Do intrusive thoughts mean anything?
Do you ever experience random, unpleasant thoughts that seem to come from nowhere? Perhaps you have embarrassing memories or unwanted thoughts about something that you did, or thoughts about potentially doing something that you don’t actually want to do? If so, you have intrusive thoughts. For purposes of this article, “intrusive thoughts” will also include other types of mental events, such as intrusive images or urges.
While these thoughts are entirely normal, it’s natural to wonder what they mean and whether they carry any significance. For some people, like those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), these questions can feel incredibly stressful and pressing. To address these concerns and shed some light on what, if anything, intrusive thoughts mean, we spoke to Dr. Patrick McGrath, psychologist and Chief Clinical Officer here at NOCD.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are different from non-intrusive or “regular” thoughts in that they are:
- Involuntary: Some thoughts we generate or author, and others occur to us or pop into our minds unwilled. Intrusive thoughts do not happen voluntarily.
- Unpleasant: Intrusive thoughts feel bad. If a thought feels good, it won’t feel intrusive.
- Ego-dystonic: Intrusive thoughts are typically opposed to one’s genuine beliefs, intentions, and values.
- Potentially absurd: Intrusive thoughts can have a fantastic or bizarre quality.
Do intrusive thoughts mean anything?
Because intrusive thoughts are often about unusual or distressing topics, such as harming others, it’s normal to wonder whether they are important or warrant our attention.
Dr. McGrath notes that whether an intrusive thought feels meaningful to someone is highly personal and subjective. “I work with people who believe their thoughts have a ton of meaning. As the therapist, I could have the exact same thought they have and not be bothered by it whatsoever and not see the thoughts as meaning anything at all. If the thoughts had meanings baked into them, it wouldn’t matter who experienced them—they would actually be worthy of attention.”
So, whether a thought feels meaningful depends on the person experiencing it. The themes of intrusive thoughts aren’t necessarily important, but we may wonder whether intrusive thoughts are meaningful in the sense that they tell us something important about ourselves, who we are, or what we believe and want.
There is a sense in which intrusive thoughts can carry this type of meaning, but not in the way you might expect, and certainly not in the way that OCD can lead people to believe. Here’s a quick overview of what intrusive thoughts are and aren’t evidence for.
What intrusive thoughts don’t mean
They don’t mean you have immoral desires
One concern is that having intrusive thoughts means you want whatever “bad” thing they involve. For example, someone experiencing an intrusive mental image of hurting a family member might wonder whether this suggests that, deep down, this is what they want to do. As pressing as this concern can feel, intrusive thoughts don’t lead to violent or unwanted actions. For example, you could think of a friend falling down right now, but it does not mean that they will. Of course, they could, but it would have nothing to do with any thoughts you have or don’t have.
They aren’t evidence that you’ll do something bad
A similar concern is that intrusive thoughts mean you’ll do whatever actions they represent. In the example above, the person with the intrusive image may fear that they are likely to physically harm their friend. The intrusive thoughts that individuals with OCD experience often involve some sort of “what if?” about the possibility that their thoughts could create responsibility for something happening. They are not evidence that you’ll do morally reprehensible things, because intrusive thoughts, by definition, are not reflections of your genuine beliefs and values.
They don’t mean you’re a bad person
If you feel that your intrusive thoughts reveal what you want or what you are going to do, and the intrusive thoughts you have involve doing bad things, you might jump to the conclusion that you’re a bad person. Thought-action fusion (TAF) can make this worse. This refers to the belief that thinking about doing something is morally equivalent to actually doing it. But since intrusive thoughts don’t mean you want what they represent, and since thoughts are not morally equivalent to actions, they say nothing negative about your moral character.
They don’t predict the future
In many cases, intrusive thoughts are about bad outcomes that might come to pass. For example, one might have an intrusive thought of their plane crashing or coming down with a severe illness. These thoughts can feel so real and so urgent that one might think that they hold significance about real-world events. In reality, they mean no such thing, and convey no meaning beyond what one imparts to them.
What intrusive thoughts might mean
They can mean you have a normal, healthy mind
“Everybody in the world experiences intrusive thoughts,” shares Dr. McGrath, emphasizing the common nature of these uncomfortable psychological events. Since intrusive thoughts are a near-universal experience, they may simply mean that you have an ordinary, healthy mind that tends to send out wacky thoughts from time to time.
