What To Do When You Experience OCD Intrusive Thoughts

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 06/21/2022

At some point in your life, you have probably had an intrusive thought. It’s a thought that comes out of nowhere, whispering to you something horrible or strange. But before moving on, please be assured that you are not the only one with these thoughts. 

According to a 2014 study, 94% of people experience intrusive thoughts at one point in their life. This research is telling; it explains that intrusive thoughts are emblematic of one’s humanity. It means that you are human and will not have perfect thoughts every moment of your life. 

Ethnic woman looking at fish in aquarium

There are ways to overcome these thoughts, especially if they are connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These OCD thoughts may become obsessive and continuous, and similar to intrusive thoughts, OCD thoughts can sometimes be difficult to “get rid of” even if they’re causing you distress. 

Before we get started, here is one important note: always remember that these thoughts are normal and not indicative of who you are as a person or what actions you might potentially take. It is extremely common to experience disturbing thoughts, and you can almost always simply let them go without punishing yourself or feeling guilty for having them. 

For more information about intrusive thoughts, please continue reading, and remember to understand that your thoughts do not always dictate your actions.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are upsetting thoughts that can come without warning. Often you can’t help but think of them, and sometimes worrying about them only seems to make them stronger. As a result, they can cause distress and become upsetting. 

These thoughts can be about many topics. They could be sexual, violent or disturbing, or even fantasies. They can happen at any time without any warning. As a result, there is no particular cause for them. Factors such as genetics and environment may play a role, but for the most part, intrusive thoughts appear suddenly in one moment and disappear without warning in the next moment. Often they crop up in moments when you feel certain anxiety. Your mind then seeks to “justify” that anxiety by presenting you with a thought or idea that it associates with those upsetting, anxious feelings.

These thoughts can be harmless on their own, but they have been known to combine with other mental health disorders, such as OCD.

What Is The Connection Between OCD And Intrusive Thoughts?

Obsessive-Compulsive disorder is when the brain sends signals to an individual that something is wrong, and the problem should be fixed immediately. OCD acts on the individual’s feared consequences of acting “wrong.”

For instance, if somebody cares about their family’s safety, OCD may send them an intrusive thought, telling them that if they left the stove on, the house might catch on fire, and their family will reap the consequences. Thus, OCD occurs when intrusive thoughts become uncontrollable. 

Tired man looking in mirror in bathroom

The result of OCD and intrusive thoughts is that the individual may conduct certain rituals to ensure that they are safe. An example could be if a person needs to lock their door before going to work multiple times. They may feel that they need to do this ritual because somebody could break into their home. 

Those with intrusive thoughts who also experience OCD may be more common than you think, with 2.3% of the population being affected by this connection. Taking a quiz can be a good starting point to assess if you want professional help. If you or somebody you care about may be experiencing OCD and disturbing intrusive thoughts, you can take this short quiz to provide some clarity. 

What Are The Early Signs Of OCD Impulsive Thoughts?

Before coming up with solutions to manage impulsive thoughts, let’s first outline OCD impulsive thoughts’ symptoms. Since there are subsets of OCD, symptoms vary from person to person.

The common thread with impulsive thoughts involves them causing distress, inducing panic, and making the person feel like a bad person. Common OCD examples of intrusive thoughts and compulsions include the following:

  • Fear of committing a terrifying act based on unwanted desires
    • For instance, a person may be afraid of an intrusive thought about betraying a loved one
  • A worry that an individual will exhibit sinful behavior due to their unwanted thoughts
    • They may believe that their thoughts are influencing their behaviors and are terrified that they are being compelled to perform blasphemous actions
  • Constantly doubting one’s identity
    • Those with intrusive thoughts may believe that their thoughts are putting certain parts of their identity into question

As a result of these invasive thoughts, people with OCD impulsive thoughts may develop compulsions to reduce or eliminate their anxiety surrounding impulsive thoughts. Signs of OCD compulsions include the following:

  • Repeating a ritual daily
    • For example, when a person leaves their home for work, they may lock their door four times. They may do this so that their thoughts about leaving their home unlocked for potential burglars can be eliminated. 
  • Dwelling on intrusive thoughts 
    • People may try to analyze their intrusive thoughts obsessively and trying to find a way to overcome them. 
  • Avoiding any places, people, or events that can trigger intrusive thoughts
    • Those with OCD intrusive thoughts may believe that their solution is to avoid the source of the problem altogether. 

The impact of these compulsive behaviors can negatively impact an individual’s lifestyle. By constantly ruminating on their intrusive thoughts or cycling through rituals, they may ignore their work or isolate themselves from family and friends. OCD symptoms in adults can affect their work and personal matters with family or loved ones. 

