidden, and that you find upsetting and unwanted. But you can’t seem to stop it coming or control it.

Intrusive thoughts are often outside of your personal values and morals, and can be angry, sexual, agressive, or even violent.

We all have a shadow side, and we all actually experience intrusive thoughts now and then. We are so furious we imagine someone else dead, visualise our workplace blowing up, or even have a terrible thought about hurting our own child. Guilt hits, our rage subsides, and the thought stops.

But for some of us the thought doesn’t stop, it keeps coming until we feel haunted. You might even start using compulsive behaviour, like counting, tapping, or hand washing, to try to control the thoughts. If your intrusive thinking is affecting your day-to-day life and capacity to cope? It can be a sign of a mental health issue or disorder.

[Worry your thoughts are out of control, really need someone to talk to? Find a therapist you like at a price you can afford on our booking site, and get the help you deserve.]

Am I a bad person for having intrusive thoughts?

No you are not. A thought is a thought, Again, we all have terrible, dark thoughts now and then. It’s part of being human. Most of us never act on such thoughts.

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If you are in a religion that has rigid ideas on what is right and wrong, you might suffer terrible guilt and shame over intrusive thoughts. Unfortunately, guilt tends to make the intrusive thoughts stronger, and you feel worse. So it’s up to you to decide if you feel that your version of “God” really wants you to suffer so much for thoughts that you are never going to act on.

**If you do feel you might act on an intrusive thought, or find yourself taking actions to do so, reach out for help immediately.

Intrusive thoughts vs negative thoughts

Is there a difference? If we are talking psychological definitions, yes.

Intrusive thoughts are ones we hear loud and clear. They can feel like the voice of someone else running through our head, saying things we are not ready to accept we can feel, if we are still in denial of our shadow. And intrusive thoughts tend to be exaggerated — really cruel, agressive, sexual, or even violent.

Negative thoughts, on the other hand, tend to hum along in the background like a radio we don’t realise we left on. It’s only when we decide to tune in that we realise we are constantly putting ourselves down or thinking in black and white, dramatic ways. If we were raised with negative parents, or were always put down by a caregiver, we might not even realise our thoughts are negative, we are so used to pessimism.

What intrusive and negative thoughts have in common is that they are both just thoughts and both can be changed with therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy, a short-term psychotherapy, focuses just on helping you gain control of your thinking.

What psychological issues are connected to intrusive thoughts?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is most commonly connected to intrusive thoughts. In an effort to control unwanted thoughts you start to practice compulsive behaviours like hand washing or counting.

But there are several other mental health issues that involve intrusive thinking, such as:

How can I manage intrusive thoughts?

Again, blaming yourself for intrusive thoughts or judging yourself for having them just makes them worse. What things can you do instead?


Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts, and that everyone has intrusive thoughts now and then.

You might find certain phrases useful to repeat, such as, ‘I am not my thoughts and I choose my actions’, or ‘I am a valuable person despite any thought I might have”.


What’s important here is to promise yourself you’ll rip up what you write. This creates a safe space for your mind to unload. Write out everything, don’t worry about penmanship or legibility, and say whatever horrible thing you have in your head on the page. Then enjoy destroying the paper.


Mindfulness means you sit still and let your thoughts come and go without identifying with them. They lose power and become not much more than passing clouds. Even better, mindfulness is  proven by research to lower anxiety and stress. Learn how to do it right now with our free ‘Guide to Mindfulness‘.

One positive action.

Counter thought with action. Make a list in advance of all the positive actions you can easily take at any time, such as leaving positive comments on social media, signing a petition for a good cause, or going out and buying a homeless person a coffee.

Get out and socialise.

Intrusive thoughts tend to happen when we are alone. Get out and connect with people you feel good around.

And when you are out, look around and remind yourself that each person you see has had an intrusive thought before. Despite what your thoughts try to tell you , you are NOT alone in this. 

Wellbeing activities.

Instead of just socialising, why not try a wellbeing activity with a friend? These are activities you have identified as the ones that always give you a positive lift. Read our article on “The Steps to Wellbeing” for more.

Get physical.

For many people exercise is a wellbeing activity that works, chiefly as it pulls us out of thoughts and into our bodies. Even a quick walk around the block or dancing around your living room to some of your favorite songs helps. Or take a hot bath.

Cognitive behavioural therapy.

Again, CBT therapy actually focuses on helping you gain control of your thoughts, not just for now but for the rest of your life. Your thinking starts to become more and more balanced, and with time even positive. It’s an evidence-based treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and OCD.

When should I worry about intrusive thoughts?

Again, thoughts are just thoughts, and are not dangerous unless we act on them. It becomes about managing the thoughts so that they do not control you or mean you find daily life difficult.

If your thoughts are self-destructive, you might find our article, “How to Handle Suicidal Thoughts” helpful. It offers specific techniques pulled from psychotherapies that help you manage.

If you think you are about to act out a thought that will hurt you or someone else please call emergency services. If you find yourself taking steps towards a plan to act out a thought, or are indulging in self-harming, call a helpline and talk it through with a professional listener who won’t judge you and will understand.

Ready to stop being controlled by your thoughts and end OCD and anxiety? Harley Therapy puts you in touch with top London therapists in lovely central London offices. Not in London or the UK? Book therapists UK widen on our booking platform and experience online therapy from the comfort of your home, no matter where you live. 

Andrea M. Darcy mental health expertAndrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert with training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and works as a consultant helping people  plan their perfect therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress

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