They can reveal what you believe you shouldn’t be thinking, feeling, or doing
While intrusive thoughts don’t directly reflect your wants, desires, and values, they may indirectly reveal the opposite: what you feel is bad to think or do. This is because believing that you shouldn’t think something only makes it more likely that you’ll think it. Suppose I told you not to think about pink elephants. What’s the next thought that pops into your mind? A pink elephant, of course. This general mechanism can serve as a partial explanation for why one has the intrusive thoughts that they do. For example, you might have intrusive thoughts about driving into oncoming traffic precisely because that is something you believe you should avoid doing or thinking—the same applies to many other intrusive thoughts.
Do intrusive thoughts mean I have OCD?
OCD is a mental health condition characterized by two primary symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are persistent and recurring intrusive thoughts that cause significant distress and interfere with one’s ability to function. Compulsions are mental or physical behaviors performed in response to obsessions to alleviate the unpleasant emotions they cause or to prevent an unwanted outcome.
While intrusive thoughts are a universal experience and are generally no cause for concern, they may indicate that you have OCD, depending on your experience. Here’s what to look out for in order to determine if you may have OCD:
#1: You worry a lot about what your intrusive thoughts mean
Though intrusive thoughts can make one wonder what they mean or whether they are significant, they have no meaning or significance beyond the meaning and significance that we give them. It’s important to realize that just because we feel something strongly does not mean that it is true.
#2: You perform compulsions
Performing compulsions in response to intrusive thoughts is a strong sign that you have OCD. These are not behaviors that people without OCD engage in.
#3: You change your plans because of them
Most people don’t let intrusive thoughts get in the way of what they want to do. If you avoid doing what you want because of intrusive thoughts, they might be a symptom of a condition like OCD.
#4: They cause a significant amount of stress
Though intrusive thoughts are about unpleasant topics, people without OCD generally don’t experience much stress when they have them. They may feel brief discomfort, but beyond that, the impact of these thoughts is limited. For people with OCD, this is not the case. Because they attribute so much meaning and significance to intrusive thoughts, these thoughts can provoke a wide range of intensely negative emotions, including anxiety, stress, fear, and shame.
#5: You can’t stop thinking about them
Intrusive thoughts can be more or less attention-grabbing. People without OCD tend to find that they can let go of intrusive thoughts relatively easily, while those with the condition typically have trouble moving on from them. If you find that you often can’t focus on anything else once you have a distressing intrusive thought, OCD might be the culprit.
Why do intrusive thoughts feel so important?
You might still have a nagging feeling that your intrusive thoughts mean something. So where does this impression come from, and why is it so hard to shake?
Dr. McGrath gives a two-part answer to this question. First, he notes that one reason they feel so important is simply “because of the meaning that we assign to them.” In other words, it’s because we think that they reveal our concealed desires or show what awful things we might do that they seem so significant—in reality, it’s quite the opposite.
For people with OCD, Dr. McGrath has a second explanation. He highlights how intrusive thoughts actually “trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response,” which is why they feel so real. “Intrusive thoughts can make you feel just like you would have had somebody jumped out from behind the wall and scared you,” he shares. “They provoke a similar kind of reaction.” The problem comes from the fact that when we experience these fight-or-flight feelings, they usually indicate real danger, making it natural to feel that intrusive thoughts mean the same thing because they provoke the same response. As Dr. McGrath notes, people with OCD may think something like “99.9% of the time I’ve ever felt that feeling in my life was because of something that was actually dangerous. And now this thought, image, or urge is causing that same feeling, so it must also be a sign of danger.”
How to respond to uncomfortable intrusive thoughts
While there is no way to make sure you never have another intrusive thought, there are things you can do to make them less frequent and stressful. Here are a few suggestions.
First, it’s worth remembering that everyone has them. Intrusive thoughts can feel more meaningful or stressful if you think no one else is experiencing similar. But if you remind yourself of the fact that everyone has intrusive thoughts, they might not trigger as much stress, and you’ll have an easier time letting them go.
It’s also important not to read into them or assign meaning to them. Our minds are wired to generate random weird thoughts occasionally, and there’s not much more to them than that. At most, they tell you what you think you shouldn’t be thinking, which is no cause for concern. So try to avoid working to figure out what they mean.
While you shouldn’t be overanalyzing them, you don’t want to try to avoid them or fight them off, either. In fact, the more you try to force away an intrusive thought, the harder it will fight back. So, instead of struggling with them, let them pass freely through your mind.
Most importantly, don’t try to neutralize them with compulsions. Though this may provide temporary relief, it will only result in more intrusive and distressing thoughts in the long run.
Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."
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I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
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When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
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I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.