Photo Of Man Leaning On Wall

What Can An Individual Do When They Experience OCD Intrusive Thoughts?

Knowing the symptoms of OCD intrusive thoughts, the next question is how to live a fulfilling life despite having them. There is no right or single way to deal with these thoughts because all people are unique and have different experiences. 

But there are steps that you or a loved one can take right now. These steps are not foolproof plans. They also will not work right away. It may be easy to go back to one’s compulsive behaviors as a means of preventing intrusive thoughts. Despite the challenges, always try your best to overcome your intrusive thoughts healthily. 

Step 1: Understand that everybody has intrusive thoughts

The simplest thing that you can tell yourself right now is that you are not alone. Everybody has intrusive thoughts. They are a normal part of being human.

Being human means having a near-constant inner monologue. During this thinking process, one may have thoughts that sneak up on them without warning. Everybody gets this feeling, and these thoughts are not pleasant ordeals.

Ultimately, learn to accept your intrusive thoughts. Being human means acknowledging both the good and the bad in one’s life. People get the most out of their happiest moments because they know what it is like to be submerged in negativity. And individuals escape their bad moments because they understand what it feels like to emerge from these depths and enjoy moments of pure happiness. 

Step 2: Intrusive thoughts are not reality – they are just thoughts

Thoughts do not mirror reality. They are neither “good” nor “bad.” Those with OCD intrusive thoughts might label their intrusive thoughts as a poor reflection of their character. They might think that they are horrible people by having these thoughts, and they should feel awful for thinking of them.

As such, try to remove judgment from yourself by remembering that a thought is just a thought. Your thoughts do not represent your personality or actions in reality. They exist within the confines of your mind. 

Instead of thinking that an intrusive thought means that you are a bad person, acknowledge when you have such a thought and do not judge the thought. Furthermore, do not push these thoughts away. If you try to push them away or think about them too much, you might end up obsessing over these thoughts. These obsessions will develop compulsions, thus affecting your way of life. 

Step 3: Control your reactions to intrusive thoughts

Finally, try to not suppress your intrusive thoughts; instead, control how you react to them. OCD intrusive thoughts constantly bother individuals not because of the thoughts’ existence but because of how they are responding to those thoughts. People may respond to them either by repeating rituals, ruminating on them, or trying to push them out as much as possible.

Discover other ways to engage with your intrusive thoughts. For instance, do not analyze them. These thoughts do not mean anything to you. They do not represent your past, present, or future. 

Additionally, control your reaction towards them. You do not have to feel bad for having an intrusive thought. You don’t even have to think about them. If there is a particular intrusive thought that bothers you, think about all the good you have done for yourself or other people. The smallest act of kindness will matter so much in convincing yourself that you are not your thoughts. 

Photo of Woman in Deep Thought

Seek Out A Professional For Treatment Options

There are a few treatment options for intrusive thoughts that can help reduce its negative effect on one’s personal life. They may also help in conjunction with following the previously-outlined steps when one does experience an intrusive thought. The options are as follows:

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
    1. Also known as “talk therapy,” CBTallows you to discuss distressing thoughts with a mental health professional. Through these sessions, you or a loved one will learn different strategies and coping mechanisms to work through intrusive thoughts. 
    2. In controlled settings, your therapist will introduce your intrusive thoughts and use the practical experience to help you react to them in better ways. 
  2. Self-care
    1. You can practice lifestyle habits that will help you feel better about yourself despite your intrusive thoughts. You can follow through with a step-by-step plan in dealing with intrusive thoughts when they happen. 
    2. Another way is engaging in exercise or involving yourself in a hobby that makes you feel happy. One more thing to consider is eating healthier or keeping to a consistent sleep schedule. By taking care of your body’s needs, your reaction to intrusive thoughts may become better.
  3. Seeking support from family and friends
    1. Remember that there are people who love you and will help in any way that they can. Be that family or close friends; find at least one person you can confide in about your intrusive thoughts. It may be difficult to open yourself up to anybody, even your closest confidants. But the result is worth it, and you may have less difficulty dealing with intrusive thoughts because of your efforts. 

Conclusion

Intrusive thoughts happen to everybody and at any time without warning. So long as you know that they are happening and you can rely on your friends and family to help cope with these thoughts, you can overcome them. 

Maybe you will never stop having intrusive thoughts. But you can learn to stop suffering because of them. A positive goal would be reaching a point at which negative thoughts come into your head, and you simply let them drift away, as if on a cloud.