Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome ideas, memories or traumatic flashbacks that repeatedly find their way into a person’s thinking. This may include uncomfortable and disturbing thoughts about losing control, committing violent or perverted acts, fearing pain, fearing death or hurting other people. They may also include reliving unhappy or traumatic events and conversations, suffering flashbacks of suppressed memories or extreme anxiety about future events. While it is normal for everyone to have unpleasant, fearful or disturbing thoughts on occasion, intrusive thoughts become a problem when the person cannot dismiss them or distinguish between what is real and what is imagined.
How Common Are They?
Research shows that nearly 90% of people experience some form of unwelcome intrusive thinking. Most people dismiss these thoughts and quickly brush them off as unreasonable, senseless, or too painful to think about for long. Others may struggle more and not be able to let them go so easily. Compulsive, excessive or anxiety-ridden thoughts that overcome a person's thinking can cause a great deal of emotional, mental, and physical stress. These individuals may require professional help.
Causes and Symptoms
There are a variety of reasons that someone can have intrusive thoughts, but they often are a result of a extremely traumatic or frightening experience or a mental health problem. A person who was molested, for example, may suffer from painful flashbacks from post-traumatic stress. Some people become consumed by these memories for several days, completely disrupting their life with intense mental anguish, while others may experience intermittent, harassing thoughts that cause short-term anxiety.
In more serious cases, an individual experiencing a flashback may reverse his role in a painful situation. For example, a person who was molested may see himself as the person doing the molestation rather than as the victim. Others may experience the flashback as if they are a third person watching as the event takes place. This is often because the situation was so traumatic or frightening that the person cannot re-experience it in the first person.
A person who cannot let go of these disturbing thoughts may have trouble falling asleep at night or wake up with nightmares. He or she may become anxious and suffer from panic attacks. Some people become depressed because they fear that they will never be free of the thoughts. In some cases, sufferers may try to self-medicate, using alcohol and drugs to try to keep the thoughts from coming back; unfortunately, this often makes the anxiety, depression, and other symptoms even worse. The disturbing thoughts may become so intrusive that a person cannot function normally and is unable to hold down a job or accomplish everyday tasks effectively.
Intrusive thoughts cross the line into a more serious medical condition when individuals with certain psychological disorders are not capable of living a normal life. Rather than pushing the mental images from their mind, these individuals become focused on them. They are a major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
People with PTSD have experienced an extremely traumatic event that causes long-term psychological problems. Sufferers often have nightmares, flashbacks to the event, and intrusive memories and thoughts. They often feel angry and hopeless and distance themselves from family and friends; they may try to avoid situations that could trigger memories or flashbacks.
OCD is typically characterized by obsessive ideas and fears that become overwhelming. These intrusive thoughts may center on a fear of germs, a need for order, or something more aggressive or sexual. Individuals may act upon violent intrusive thoughts or they may obsess over their fear of following through with them. For example, a person may become consumed with the idea of stabbing an innocent person and go to great lengths to avoid all knives. People who have this disorder feel a very strong compulsion to follow through with their obsessions and can become extremely anxious if the cannot do so.
Mental health experts say that a small amount of intrusive thinking is completely normal for most people. Individuals who are troubled by occasional disturbing thoughts typically don't need any professional help and are able to rationalize their thinking and move on relatively quickly. People who find that they cannot let go of these thoughts or who are unable to function normally should seek out treatment.
The three most common types of therapy for people who suffer from intrusive thoughts are exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and drug therapy. Exposure therapy helps the patient face his or her fears directly in a safe environment so that the person can learn how to handle it. It is a common therapy for people with PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches the patient to face his fears by vocalizing them or confiding the memories to a mental health professional, close friend or confidante. This therapy helps the patient recognize when his or her thinking is negative or inaccurate and figure out how to better cope with situations that trigger disturbing thoughts.
Many patients suffering from underlying mental or medical conditions are also treated with medication to help them deal with some of the immediate symptoms. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications have been shown to help some people with OCD and PTSD. Anti-psychotic drugs may be used in severe cases, but the patient must be monitored for side effects or complications.