Let’s Talk About Intrusive Thoughts

Featured Illustration: Aasma Qureshi

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Trigger warning: discussion of intrusive thoughts

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Sometimes my thoughts scare me. It’s not uncommon that I’ll be doing something mundane and a frightening thought suddenly appears in my mind. Quite often I ruminate on them and they get stuck on an uncontrollable loop so intense that I want to crawl out of my own brain. These thoughts worsen my already persistent anxiety, at which point it becomes all too easy to drown in the whirlpool of distress that these thoughts create.

Up until recently, I thought that this was an experience unique to me. I honestly thought that there was just something inherently wrong with me and that nobody else experiences worrying thoughts against their will. But then I came across a particular video on TikTok. The original poster wrote that they wonder how many people have intrusive thoughts but don’t talk about them because of how weird they are; because they thought that people would shun and vilify them if they spoke openly about it, and so they suffer in silence. In the comment section, people shared details of their own experiences with intrusive thoughts and how, as I did, they thought nobody else would understand. Given that the video has over 170,000 likes and 7,000 comments, I started thinking about just how many of us are suffering in silence, despite how common this is.

As defined by Healthline, intrusive thoughts are thoughts that “seem to be stuck in your mind”. They can be very upsetting, since the thoughts may be about things we find disturbing and inappropriate. Despite how unwanted and unprovoked these thoughts are, they can become repetitive, which causes further anxiety. Intrusive thoughts are associated with a number of mental health conditions, namely Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). With OCD, these intrusive thoughts can become obsessions that cause a person to repeat specific behaviours in an attempt to prevent the thought from reoccurring. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can also trigger intrusive thoughts that are related to a specific traumatic event.

While intrusive thoughts are largely associated with specific conditions, there is evidence to suggest that those without these conditions experience them also. An international study from 2014 looked at 777 university students from 13 different countries and concluded that 94% of people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, and/or urges. The study, which was published in The Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, involved participants across six different continents.

So, even though the majority of people seem to have intrusive thoughts, it seems like something we have yet to really acknowledge and then discuss appropriately. Intrusive thoughts can be serious, as they can trigger anxiety and in turn low self-esteem. Destigmatising the topic would be a great service to people like those in the comment section of the abovementioned TikTok — people who think they aren’t normal.

We absolutely need to have more open and honest conversations about what people often consider the ‘darker side’ of mental health.

Discourse on mental health has to go beyond narrow discussions on depression and anxiety, which are more commonly acknowledged and somewhat less stigmatised than other severe illnesses. Research has shown that many of the symptoms of severe mental illnesses — such as talking to oneself aloud, poor impulse control, and strong mood swings, many of which are indicative of mania — are behaviours that frighten others. This fear generates a powerful stigma, which in turn creates negative and discriminatory stereotypes of people with certain mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and bipolar disorder) as ‘dangerous psychopaths’.

I have gone years without ever learning that having intrusive thoughts is an issue that other people face too, and I hope that writing openly about this can help someone else realise that they are not alone. Shrouding these experiences in shame does nothing for anyone — in fact, it does the opposite — it’s counterproductive. Stigmatising these experiences prevents people from seeking support in both others that can relate and mental health professionals that are there to help.

The fact that I didn’t know my experience is so common, or that it even had a name, meant that I had no idea that there are resources available to help me cope. My experience with mindfulness-based therapy has helped me to acknowledge these thoughts as exactly that: thoughts. Thoughts can be fleeting and illogical, with no inherent meaning, but when we ruminate and begin to engage with intrusive ones, they can become harmful. Reminding yourself that these thoughts have no fundamental meaning or significance, and are not something we choose, can also be helpful. These thoughts are not a reflection of you who are as a person, or of your character. An article from Bustle lists eight powerful ways a person can manage intrusive thoughts, including practicing mindfulness, consulting a professional if possible, reaching out to a friend, and learning what triggers these thoughts for you.

If you experience intrusive, unwanted thoughts that you find troubling, utilising healthy coping mechanisms is essential. Let’s start talking about the things we don’t talk about enough, so as to let others know that they are not alone.