Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD
What is OCDOCD SubtypesWhat does it mean if I have racist intrusive thoughts? 

What does it mean if I have racist intrusive thoughts? 

8 min read
Jessica Migala

By Jessica Migala

Reviewed by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Jan 26, 2024

Possibly related to:

Intrusive thoughts can be disturbing and distressing—and they may pop into your head at completely random times. As a trained therapist, I know that when they do, they might upset you so much that they send you into a thought spiral. 

Needless to say, if you’re a person with strongly held values about racial equality and justice, it may be particularly distressing if a random thought emerges in your mind that you find horrifying. Maybe you’re talking to a co-worker who belongs to a racial minority. Out of nowhere, a racist thought floats in your head that you find completely disgusting. Does this mean you’re actually a racist?

Or perhaps you’re in a group at a party and meet someone new. All seems to go well and everyone says hope to see you soon! and leaves pleasantly. But suddenly you’re hit with a worry: Did you say something extremely rude and offensive? Did the person you just met walk away upset at a racial remark you blurted out? What if you somehow blocked it from your memory?

Maybe you pull into the supermarket parking lot and find a great spot. As you head into the store, you see someone pull in and are hit by anxiety that maybe you actually meant to steal their spot because they belong to a certain race. 

All of these are examples of racial intrusive thoughts. Read on to understand what this all means, and how to get help. 

Do these experiences sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

Here at NOCD, we know how overwhelming OCD symptoms can be. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist who has experience treating OCD.

Learn more

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and distressing thoughts or memories, according to a 2022 study in PLOS Computational Biology. They can feel like they come out of nowhere, and can result in anything from momentary curiosity to overwhelming discomfort, sadness, or fright. In response, you may try to distract yourself, avoid the topic of your thought, or attempt to figure it out for certain.

“Everyone has intrusive thoughts,” says Patrick McGrath, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. “And even though they may be upsetting or disturbing, this is a normal, natural experience. There’s no problem with having intrusive thoughts.”  

Problems arise, however, when you see these thoughts as something bad on their own. This is called “thought-action fusion,” says Dr. McGrath, and it creates a dangerous spiral. An intrusive thought, image, or urge about hurting someone can feel equal to actually doing it; your brain might say “Why else would I have had that thought?” And you see those thoughts as not just fleeting, but as evidence that you’re a harmful or terrible person. In reality, however, these thoughts aren’t related to your actual values — often, they’re quite the opposite. 

It’s common to want to suppress these thoughts, but doing so sucks up a lot of cognitive resources, and doesn’t actually keep them from returning in the future, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Attempting to suppress an intrusive thought might make you feel better momentarily, but it ultimately strengthens these thoughts by teaching your brain that they are dangerous or threatening. This makes them more distressing and frequent over time, creating a cycle that tends to get worse when left untreated.

What makes it more likely you’ll experience intrusive thoughts?

You’re more likely to get stuck in the cycle of intrusive thoughts if:

  • You have OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder characterized by uncontrollable, distressing recurring thoughts, urges, or images (obsessions), and repetitive behaviors or mental acts done to neutralize the distress that results from those obsessions (compulsions). Intrusive thoughts in OCD often feel shameful or taboo, or oppose one’s values.
  • You have PTSD: Persistent intrusive memories related to the trauma you experienced is common in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), notes research.
  • You have depression: Thoughts that are hopeless, pessimistic, or involve death or suicide can be symptoms of depression, per the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • You have anxiety: Anxiety attempts to keep you safe by throwing a lot of ‘what if’ questions at you, and in return, throws you into a worry spiral about the future.
  • You’re stressed: Life stressors, even good ones, can make intrusive thoughts more likely, according to Harvard Medical School.
  • You didn’t get enough sleep last night: Sleep deprivation impairs certain areas of the brain that play a role in memory and emotion, setting the stage for unwanted thoughts to push though, suggests 2020 research in Clinical Psychological Science.

Keep in mind that PTSD, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia can all occur alongside OCD. If that is the case, then treatment involves addressing both conditions.

Are racist intrusive thoughts a sign of OCD?

