Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/28/2022
There’s nothing worse than when you’re having a good day and something pops into your brain that you can’t get rid of. These random, usually negative, often distressing mental interruptions are called intrusive thoughts, and we’ll be the first to say it — they suck. How long do intrusive thoughts happen? Is there anything you can do to stop them?
Better yet, why do they even happen to begin with?
It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder why these day-ruiners happen, how long they might last and what you can do — both in the short term and the long term — to stop them in their paths.
Luckily, we have answers.
Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that you don’t want to have that pop up and cause a good deal of distress and anxiety. Some people notice this obsessive thinking in their daily lives, while for others these thoughts pop up from time to time.
They can be about any number of things, from a disturbing violent or sexual thought that you have no idea why you’re having to an upsetting mental image, a memory or thought about a fear of doing something embarrassing or many things in between.
These kinds of thoughts are quite common, too.
One international study looked at 777 college students across six continents and found that nearly 94 percent of the students had experienced at least one intrusive thought in the previous three months.
And no, that’s not a typo.
Intrusive thoughts are sometimes connected to stress and anxiety. They can also spring up during things like hormone shifts or other physical changes.
They can also be the result of certain mental health conditions or anxiety disorders.
For example, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Intrusive thoughts in those with OCD can manifest as repetitive, compulsive behaviors (think: washing your hands over and over again or repeatedly checking all the doors to ensure they’re locked).
OCD is a mental health disorder that is actually characterized by unwanted or intrusive thoughts that lead people to compulsions.
When OCD is left untreated, the intrusive thoughts that come with it can have a pretty tough impact on your daily life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also bring on intrusive thoughts. PTSD can develop after someone experiences a traumatic event (like sexual assault, automobile accident, natural disaster and other negative life events).
Interestingly, women have a two to three times higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than men.
People with PTSD may experience intrusive thoughts related to their trauma.
For example, if you lived through a natural disaster, you may find yourself unexpectedly remembering traumatic moments from that.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is another mental health issue that can cause intrusive thoughts to pop up in day to day life.
GAD is actually the most common anxiety disorder and is usually diagnosed if you have a hard time managing your anxiety more often than not over the course of six months.
Anxiety symptoms connected to GAD include irritability, rapid heart rate, fatigue, nerves, sleep trouble, stomach issues and more.
Intrusive thoughts can also be a symptom of GAD, and these thoughts often have to do with worries.
These worries can span topics and be about almost anything — from having sudden concerns about your body image to stressing over other aspects of life.
There’s no simple timeline for how long an intrusive thought lasts. Truly, it varies from person to person.
Again, intrusive thoughts can be totally normal and may not even disrupt your day much. If you find yourself just having a random intrusive thought here and there that goes away relatively quickly, you probably have nothing to worry about.
If, however, intrusive thoughts pop up and you can’t shake them, it could be a sign of something more serious.
People with these mental disorders may notice an intrusive thought pop into their stream of consciousness and then they’re unable to shake it.
Intrusive thoughts can be a one-off experience that only happens every once in a while, or it could be severe and consuming.
When it comes to stopping intrusive thoughts, there are things you can do in the moment to help them go away.
But you may also want to consider longer-term treatment options to relieve the anxiety that may cause them — especially if your intrusive thoughts lead to compulsive or repetitive behaviors.
Want to stomp out an intrusive thought as soon as it pops into your head? There are a few things you can try.
The key is to acknowledge the intrusive thought — but not dwell on it. These tactics may be useful:
Identify the thought as being intrusive and accept that it has entered your mind
Don’t try to push the thought away
Accept that the thought may happen again
Keep doing whatever you were doing when the thought popped into your head
By accepting the intrusive thought, it may be easier to move on from. Whereas, if you try to fight it, it will persist.
People with anxiety disorders that regularly cause intrusive thoughts should consider treatment options that address the root cause.
A mental health professional will best be able to tell you if you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder and will be able to give you an idea of what type of treatments could work best for you.
Here are a few of the more common treatments for anxiety disorders:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): With this type of therapy, patients speak with a mental health provider to identify behaviors that contribute to intrusive thoughts or anxiety. From there, they work with their provider to come up with ways to change those things.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP): If it’s determined that you have OCD that’s leading to your intrusive thoughts, ERP may be recommended. ERP is a type of CBT wherein a patient is safely exposed to things that trigger their anxiety symptoms (in this case, intrusive thoughts) and then works with a therapy provider to avoid having the compulsive response they’d normally have. The thinking is that by facing your intrusive thoughts directly, you can prevent them in the future.
Anti-Anxiety Medication:Medications for anxiety can help treat symptoms. These prescription medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta-blockers and benzodiazepines. Hers offers a variety of SSRIs, such as fluoxetine and sertraline following an online consultation with a board-certified mental health professional.
Intrusive thoughts are defined as unwanted, unexpected thoughts that come out of nowhere.
They can be anxiety-inducing, strange or even violent. But just because you have an intrusive thought doesn’t mean you’ll act on it or that the sporadic intrusive thought is uncommon — quite the contrary.
Just about everyone has one of these thoughts every once in a while.
But if you notice them frequently, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder like OCD, GAD or PTSD.
Now, for some good news: there are a number of ways to treat intrusive thoughts. If you just have them occasionally, you’ll want to acknowledge them so that you can move on. If you suspect that you may have an anxiety disorder that is causing them, you can try therapy or medication.
To figure out the best course of action for you or to get more info on intrusive thoughts, your next step should be meeting with a mental health professional to learn more.