What You Need To Know About Intrusive Thoughts

woman, thoughtful, thinking
Lourdes Balduque/Moment/Getty Images

There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about mental health and mental illness in our society. One example is intrusive thoughts, which you might not know by name, but have likely seen represented in the media. What are intrusive thoughts? Probably not what you think. While many people erroneously associate intrusive, repeated thoughts with a sign that someone is "evil" or "fixated" on causing harm to themselves or others — or worse, that someone's thoughts or obsessions reveal their true, "evil" nature or humanity — the reality is very different. What we think about is often outside of our conscious control; indeed, for anyone who suffers from anxiety, we all know first hand how very true that is if we could turn our thoughts off, we would.

Although not recognized as a diagnosis of their own in the DSM-5 (basically the Gray's Anatomy of psychology), intrusive thoughts as a symptom correlate with many anxiety-based conditions, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As explained by the National Institute of Mental Health, people who experience unwanted thoughts can fixate on any number of things, including "fear of germs, dirt, or intruders; acts of violence; hurting loved ones; sexual acts; conflicts with religious beliefs; or being overly tidy." While intrusive thoughts are often associated with trauma or phobias, they can develop about anything, and are not the same for everybody.

Find five key things to know about intrusive thoughts below. If some of these ring true for you, don't hesitate to talk to a mental health professional; your mental health always matters.

Intrusive Thoughts Can Happen At Any Age

Intrusive thoughts can impact people of any age. The NIMH explains that many anxiety disorders and symptoms manifest before the age of 19, including intrusive thoughts and/or OCD, but they still can develop at other times in life, too. It's normal for intrusive thoughts to fluctuate based on other issues, like your stress level, throughout your life as well.

Having Intrusive Thoughts Is Not The Same As Acting On Them

As Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., points out at Psychology Today, having intrusive thoughts does not necessarily mean that will you act on these thoughts. Writes Leahy, "People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder think, 'If I think I will lose control, I will' or 'If I think that Satan might possess me, he will,'" but the truth is that having these thoughts does not mean they are reality. In fact, Leahy says, allowing yourself to think your thoughts and not suppress them is actually healthier than trying to bury them entirely.

Intrusive Thoughts Can Be Debilitating

For people who experience intrusive thoughts, it can feel debilitating. As explained at OCD information and support project, some people who experience intrusive thoughts end up having elaborate rituals, checks, or repeated conversations as a means of dealing with their unwanted thoughts. These can have a huge impact on your work, social life, and personal happiness when these things become obsessions or take up dramatic amounts of time or energy.

Intrusive Thoughts Happen To Everybody

As Hannah Reese, Ph.D., explains at Psychology Today, everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at some point or another. She uses her example of being a mother and at points having horrible images of her child being injured. While certainly upsetting, these intrusive thoughts are not necessarily "abnormal" or unusual in themselves.

There Are Ways To Get Help

Like with many mental health issues, people who suffer from intrusive thoughts often feel very alone and misunderstood. Luckily, as the NIMH explains, there are ways to get help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tends to be particularly useful as it helps break behaviors and rituals associated with intrusive thoughts, as well as healthy coping skills. Some people also take medication to help with symptoms. The point is, this isn't something you need to live with alone.

Images: Lourdes Balduque/Moment/Getty Images; Giphy