We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at home, minding your own business, when suddenly you find yourself thinking about doing something you know is wrong. Maybe it’s an impulse to punch someone in the face or an uncontrollable urge to throw your computer out the window. Whatever it is, you know it’s not normal and would be terrible if you gave in to it.
But these are just thoughts, right? They’re not real actions. They’re just passing fancies that will come and go without any real consequence. And they’re so easy to ignore — especially when you realize how ridiculous they are.
So why do some people get obsessed with their intrusive thoughts? Why do they find themselves unable to make them go away? And why are these thoughts so confusing?
Impulsive versus intrusive thoughts seem to be a topic both psychologists and the general population are interested in. So this article will first explain impulsive and intrusive thoughts, then attempt to differentiate between them, and ultimately, discuss how to deal with them.
Understanding Impulsive Thoughts
Impulsive thoughts are usually about things that are ‘forbidden’. They’re about something you know you should not do but want to do anyway. Some common examples of impulsive thoughts include:
- Sudden Urges to Spend: “I need to buy that new phone, even though I can’t afford it, and my old one works fine.”
- Inclination Towards Risk: “I should quit my job right now, no notice, I’m bored of it anyway.”
- Inappropriate Comments: “I want to tell him exactly what I think about his opinion, even though it might start an argument.”
- Compulsive Eating: “I’ll eat another slice of cake even though I’m already full.”
- Abrupt Decisions: “I’m going to book a last-minute vacation even though I have work commitments.”
- Risky Behavior: “I feel like driving fast right now for the thrill of it, irrespective of the potential dangers.”
- Neglecting Responsibilities: “I don’t feel like doing my assignment now; I’d rather go out with friends.”
Impulsive behavior is the tendency to act on a whim without thinking about the consequences. Impulsivity is often associated with the inability to resist an impulse or the need to act immediately. It can be harmful to one’s health and well-being. This can include:
- Delinquency, including stealing and shoplifting
- Violence and aggression toward others, including domestic violence and abuse
- Substance abuse, such as alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs
- Sexual promiscuity
- Poor eating habits (e.g., eating disorders)
Understanding Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts can be about:
- violence – for example, seeing yourself hitting someone or feeling angry at someone for no reason;
- sex – for example, having sexual thoughts about someone who does not want them;
- anxiety – for example, worrying that you or someone else will get ill or die;
- addiction – for example, thinking about taking drugs or alcohol even though you know it would harm you;
- religion – for example, believing that God is telling you to do something wrong;
Many situations can trigger intrusive thoughts. The following list includes a few of the most common triggers:
1. Stressful situations. Stressful situations often lead to intrusive thoughts. If you’re under a lot of stress at work or home, you may have a higher chance of having intrusive thoughts.
2. Negative self-talk. You might think your negative thoughts are true or rational, but they aren’t necessarily accurate or helpful. They can also be inaccurate and irrational — for example, if you think someone is staring at you because they hate you when they don’t care about you at all, this is an inaccurate thought (and an intrusive one).
3. Obsessing over mistakes or failures in the past (self-blame) and regretting things that happened are common triggers for unpleasant thoughts and feelings about yourself, others, and life in general (guilt, shame, regrets).
4. Dealing with traumatic events such as death or illness in anyone close to us (including ourselves), abuse, or neglect as children or adults.
The nature of these intrusive thoughts varies depending on the type of mental health condition they’re associated with. For example, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder may experience disturbing thoughts that they’ve harmed someone or committed a crime (obsessions). Or, people with post-traumatic stress disorder may have flashbacks about their traumatic event (intrusive memories).
The Overlap Between Impulsive and Intrusive Thoughts
Impulsive and intrusive thoughts are both very common. They can be upsetting and even scary, but they don’t mean that you have a mental illness.
Impulsive thoughts are unwanted ideas, urges, or images that pop into your head. These may include the urge to hit someone or steal something. You may also have had sexual thoughts about people who aren’t your partner.
