Everyone experiences unwanted thoughts from time to time and though they may be unwelcome and cause some discomfort, they are part of the human experience. When our mental health is optimal, these minor irritations are easy to dismiss and we’re able to go about our day. When people experience intrusive or impulsive thoughts on the other hand, they may experience great distress and/or have difficulty performing everyday tasks.
Intrusive thoughts are defined as unwelcome thoughts that are graphic and negative in nature. They cause great distress and people experiencing them feel overwhelmed by images and/or sensations these thoughts cause. These thoughts can be extremely difficult to manage as the more one tries to stop the thoughts, the more they may be consumed by them.
Impulsive thoughts, on the other hand, may not cause as much distress as intrusive thoughts but may result in a sense of urgency to act or perform a task without considering the consequences. These thoughts don’t overwhelm the mind and are relatively easy to dismiss.
In this article, we will explore the difference between intrusive and impulsive thoughts, provide examples of such thoughts, discuss the possible causes and contributing factors, and lastly, we will explore the best treatment options available.
The Key Difference Between Intrusive Thoughts and Impulsive Thoughts
The key difference between intrusive thoughts and impulsive thoughts is, intrusive thoughts feel overwhelming and difficult to manage. Whereas impulsive thoughts typically do not cause major distress.
|Characteristic||Intrusive Thoughts||Impulsive Thoughts|
|Frequency||Can be frequent or infrequent||Typically occur suddenly and unexpectedly|
|Duration||Typically fleeting||Can last for a longer period of time|
|Level of control||Difficult to control||Can be difficult to resist, but people with better impulse control are more likely to be able to resist them|
|Typical content||Unwanted and disturbing thoughts, images, or urges||Sudden urges to act without thinking about the consequences|
|Potential consequences||Can cause distress, but are not typically harmful||Can lead to negative consequences, such as financial problems, relationship problems, or legal problems|
Types of Intrusive Thoughts
It is important to note that regardless of the thought’s content, they do not reflect the person’s actual beliefs, values, or desires. People experience intrusive thoughts as though they were implanted by something else outside of them and therefore should not be judged on the context of these intrusive thoughts.
Those diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) experience obsessive thoughts relentlessly and have the compulsion to act on those thoughts.
An example of an obsessive thought would be thinking about whether or not you forgot to lock the door. An obsessive thought would make it difficult to concentrate on anything else, and would likely make the person have to check the door – even if it meant leaving work to do so.
As you can see, this particular intrusive thought isn’t necessarily harmful but the obsessiveness and inability to move on with the day is the piece that impacts a person’s ability to perform other tasks.
Aggressive thoughts take on the form of being violent in nature. This can include thoughts of being verbally violent, as in making threats to someone or being physically violent. Aggressive intrusive thoughts feel very frightening to the person experiencing them and might make the person feel as though they are losing control.
An example of an aggressive thought is a person who is experiencing road rage and has a sudden thought to ram their car into another car. This thought feels overwhelming and may involve imagery of what this would look like if acted out. The person experiencing this intrusive thought might ruminate on it throughout the day or longer, despite not acting on the thought.
Sexually intrusive thoughts can include thoughts of consensual sex, nonconsensual sex, sex with inappropriate people, or sexual acts deemed criminal. These intrusive thoughts could potentially be a subset of OCD, indicative of a sexual addiction, or be associated with pedophilia.
Absent the above disorders, sexually intrusive thoughts may be just that, thoughts not representative of one’s morality. An example of a sexually intrusive thought would be a person who can’t stop thinking of having sex with their co-worker. Their mind might feel overwhelmed by these intrusive thoughts which interfere with their ability to work or socialize.
Harmful intrusive thoughts create a lot of fear for those experiencing them and they may stop doing certain activities or cease contact with people they have thoughts about harming. There may be no trigger for these thoughts to appear. An example of a harmful intrusive thought is a person who sees a knife in the kitchen and has the thought of stabbing their spouse. This thought is difficult to dismiss and causes great distress.
Types of Impulsive Thoughts
Impulsive thoughts tend to manifest less often than intrusive thoughts and are typically brought on by a particular stressor. Though they can interfere with daily life, they tend to be more manageable and easier to dismiss.
The defining symptoms of OCD include intrusive obsessive thoughts which often result in compulsive behavior. Those who suffer from intrusive thoughts don’t necessarily have OCD.
An example of a compulsive behavior would be a person with OCD over washing their hands to the point in which their hands are raw. They feel compelled to cleanse due to obsessive thoughts about germs.
Impulsive thoughts can lead to risky behavior as the consequences of acting on those urges aren’t carefully considered. Teenagers are traditionally impulsive as their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed until age 25 and this is the brain’s impulse regulation center.
An example of risky behavior might include someone who has the impulse to pull the fire alarm at school and unintentionally cause a stampede of people.
Impulsive thoughts might lead to self-destructive behaviors. An example might be a person who has the impulse to get a tattoo and does so without doing their research, unintentionally going to an unsanitary place and contracting Hepatitis C.
Causes of Intrusive and Impulsive Thoughts
Those who experience frequent intrusive thoughts and whose daily functioning is impacted may be suffering from OCD. Those experiencing frequent impulsive thoughts and subsequent negative consequences may have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD, with or without Hyperactivity). Stress and anxiety can also be catalysts for stimulating unwanted thoughts.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most highly regarded and well-researched form of therapy to treat both intrusive and impulsive thoughts. This type of therapy explores the client’s thoughts and examines the reality of them. Therapeutic interventions include developing positive coping mechanisms to deal with such thoughts.
For those diagnosed with OCD, there are several different types of medications. From SSRIs (Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) to Ketamine therapy (a relatively new and promising form of therapy using Ketamine as medicine to facilitate treatment).
For those who have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, the medications Adderall and Ritalin remain the first lines of pharmaceutical intervention.
There are many techniques people can use to foster better control over intrusive and impulsive thoughts. The first step is to label thoughts as intrusive or impulsive. This act of labeling reframes the experience as involuntary and helps to normalize the discomfort associated with the experience.
Journaling about the thoughts one experiences can also be helpful. Writing in and of itself has been known to be therapeutic.
Everyone experiences unwanted thoughts from time to time, but when they become intrusive and frequent, or if they become impulsive and lead to negative consequences, it’s time to get support. CBT therapy treatment is highly effective, taking around 8-10 weeks, and in conjunction with proper medication, can be highly successful long term. There is no shame in getting the help you deserve, there are many options for therapy both online and in person.
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