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Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts: An Introduction

Physical anxiety symptoms are what often drive people to seek help, because the physical symptoms of anxiety are often the most debilitating. But it's the intrusive thoughts of anxiety that are the cornerstone of an anxiety disorder.

Each disorder has its own type of intrusive thoughts, and these thoughts can so deeply occupy your mind that you may not be able to focus on your life or experience joy from your activities.

Do You Have Intrusive Thoughts?

Anxiety can make it hard to avoid thoughts you wish you could suppress. Take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your anxiety symptom severity, compare it to others, and find out more about controlling unwanted thoughts.

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What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that consistently enter your mind against your will. They're considered intrusive because you simply cannot get them out of your mind, and they often pop up at unusual moments. Intrusive thoughts may also occur in flashes, and often cause significant anxiety when they enter your mind.

Many people experience intrusive thoughts with anxiety, and they may cause significant distress. That's why it's so important that you find relief. If you haven't yet, take my 7 minute anxiety test.

There are many different types of intrusive thoughts, but they generally fall into these categories:

  • Unwanted Memories Though not often considered an "intrusive thought" in the medical sense, many people experience persistent, unwanted memories. Those with PTSD are especially prone to these types of memories, but anyone may have a memory that causes them significant distress, and those with anxiety are more likely to have that memory pop up at unwanted times.
  • Violent Thoughts Thoughts of violence and aggression may also be common in those with some types of anxiety, especially obsessive compulsive disorder. Generally, these are thoughts were the person imagines themselves doing violent/aggressive things. However, one could consider worries about danger happening to other people to be violent thoughts as well.
  • Sexual Thoughts Like violent thoughts, a person can have unwanted sexual thoughts. Sometimes these sexual thoughts are paired with religious-induced shame, while other times the sexual thoughts may also be somewhat violent in nature. These are also more common with those with specific types of anxiety disorders.

Still, any thought that comes at an inappropriate time may be considered an intrusive thought. Those with phobias may randomly experience a flash of the object that causes them fear, and in some cases that thought may be considered intrusive.

How Different Anxiety Disorders May Experience Intrusive Thoughts

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive compulsive disorder is the disorder most well-known for these types of problematic thought processes. They're considered "obsessions" because the person cannot stop the negative thought. These individuals often turn to their compulsions (like closing a door 3 times) in an effort to rid themselves of the image.

Fears are also intrusive thoughts. Those that have a fear of germs may see these germs on everything, and ultimately believe that the germs are going to cause illness and penetrate the skin. The thought then causes them to wash their hands regularly, or avoid dirty substances altogether.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

For GAD, the intrusive thoughts are rarely as graphic as those with OCD. Many with generalized anxiety disorder have worries that they cannot seem to get rid of, and often show themselves at unusual times. Someone with GAD may suddenly worry about a family member and will not be able to stop worrying until they speak to that person on the phone.

Social Phobia

Those with social phobia (and those with GAD, in some cases) may have problems getting over the "mistakes" they felt they made in the past. Someone with social phobia may constantly flash back to a time that they felt they embarrassed themselves, and this thought may jump into their minds at the most inopportune or inappropriate moments, causing significant distress.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Like those with social phobia, those with PTSD are also prone to flashbacks - in this case, their traumatic event. Often those with PTSD relive the event any time they come across a trigger. They may also relieve the events in dreams/nightmares, and at random times throughout the day. Once the traumatic event comes into their mind, they may find it hard to forget it.

Panic Disorder

Those with panic attacks have very different types of intrusive thoughts. Most often, their thoughts are simply about their panic attacks or their health. Some may think about their panic attacks all the time, worried that they'll have one. Others may worry about their health in general, or worry about a specific symptom - like whether or not they can get a full breath. For those with panic disorder, these thoughts can be so problematic that they actually increase the risk of having another panic attack.

Living With Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can become a serious issue, and are not limited to the examples above. The biggest question you need to ask yourself is whether or not these thoughts happen significantly enough and cause enough distress to be considered a problem. If they are, then you need treatment.

Many cognitive behavioral therapists are trained to teach people how to control their intrusive thoughts. There are also methods you can employ at home that will improve your ability to stay calm when these thoughts occur. In the long term, you'll need to discover ways to control your anxiety directly, because your anxiety is what causes these intrusive thoughts in the first place.

I've helped thousands of those with anxiety recover, but you have to start off with my free 7 minute anxiety test. It's the only way to get an idea what anxiety you're suffering from and the best way to treat it.

Start the test here.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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