What are intrusive thoughts? An expert weighs in

Concept image of anxiety and negative emotion. Waste paper and head silhouette. (Getty Images)
What are intrusive thoughts? An expert weighs in. (Getty Images)

Scroll through your TikTok “For You Page” and you may stumble across a video of someone talking about “intrusive thoughts.” The hashtag boasts more than 200 million views, and videos in that category typically feature users describing thoughts that range from annoying (“Did I turn my hair straightener off this morning?”) to pretty dark (“I should swerve my car into oncoming traffic.”).

But what are intrusive thoughts, and could they be predictors of serious mental health issues? An expert explained to Yahoo Life that, fortunately, most of the time, they’re just that: thoughts.

Whether or not you have labeled them as such in your life, you have likely experienced intrusive thoughts before, says Dr. Paul Nestadt, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic. While the brain can conjure up thoughts when prompted — say, when you are trying to remember the name of movie — Nestadt says that intrusive thoughts are “unbidden.”

“We have internal monologues, and our brain will present us with certain thoughts, like a song that gets stuck in our head or a random memory that doesn’t cause us anxiety — like, ‘Oh, I remember in fifth grade, when we had a pizza party,’” Nestadt tells Yahoo Life. “It’s the nonsensical stuff the brain creates, and we don’t read too much into it.”

Related video: How teens can redirect their focus from negative thoughts

Nestadt likens these thoughts to shells that wash up onshore at the beach: While you may see a pattern in the shells, it is not an intentional one. A problem can arise when our brain pays too close attention to what these intrusive thoughts mean, and they begin to cause “distress or dysfunction.”

“Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a disease defined by intrusive thoughts and obsessions. People with OCD have thoughts that are unbidden, and they cause a lot of anxiety,” he explains. “The more a person tries to push the thoughts out of their head, the more anxiety they cause, and the more they stick. For example, it could be the intrusive thought that their oven is on. Maybe they know their oven isn’t on, or they think that it’s really not, but the thought persists. Other disorders, like posttraumatic stress disorder, that thought could be a memory of a traumatic event, like an assault. They keep having that thought pop in their head, like words or an intrusive image.”

Nestadt says that deciding if these thoughts are a problem ultimately “comes down to context.”

“If someone is healthy and not suffering from depression or major mental illness, having a sudden thought in your head about jumping off a bridge or stabbing someone is benign, and you shouldn’t read much into it,” he notes. “It’s just the way the brain works, and brains are complicated. But if it’s in the context of someone suffering from depression, for example, and they start thinking about suicide and how they may do it, that’s worrisome.”

Yet Nestadt stresses that these thoughts are not indicators of violent behavior. In fact, it may be the belief that these thoughts will lead to criminal or immoral behavior that is part of what leads to such anxiety. Contrary to that popular saying “I think, therefore I am,” that statement is not accurate when it comes to intrusive thoughts.

“The idea that thought equals action is one of the primary features of anxiety disorders, specifically OCD. It’s terrible. It’s like, ‘If I think badly of my mother, something bad will happen to her.’ They can’t shake that,” he says.

Ultimately, a random, disturbing thought should not make you think twice about your mental health — just as, say, having Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” randomly pop up in your head would not make you question your sanity. However, if you find yourself focused on these thoughts and unable to properly function because of them, speaking to a mental health professional can be an important step in managing these thoughts.