How To Manage Intrusive Thoughts

Updated December 21, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever experienced unwanted thoughts that appear out of nowhere and cause discomfort or unpleasantness? These are generally called "intrusive thoughts." While there's often no specific reason behind their appearance, they can become annoying and may affect your life.

If you're experiencing this, you are not alone: intrusive thoughts can be prevalent. According to one study that included participants in 13 countries, more than 93% of the individuals reported experiencing at least one intrusive thought during the previous three months. Read on to learn more about intrusive thoughts, strategies, and resources for additional help.  

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What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or images that arise in your head and may involve various topics. Some examples of intrusive thoughts could be thoughts of contaminating food, saying something inappropriate in front of others, acts of violence or doubt about doing something wrong. 

Intrusive thoughts often are not the result of an underlying condition. However, for some people, intrusive thoughts may be a symptom of a mental health condition, as detailed below. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

For individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts may feel more overwhelming and cause more severe disruptions. These intrusive thoughts or obsessions may cause a person to repeat behaviors (compulsions) because they hope these behaviors will help them end the views or lead to a better outcome.

For example, individuals who experience obsessive-compulsive thoughts may constantly worry about whether doors are locked or stoves are turned off. These thoughts may cause them to repeatedly lock and unlock doors to ensure the locks are working. While these thoughts may not be dangerous, they can affect one's quality of life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience intrusive thoughts that may be connected to a traumatic event. These thoughts may trigger symptoms of PTSD, such as increased heart rate and sweating. Sometimes, the ideas can be so severe that they lead to flashbacks and intense psychological distress.

Eating Disorders

People who have developed an eating disorder may experience intrusive thoughts that harm their mental health. These thoughts may result in frequent worry about food's impact on their physical body, which can lead to stress about eating. Sometimes, these intrusive thoughts can lead to problematic behaviors, such as binging and purging.

Learning To Identify And Live With Intrusive Thoughts

Experiencing intrusive thoughts can be frustrating, especially if you aren't sure what's causing them and they're getting into your daily life. Luckily, there are ways you can learn to manage these thoughts.

  1. Identify Your Triggers: Often, individuals who experience intrusive thoughts feel so consumed with them that they don't realize what's triggering them. Issues like a major life change, a deadline at work, or even a loud or crowded environment can create stress. Identifying and addressing your stressors may help you tame intrusive thoughts.
  2. Take Action: Identifying triggers is the first step in overcoming intrusive thoughts. When you've identified these triggers, it's time to address them. You may need to remove yourself from a stressful situation or plan your time so you do not feel pressured to meet strict deadlines. Anything you can do to reduce stressors will help alleviate intrusive thoughts.
  3. Practice Gratitude Through Daily Affirmations: One key component to overcoming intrusive thoughts is developing an attitude of gratitude. This is important because intrusive thoughts have a way of encouraging individuals to develop a negative self-perception. If you highlight the positive aspects of your life every day, it will help you keep things in perspective.
  1. Face Your Fears: This is an essential step in conquering intrusive thoughts, and it will likely require the assistance of a therapist. Many people experience fear, but not all of us may fully understand why that fear is there or the trustworthy source of it. During your treatment, a therapist can help you to uncover and address these fears safely.
  1. Talk About Your Feelings: Intrusive thoughts often shame individuals because they fear others won't understand. However, taking steps to talk about your feelings is one way to take control of the situation. Again, this is where a therapist can help, as they will allow you to discuss your thoughts and feelings in a safe non-biased environment while providing valuable tools and insights to help you better understand and cope with these feelings.

When You Need Help Dealing With Intrusive Thoughts

Learning to overcome intrusive thoughts is a process. Each day is a journey. While you may feel in control of your thoughts some days, there may be times when you need help processing and overcoming them. If intrusive thoughts have become a problem, talking to a counselor or a therapist and getting treatment may be helpful. You may want to reach out to someone in your area and schedule an appointment.

Need Help Managing Intrusive Thoughts?

However, online counseling is another great option if you're unsure about in-person counseling. BetterHelp offers a team of licensed, professional counselors dedicated to offering compassionate help to anyone in need. Their platform is completely discreet, and you may use it from the comfort of your home (or wherever you have an internet connection).

CBT For Intrusive Thoughts

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great way to address and overcome intrusive and compulsive thoughts. Nearly 400 universities and researchers have studied Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT). A review of all of these studies found that ICBT is not only overall just as effective as in-person therapy for treating a variety of issues (including OCD), but it's more beneficial in terms of cost-effectiveness, greater client satisfaction, and cognitive improvement, and reduced negative stigma as clients can attend therapy sessions comfortably from their home. Internet-based therapy, the studies found, also results in a significantly lower dropout rate than in-person therapy and is less time-consuming.

BetterHelp allows you to have sessions anytime, anywhere, though you will need an internet connection depending on how you decide to hold sessions. Sessions are fully customizable and can be conducted via video chat, phone calls, instant messaging/texting, or live voice recordings sent back and forth. It's also beneficial to those living in areas where in-person therapy is not an option and those with busy or non-traditional schedules, as our therapists are worldwide and operate at all times. A quick quiz will help match you with a suitable therapist. From there, you can chat with them initially and then schedule sessions if you feel they're a good fit or choose another therapist if you don't think they're a good match.

Please continue reading below for some reviews of our experience, board-certified counselors from people working through intrusive and difficult thought patterns.

Counselor Reviews

"Dr. Walker has been a gift to my life. He is a great counselor and filled with insight into thoughts that trouble your mind. He is comprehensive, compassionate, and caring. He creates a safe environment for you to be yourself and pushes to connect with you gracefully, yet he does it all so professionally. He is good at listening and giving you things to do throughout your week so you can practice them. He provides insightful articles, and he is entertaining. I highly recommend Dr. Bill."

"Donna is the best listener and made me feel super comfortable and heard right off the bat! She's been great at helping me re-direct my thoughts and focus. I like that I can chat; she asks questions that keep me on track or helps me see what I'm saying differently. I also appreciate the variety of worksheets she has sent me. They've been beneficial to me, especially in organizing my thoughts. I just recently felt ready to go back to therapy, and Donna has made me feel like I'm healing and moving forward."


Intrusive thoughts affect many people. Identifying the source of these thoughts makes it possible to address the root cause and overcome them. All you need are the right tools-take the first step today.

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