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Intrusive Thoughts and Intrusive Images

Updated on November 23, 2012

Are intrusive thoughts or intrusive images affecting your daily functioning??

Intrusive thoughts and intrusive images are repetitive thoughts or images which intrude into our everyday lives so much so that our daily functioning is affected.

Everyone has experience of being preoccupied by a worrying thought or idea in a time of stress. We might fear for the safety of our loved ones when they are away from us or worry about our own health symptoms and what they may indicate.

Intrusive thoughts and intrusive images are not healthy and, once recognized, there are many ways to address them.


What are intrusive thoughts and intrusive images?

Intrusive thoughts and intrusive images are unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate (OCD Action).

Typical topics of intrusive thoughts or intrusive images include:

  • harming someone physically/sexually (a child, a close friend, a family member, passerby, an animal)
  • unwanted sexual thoughts/images
  • robbing a bank
  • indecently exposing oneself
  • flashbacks to a previous traumatic experience
  • impulses to shout inappropriate or offensive things
  • threatening supernatural figures such as ghosts or demons

The possibility that individuals who experience intrusive thoughts or images will act on them is low. Quite often the thoughts or images themselves go against the very basic moral or religious makeup of the person and thus only increases to their distress by adding a layer of guilt and shame.


Who experiences intrusive thoughts or intrusive images?

In a clinical setting intrusive thoughts or intrusive images are seen in some individuals with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), Major Depressive Disorder, Postpartum Depression and psychosis.

The nature of the intrusive images or intrusive thoughts experienced by individuals vary greatly but some common patterns can be seen when examining them within the psychological disorders in which they are experienced. The obsessive and repetitive nature of anxieties experienced by individuals with OCD serve to bolster intrusive thoughts or images and reinforce a sense of fear and anxiety. In the case of sufferers of postpartum depression common intrusive thoughts or images are based around aggressive thoughts of injuring one's own child. Understandably, such thoughts can cause considerable distress to mothers and the reluctance to come forward and publicly acknowledge such personal thoughts can lead to a cycle of repetitive haunting cognitive intrusions. The key difference between the intrusive thoughts or images experienced by individuals with PTSD and other disorders is that the intrusive thoughts or images are of traumatic events which actually happened to them and not imagined scenarios.

Highly recommended books dealing with the issues of intrusive thoughts or intrusive images

The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts
The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts

This book is available in both paperback and Kindle format


How to free yourself from the fear and grip of intrusive thoughts or intrusive images

  1. Acknowledge the intrusive thought or image. It has been widely accepted that attempting to suppress or ignore an intrusive thought or image actually leads to their strength and further discomfort for the individual in question. A 2005 study reported that those instructed to suppress intrusive thoughts experienced more distress after suppression, while patients instructed to accept the bad thoughts experienced decreased discomfort.
  2. Normalise. Remind yourself that everyone experiences crazy, disgusting and horrific thoughts at some times. It is crucial to remember that, in no way, are you 'losing your mind'. An intrusive thought or image is just that, a thought, an image, nothing more. It is not reality and you are aware of that.
  3. Positive reassurance and affirmations. When you acknowledge the intrusive thought or image examine it and reassure yourself that what you are thinking is not only illogical but also not something that you would ever do.
  4. Relive your intrusive thoughts or intrusive images when you are in control. Although it may seem counter-intuitive it can actually help to re-experience intrusive thoughts or images when you are in a calm frame of mind. When you have found somewhere peaceful where which you feel safe don't be afraid to think of those thoughts or images that may haunt you. This time when you choose to experience the intrusive thoughts or images you can be in a place to find humor or stupidity in things which normally haunt you. This will lead to an eventual downplaying of the level of anxiety you experience.
  5. Confide in a trusted friend, therapist or family member. Experiencing intrusive thoughts and images can be an extremely anxious time. Reaching out to another person to confide in them about what you are experiencing removes some of the isolation and fear. Intrusive thoughts and images are a lot less scary when discussed between two people than left to to be constantly suppressed at the back of your mind.
  6. Seek professional help. There are numerous professional resources available to individuals looking for support with intrusive thoughts or images. If this is the first time you are seeking help for a problem in this area make an appointment with your local doctor and you will most likely be referred to a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist depending on who you wish to see. All professionals in the mental health area are aware of the impact that intrusive thoughts and images can have on individuals and there are many behavioural supports in place to help such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and stress management techniques. Support can also be found in organisations, online forums and support groups.
  7. Medication. If your intrusive thoughts or images are part of a larger psychological disorder and are severely interfering with your everyday functioning, in some cases it may be beneficial to try some medications such as SSRI anti-depressants which help control anxiety. It is recommended that medication alone is not used in attempting to manage intrusive thoughts or images in order to encourage the individual to address some of the underlying anxiety issues and also to learn skills and techniques involved in the management of stress and anxiety levels.

