Intrusive vs Impulsive Thoughts

Intrusive vs Impulsive Thoughts

Published On: February 28, 2024

As a therapist, many clients come to me feeling distressed about the thoughts that they are having. I find that they are even more upset whenever their thoughts are very incongruent with how they actually feel or want to behave. This often creates a lot of shame, and I find that they begin questioning their self-worth. 

I find it useful to share psychoeducation about intrusive and impulsive thoughts to normalize the human experience, and reduce feelings of abnormality. Most people will experience intrusive or impulsive thoughts at times. The key to preventing significant harm is to refrain from getting hung up on the thoughts or acting upon them. 

Here’s exactly what intrusive and impulsive thoughts are and how they compare.

What Makes Intrusive Thoughts Different from Impulsive Thoughts?

Types of Thoughts

People often have difficulty differentiating intrusive thoughts from impulsive thoughts. However, there are some key differences between the two.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, distressing, and often uncontrollable thoughts that pop up in your mind. They can be repetitive and persistent, and they usually cause anxiety and distress. These thoughts may revolve around violence, sex, or religion, and they can be very distressing for the person experiencing them. Intrusive thoughts are often associated with mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, or depression.

On the other hand, impulsive thoughts are sudden and often unplanned thoughts that can lead to impulsive behavior. These thoughts can be related to anything, such as spending money, eating unhealthy food, or engaging in risky behavior. Impulsive thoughts are usually not distressing, but they can lead to negative consequences.

The main difference between the two is that intrusive thoughts are unwanted and often cause significant distress, while impulsive thoughts are not necessarily unwanted and do not typically cause major distress.

If you are experiencing intrusive thoughts, it is important to seek treatment from a mental health professional. A licensed therapist may utilize therapeutic interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or mindfulness-based therapy, as they can be effective in treating intrusive thoughts. If necessary, you may choose to pursue medication in addition to therapeutic support. Psychiatrists may prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to help manage symptoms.

If you are experiencing impulsive thoughts, it is important to consider the potential consequences of acting on those thoughts. Therapy is also helpful for working through impulsive thoughts, as it can be effective in helping you learn to manage impulsive behavior.

Overall, it’s important to be aware of the differences between intrusive and impulsive thoughts and to seek appropriate support if you are experiencing distressing thoughts.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and involuntary thoughts, images, or memories that pop into your mind and cause significant anxiety or distress. 

These thoughts are relatively normal and can happen to anyone at any time. I find that they can be more frequent and intense for people diagnosed with certain mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

They can be about any topic, including violence, religion, sexual orientation, suicide, germs, worries, or shame. They can involve doubts, urges, habits, negative thoughts, or paranoid thoughts. People experiencing intrusive thoughts may feel overwhelmed and find the thoughts difficult to control. When left unattended, intrusive thoughts can interfere with your daily life and relationships so it’s important to address them.

Examples of Intrusive Thoughts

Here are some examples of intrusive thoughts:

  • You suddenly have a violent thought about hurting someone you love.
  • You have a sexual thought about a family member or a friend.
  • You imagine yourself jumping off a bridge or a building.
  • You have a thought that you might have contaminated yourself with germs.
  • You doubt your sexuality or your gender identity.
  • You feel guilty about something that happened in the past.
  • You obsess over a mistake you made or a fear you have.
  • You compulsively check things or perform rituals to prevent harm.

It’s important to note that having intrusive thoughts does not mean you are a bad person or that you will act on them. They are just thoughts, and you have the power to choose how to respond to them. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation can be helpful in learning to observe and accept your thoughts without judgment or resistance. For those who are finding themselves significantly distressed by intrusive thoughts, seeking professional help from a therapist or a mental health provider can be life changing. 

What Are Impulsive Thoughts?

Similar to intrusive thoughts, impulsive thoughts are sudden and often irrational ideas that pop into your mind without warning. They are automatic and involuntary, and they can be difficult to control. Unlike intrusive thoughts, impulsive thoughts typically do not cause major distress. Although they usually do not cause emotional harm, they may still have consequences that may be harmful to yourself or others.

Examples of Impulsive Thoughts include:

  • Making impulsive decisions without thinking about the consequences
  • Acting on impulse without considering the risks
  • Feeling the urge to do something without any real reason
  • Saying something without thinking about how it will affect others

People experiencing certain mental health disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may be more prone to impulsive thoughts or have more difficulty refraining from engaging in the impulsive thought.

It’s important to remember that having impulsive thoughts does not make you a bad person. With the right treatment and support, you can learn to manage your impulsive thoughts and live a healthy, fulfilling life.

How to Manage Unwanted Thoughts

Managing Unwanted Thoughts

Dealing with unwanted thoughts can feel overwhelming and distressing, but there are ways to manage them effectively. Here are some tips to help you manage unwanted thoughts:

1. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and accepting your thoughts without judgment. By practicing mindfulness, you can learn to observe your thoughts without getting wrapped up in them, which can help you to let go of unwanted thoughts and reduce their impact on your life.

2. Seek Professional Help

If your unwanted thoughts are causing significant distress or interfering with your daily life, it may be helpful to seek professional help. A licensed mental health therapist can help you to identify the underlying causes of your unwanted thoughts and develop strategies to manage them. 

3. Challenge Your Thoughts

Unwanted thoughts often involve negative or irrational beliefs. By challenging these thoughts, you can reframe them in a more positive and realistic way. 

For example, if you have an intrusive thought about hurting someone you love, you may challenge this thought by reminding yourself that you have no intention of acting on it and that it is just a thought. This reminds you that you are in control of your behaviors.

4. Practice Self-Care

Taking care of yourself can help to reduce the impact of unwanted thoughts on your life. This includes things like getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise. Self-care also involves engaging in activities that you enjoy, such as hobbies or spending time with friends and family.

5. Consider Medication

If you’ve implemented some of these tips and are not seeing progress, medication may be helpful. I encourage people to seek out an evaluation from a psychiatrist that specializes in treating unwanted thoughts.

Closing Thoughts

People often experience shame and guilt whenever they are struggling with unwanted thoughts. I want to remind you that you are not your thoughts, and that you do not have to believe every thought that you have. You may mindfully acknowledge the thought, label it is as an intrusive or impulsive thought, and choose not to act on it. Separating yourself from your thoughts is often a crucial first step in overcoming intrusive or unwanted thoughts.