Intrusive thoughts are when you keep repeating a certain thought despite not wanting to think it. This might include worries about hurting someone, having evil thoughts, or being bad.
|Type of Thoughts
|Sudden, unplanned urges, or ideas that may lead to spontaneous actions without considering the consequences
|Unwanted, involuntary thoughts, images, or ideas that can cause significant distress or anxiety
|Relationship with Mental Health Disorders
|Often associated with disorders like ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder
|Associated with disorders like OCD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
|Effect on mental well-being and life
|Can lead to strained relationships, financial issues, legal problems, or mental health challenges
|Can cause significant distress, anxiety, guilt, and overall impact on quality of life
|Triggered by Situations
|Emotional excitement, stress, personality traits, or psychological disorders
|Stressful situations, unresolved conflicts, perceived threats, or psychological disorders
|Difficulty in Managing and Controlling
|Requires coping mechanisms, mindfulness techniques, and distress tolerance strategies
|Requires coping mechanisms, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and mental health intervention
|Reaction Formation as a Coping Mechanism
|Might suppress or avoid impulsive thoughts/actions by engaging in opposite or socially acceptable behavior
|Might suppress or avoid intrusive thoughts by occupying the mind with other activities or thoughts
|Potential for Negative Outcomes
|Actions resulting from impulsive thoughts can have negative consequences on one’s life
|Intrusive thoughts can cause intense distress, interfere with daily functioning, and impact mental health
Coping Techniques for Impulsive Thoughts
Amid an impulse, it can seem impossible to think clearly. But there are ways to help you cope and manage. If you’re having a strong, impulsive thought, try these coping strategies:
1. Stay calm. Don’t panic or start to feel anxious or stressed. This will only make things worse.
2. Take a deep breath. Focus on your breathing and how it’s going into your nose and down into your lungs.
3. If you’re having an intrusive thought that bothers you, try to distract yourself with something else until the thought passes. This might involve doing something physical like walking or cleaning up around the house, going out with friends, or reading a book. Just do anything other than thinking about your intrusive thoughts!
4. Ask yourself if you need to do what you think about doing. For example, if you’re tempted to buy something online but don’t need it, ask yourself if it’s worth spending on something you don’t need right now. In most cases, the answer will be ‘no’!
Coping Techniques for Intrusive Thoughts
It can be hard to know how to respond when you have an intrusive thought. Here are some tips:
1. Don’t force the thought out of your mind. The more you resist, the stronger it will become. Instead, accept that this is just one of many thoughts that run through your mind daily and focus on something else.
2. Realize that thoughts don’t have any power over you unless you give them power. Thoughts are just thoughts — they aren’t facts! You don’t have to respond to them if you don’t want to, and if you do choose to, it’s okay if your reaction is different from what you would like it to be (e.g., “I’m going crazy!”).
3. Focus on what’s happening now instead of dwelling on your thoughts and feelings. This can help bring your attention back to the present moment, where more things are happening than just your mind!
4. Write down the thought on paper or in a journal, then throw it away or tear it up when you’re done. This will help you eliminate the thought without worrying about keeping it secret or having dirty hands afterward.
Taking Charge of Your Thoughts
Impulsive thoughts cause you to act without thinking. Intrusive thoughts bother you and don’t go away. Impulsive thoughts are fleeting—you’ll have them for a short while, and then they’ll disappear into the background of your mind. Intrusive thoughts torment you—they linger in your consciousness, fighting to give way to other thoughts but always returning like an annoying pop song that won’t go away.
The key to conquering your impulsive thoughts is first to realize that having them is normal and second to learn effective ways to navigate them. Whether you avoid, accept, or express them directly, try to remind yourself that these thoughts are a regular part of being human and that it’s okay if they’re present.
The more time you spend letting go of the shame revolving around your impulsive thoughts, the easier it will be to redirect your attention to the things you care about most.