Intrusive Thoughts and Reassurance


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    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 2 years ago

      I'm so glad you found this page too! It's the unknown that's often the most scary. I totally understand the feeling of finding it hard to 'get out of your own head'. Now you have found a label for what you can experience and it can often point you in the right direction to get help. If you can't afford therapy I would suggest joining forums online for anxiety and/or OCD. These can be lovely safe places to discuss your personal experiences of intrusive images and thoughts and get support from others who are going through similar experiences and even those who successfully have managed it. If you are near a library I would also suggest getting out some books on anxiety management as this can also help. You are not alone in this and it is something that can be manages and often overcome. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Asckemyworld 2 years ago

      I am so glad I have found a pin that made me look it up and read this. I never knew what was going on with me and I hated that I even had thoughts like I did. I was afraid of myself. I don't want to go on medication I have a fear of it. I don't have anyone to talk to about it and definitely can't afford a therapist. I have a hard time getting out of my head. So what can I do to make them go away.

    • gsidley profile image

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      A scholarly hub full of useful information.

      I've become your latest follower.

    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      A good hub, and your suggestions in numbers 1-5, those short of medication or professional help, is useful for anyone who finds it hard to drop unecessary guilty or anxious thinking -- is that technically called rumination? -- which is to say most everyone at times.

      So this is good advice for many who don't suffer from full-blown "intrusive thoughts" in the technical sense.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thanks for the feedback alexarpoe! It means a lot when feedback comes from individuals who are experiencing intrusive thoughts or images themselves.

    • alexarpoe profile image

      alexarpoe 5 years ago from Richmond, Virginia

      As someone with OCD, I very much understand and experience this. Thanks so much for posting this, it really helped me think things through.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      I'm so glad you found the hub helpful. Knowledge is power as they say and nothing is more frightening than thinking you are the only one to be experiencing a particular problem.

    • Rebecca2904 profile image

      Rebecca 5 years ago

      I think you might have just changed my life a little bit! I've suffered from depression throughout my life, but I've also had this one imagined scenario that kind of follows me around. I had no idea it was a recognised problem that could be tackled by the same treatment as depression, CBT and so on. Thank you so much for writing this.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thanks jellygator (I love that username)! The more people learn to recognise the symptoms of intrusive thoughts and intrusive images the better chance they have at managing them. I really hope this hub will bring a topic not often talked about to a wider audience.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 5 years ago from USA

      This should be very helpful for so many people!

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thank you so much!

    • annerivendell profile image

      annerivendell 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      My goodness! I feel humbled by your hub. You write so well and are so informed.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thanks for the feedback guys. It's so motivating for me to get feedback on my hubs.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 5 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Sage, voted up; useful; awesome; interesting. Great read here. And one I really got into. Thanks for allowing us to share in your talent.


    • unvrso profile image

      Jose Juan Gutierrez 5 years ago from Mexico City

      I have had to deal with intrusive thoughts, like much people, at some time during my developmental stage. Like you say, dealing with intrusive thoughts, when you´re in a certain kind of mood can help you at finding new meaning about them. Voted up! and interesting! and Thanks for the follow.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thanks Glenn! It's true that past thoughts and images can haunt everyone to a degree and affect current behaviour. I suppose intrusive images are experienced by people on a continuum of differing degrees and, unfortunately, quite often it is only the more severe cases which receive attention.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Thoughts and images from the past can sometimes have a very detrimental effect on our behavior. It is sometimes very difficult to overcome them. Even when it's not as extreme as the examples you've given. Your Hub is extremely useful for providing a better understanding of all this. Well done. I voted up and interesting. Welcome to HubPages.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thankyou! I'm so pleased and surprised at the reaction to my second ever hub. I really appreciate your feedback. It's very motivating!

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thanks! It's great to see other mental health professionals, with first hand experience of some of the struggles they address, online.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 5 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Wow, what an awesome hub! Thank you for sharing such important information. Greatly done, thumbs up and shared.

    • TripleAMom profile image

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Hi, I'm also a mental health therapist and deal with depression as well. I work with kids and adults. I really want to get info out there to people in my writing as well and that's a main reason why I joined Hubpages. Good article. Voted up.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thanks. You're not alone. I have my own issues with intrusive images especially at times of stress. It's a work in progress to get on top of them.

    • crazybeanrider profile image

      Boo McCourt 5 years ago from Washington MI

      Wow some really generous and useful information. I battle intrusive thoughts,your tips are very helpful and attainable as well.

    • Sage in a Cage profile image

      Sage in a Cage 5 years ago

      Thankyou!! It's my first hub so it's a learning process. I'm really passionate about providing people with mental health information that empowers them to help themselves or support others.

      Intrusive thoughts and images are not often talked about but, for the people who experience them, they can cause such high levels of anxiety, shame and stress that they interfere with daily functioning. I believe no one should suffer with mental health problems in a vacuum and I want to demonstrate, through personal experience, that we are greater than the sum of our thoughts and intrusive thoughts and images can be managed.

    • meloncauli profile image

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Great hub and very informative. Voted up.