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Intrusive thoughts vs impulsive thoughts and how to manage them

August 28, 2023

You’re driving your car and a thought pops into your head, seemingly out of the blue: ‘what if I swerve onto the other side of the road into the oncoming traffic?’ You’re not sure where the thought came from and it’s not something that you want to do, but it leaves you feeling a little on edge. Thoughts like these are called intrusive thoughts. They’re completely normal and research shows that 94% of us have them.

What are intrusive thoughts?

You may have noticed that the topic of ‘intrusive thoughts’ was recently trending on TikTok. While it’s great that people are starting conversations about intrusive thoughts, it’s important to be mindful that the information we see on social media isn’t always accurate. With this in mind, we wanted to clear up a few misconceptions about intrusive thoughts and explain what they really are.

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts, images, urges or doubts that happen spontaneously and randomly. They’re often repetitive, so you may experience the same kind of thought over and over. This can be uncomfortable, disturbing or even distressing. Here are a few examples of what intrusive thoughts may look like:

  • Harming another person or yourself
  • Sexual acts or situations
  • Being an ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’ person
  • Religion and blasphemy
  • Germs and contamination
  • Making a serious mistake

Some people may worry that because a thought keeps happening, they must have a suppressed desire to act on the thought, however, this is absolutely not true. Intrusive thoughts are what we call ‘ego-dystonic’, which means that they’re the opposite of what we actually want and intend to do. So, just because you’ve had a thought, that doesn’t mean that you want to carry it out, or that you’re capable of it.

Intrusive thoughts, like intentionally hurting a loved one, taking your own life or blowing up a building, can cause people to feel a lot of shame and doubt, which can weigh heavily on their mental health. They may convince themselves that because these thoughts feel ‘wrong’, they must be a ‘bad person’ or even a criminal, but this isn’t the case at all.

Everyone has intrusive thoughts from time to time - the difference is that while most people can brush them off without too much effort, others (particularly those with OCD) may fixate on the thought and attach meaning to it. This may lead to them obsessing over the thought and going to lengths to try to prevent it from happening, which can have a negative impact on their mental health.

What are impulsive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts and impulsive thoughts are often mixed up, so we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the differences.

Unlike intrusive thoughts, impulsive thoughts are sudden urges or thoughts that lead to impulsive actions, without thinking through the consequences. For example, an impulsive thought could be going to a store and seeing a bag that you really like, then buying it without considering whether you can really afford it. Intrusive thoughts tend to be more emotionally disturbing and repetitive than impulsive thoughts, which only last for a short while.

Both impulsive and intrusive thoughts can be unpleasant, however it’s important that we distinguish between the two so we don’t confuse or minimise another person’s experience.

How to manage intrusive thoughts

1. Acknowledge the thought

When you realise that you’re having an intrusive thought, it’s important to acknowledge that that’s all it is; just a thought. Thinking and doing is not the same thing, and experiencing intrusive thoughts doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person who is capable of bad things. Instead of fighting the thought or worrying about it, accept that it’s happened, it’s normal and there’s no need to give it any attention.

2. Move on from the thought

If the thought is bothering you, take a step back and examine how realistic it is. Ask yourself if you would ever really behave that way, if you’ve done anything like that before and if there’s any evidence to support the idea that you’re a bad person. Remember, you know who you are - try not to let your imagination get carried away with false scenarios.

3. Get help if you need it

If intrusive thoughts are having a negative impact on your mental health, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help. CBT encourages you to challenge intrusive thoughts and teaches you methods to manage them. At ieso, we offer typed CBT, a text-based service with experienced therapists which can be accessed via our online platform. Visit our website to learn more.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.

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