Our minds are perpetually whirring with activity, generating an astonishing 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts every single day1.

While most of these thoughts are mundane and easily dismissed, sometimes we encounter thoughts that are deeply unsettling, disturbing, or even utterly bizarre. These uninvited guests in our minds are known as intrusive thoughts, and despite the distress they cause, they are a surprisingly common experience for many people2.

Imagine this: You’re standing on a crowded platform, waiting for your train to arrive. Suddenly, a thought flashes through your mind: “What if I pushed someone onto the tracks?” Or maybe you’re chopping vegetables in the kitchen, when an image of intentionally cutting yourself with the knife invades your consciousness. These intrusive thoughts can be shocking, causing you to question your own character and morality.

But here’s the truth: Having these thoughts does not make you a bad person. In fact, extensive research has shown that intrusive thoughts are a normal part of the human experience3. They can be triggered by stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, or seemingly nothing at all, popping into your mind unbidden and unwanted4.

The Nature of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted mental images, ideas, or impulses that can be incredibly difficult to control or dismiss5. They often revolve around themes that are violent, sexual, or socially taboo, such as:

  • Imagining causing harm to yourself or others
  • Questioning your sexual orientation or identity
  • Having thoughts of engaging in inappropriate or illegal sexual acts
  • Obsessing over contamination or germs
  • Experiencing blasphemous or sacrilegious thoughts

The distress caused by intrusive thoughts often stems from the fact that they feel so contrary to your values, beliefs, and sense of self6. It’s crucial to understand that having these thoughts does not mean you secretly want to act on them or that they reflect your true desires.

intrusive thoughts thinking OCD mind

The Origins of Intrusive Thoughts

While the exact cause of intrusive thoughts is not fully understood, researchers believe they are a byproduct of our brain’s natural tendency to generate thoughts7. In some cases, intrusive thoughts can be triggered by stress, anxiety, or certain mental health conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)8.

It’s important to note that while people with these conditions may experience intrusive thoughts more frequently or intensely, having intrusive thoughts does not necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder9.

Coping Strategies for Intrusive Thoughts

If you find yourself grappling with intrusive thoughts, there are several strategies you can use to cope:

  1. Acknowledge and accept the thought: Recognise that the thought is simply that—a thought. It does not define you or reflect your true character10.
  2. Practice mindfulness and grounding techniques: Focus on the present moment and engage in activities that keep you grounded, such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation11.
  3. Challenge the thought’s validity: Question whether the thought is realistic or helpful. Remind yourself that thoughts are not the same as actions and that having a thought does not mean you will act on it12.
  4. Seek professional support: If intrusive thoughts are significantly impacting your daily life and causing you distress, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy have been shown to be particularly effective in managing intrusive thoughts13.

When to Seek Help

If intrusive thoughts are causing significant distress, interfering with your daily life, or leading you to engage in compulsive behaviours to neutralise them, it’s important to seek professional help14. A mental health professional can help determine if your intrusive thoughts are a symptom of a larger mental health condition and provide you with the tools and strategies to manage them effectively.


Intrusive thoughts can be alarming, distressing, and even downright scary, but it’s essential to remember that they are a common human experience. Having these unwanted thoughts does not make you a bad person or indicate that you will act on them15. By understanding the nature of intrusive thoughts, utilising coping strategies, and seeking help when needed, you can learn to manage them effectively and reduce their impact on your life.

Remember, you are not alone in this struggle. Millions of people experience intrusive thoughts16, and there is hope for finding relief. Don’t hesitate to reach out for support and know that with the right tools and mindset, you can reclaim your peace of mind and learn to coexist with these uninvited guests in your mind.


  1. National Science Foundation. (2005). [Average number of thoughts per day]
  2. Rachman, S. (1981). Part I. Unwanted intrusive cognitions. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy.
  3. Purdon, C., & Clark, D. A. (1993). Obsessive intrusive thoughts in nonclinical subjects.
  4. Baer, L. (2001). The imp of the mind: Exploring the silent epidemic of obsessive bad thoughts.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  6. Rachman, S. (1998). A cognitive theory of obsessions: Elaborations.
  7. Clark, D. A., & Rhyno, S. (2005). Unwanted intrusive thoughts in nonclinical individuals.
  8. Cromer, K. R., Schmidt, N. B., & Murphy, D. L. (2007). An investigation of traumatic life events and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  9. Julien, D., O’Connor, K. P., & Aardema, F. (2007). Intrusive thoughts, obsessions, and appraisals in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  10. Abramowitz, J. S., Tolin, D. F., & Street, G. P. (2001). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression.
  11. Hanstede, M., Gidron, Y., & Nyklíček, I. (2008). The effects of a mindfulness intervention on obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  12. Belloch, A., Morillo, C., & Giménez, A. (2004). Effects of suppressing neutral and obsession-like thoughts in normal subjects.
  13. Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1996). Psychological treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  14. National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
  15. Purdon, C. (2004). Empirical investigations of thought suppression in OCD. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.
  16. Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.