You may get stuck in a cycle of intrusive thoughts if:

  • You have OCD. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder characterized by uncontrollable, distressing recurring thoughts, urges, or images (obsessions), and repetitive behaviors or mental acts done to neutralize the distress that results from those obsessions (compulsions). Intrusive thoughts in OCD often feel shameful or taboo, or oppose one’s values.
  • You have PTSD. Persistent intrusive memories related to trauma you’ve experienced is common in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to research.
  • You have depression. Feeling hopeless, pessimistic, or suicidal can be symptoms of depression, per the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • You have anxiety. Anxiety attempts to keep you safe by throwing a lot of “what if” questions at you, which can trigger a worry spiral about the future.
  • You’re stressed. Life stressors, even good ones, can make intrusive thoughts more likely, according to Harvard Medical School.
  • You didn’t get enough sleep last night. A 2020 study in Clinical Psychological Science found that sleep deprivation impairs certain areas of the brain that play a role in memory and emotion, setting the stage for unwanted thoughts to push through.

Keep in mind that PTSD, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia can all occur alongside OCD. If that is the case, then treatment involves addressing both conditions.

Access therapy that’s designed for OCD

NOCD Therapists have helped thousands of people who struggled with OCD regain their lives. I encourage you to learn about accessing ERP therapy with NOCD.

Learn about treatment with NOCD

Are racist intrusive thoughts a sign of OCD?

Not necessarily. Intrusive thoughts can be indicative of a number of mental health conditions, as described above. However, intrusive thoughts are a very common form of obsession that leads one to perform compulsions in OCD. One of the reasons why intrusive thoughts are so disturbing is not just their content — but that they are unpredictable.

Some of these unpredictable, negative and repetitive thoughts can surround race. In fact, so-called Race OCD is an OCD subtype in which people get sucked into a cycle of intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors out of fear of being racist. You may worry that you are acting racist, or that other people think you’re behaving in racist ways. You may even believe you must be a racist simply for having a racist thought appear in your head. With OCD, this worry or doubt can be extreme and fill you with a flood of guilt and shame. As a result, you engage in compulsions to neutralize these distressing feelings.

Often the compulsions done in response to this theme involve reassurance-seeking. You might engage in mental compulsions where you spend a lot of time going over what you did and said, and asking yourself if those things were racist or could have appeared racist. You may ask a friend repeatedly for confirmation that you did not accidentally blurt out something offensive in a conversation, or ruminate on doubts about having uttered a slur in the past. You might even start avoiding being around people of another race out of fear you might say or do something offensive.

And while OCD may cause you to seek reassurance, it never accepts it, says Dr. McGrath. You may ask a friend who was with you if they heard you say a racial slur, and they’d say no, of course not. You’d ask if maybe you whispered it, and they’d say they didn’t hear you say anything. “Aha!” your OCD would respond—it’s still possible that you could have said it, because there is no definitive proof otherwise. What if someone across the room secretly recorded you using the slur and it got blasted on social media, and then you lose your job…and the worries go on and on.

OCD takes everything to the umpteenth degree and presents it to you as an emergency. “This is the morally scrupulous area of OCD,” says Dr. McGrath. These are themes based on a fear that you’ve done something wrong or offensive to someone. “There is no limit to this. Your brain says that any pain you may have caused someone would be awful and horrible,” he explains. For example, you might worry that you walked too slowly in front of someone and caused them to slow down, and so they had to stop at the light, missed their bus, and then arrived late at the hospital where their mom had just died. In racial themes of OCD, you may fear that you walked slowly — and thus caused all of these things to happen — due to a subconscious racial motivation.

Keep in mind that OCD is an especially clever disorder. If you consider racial justice issues to be important and are focused on talking and behaving in a culturally appropriate way, “OCD will pick up on that, and you’ll be especially vigilant of how you’re talking or acting,” says McGrath.

In theory, that sounds like it would be a good thing — you want to act in a way that aligns with your values — but this constant hyper-awareness can backfire, causing you to anticipate all sorts of things that could go wrong, triggering more intrusive thoughts, and fears about the worst-case scenario.

NOCD Therapy user on phone

Recover from OCD with NOCD Therapy

World-class OCD treatment covered by insurance

NOCD therapy can help you live the life you want to live, not the life OCD wants you to live.

Learn more
Learn more about ERP
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff is a NOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD and anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism and a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books and hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures and traveling the world.