Why do intrusive thoughts feel so real

Last Updated
March 7, 2023

What are intrusive thoughts?
How To Cope
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Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that come into your head. They can be scary and not make sense.

- Random thoughts of causing harm
- Thoughts of committing undesirable sexual actions
- Thoughts of having a major illness or disease
- Thoughts that go against a person's moral principles
- Obsessive, recurrent thoughts
- Thoughts about committing suicide

- Can contribute to increased stress, anxiety, and depression
- Can strain personal relationships
- Can affect concentration and focus
- Can disrupt sleep patterns
- Stress and anxiety associated with intrusive thoughts can manifest in physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension, and digestive issues
- Can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt

- Brain process
- Emotional response
- Cognitive distortions
- Trauma
- Belief systems
- Mental illnesses
- Anxiety
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD]
- Post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]
- Depression
- Schizophrenia
- Bipolar disorder
- Dementia
- Brain injuries
- Parkinson’s disease

- Mindfulness
- Ground yourself
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Exposure and response prevention
- Medication
- Look for support
- Don't push away or suppress the thoughts
- Remember it's just thoughts
- Try not to look too deeply into these thoughts

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your thoughts, even when you know they don't make sense? Sometimes, ideas that are not logical fill our minds. These thoughts can take control and impact our lives. It can be a tough experience.

We will look into why these thoughts seem true and how they affect your health and happiness.

What are intrusive thoughts?

Unwanted thoughts come into your head as intrusive thoughts. They can be scary and not make sense. They could be about violence, hurting yourself or others, death, illness, or religion. Lots of people have intrusive thoughts, but they usually go away quickly and are harmless.

Intrusive thoughts can be hard to handle, especially if they feel real. They don't reflect what a person really wants or means, they're just thoughts. [1]

Are intrusive thoughts normal?

Yes, it's normal to have intrusive thoughts. They can start because of stress, fear, or anxiety caused by any event in life.

Big events like a car crash or a marriage ending can trigger these thoughts. Everyday issues like making big choices, having too much work, or money worries can also cause them. [2] [3]

Is there a difference between intrusive thoughts and ocd thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that you do not want to think. They can happen to anyone.

OCD thoughts are bad thoughts that are part of the OCD cycle. These thoughts make you worry and feel scared. People with OCD feel the need to repeat actions to try to feel better. [4]

Types of intrusive thoughts

  • Random thoughts of causing harm to oneself or others, or harm or destruction in some other means
  • People have thoughts about doing sexual actions that are unwanted, not allowed, or against their sexual beliefs or values.
  • Thoughts of having a major illness or disease, or worrying or distressing physical signs
  • Thoughts that break a person's moral or religious rules, or are about banned or off-limits topics.
  • Obsessive, recurrent thoughts about particular subjects, such as germs, hygiene, or orderliness
  • Thoughts about committing suicide or thoughts of ending one's life [5]
A man experiencing intrusive thoughts

The Role of the Brain in Intrusive Thoughts

The human brain is a complex organ responsible for our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Intrusive thoughts, too, originate within the brain, and understanding the neurological processes behind them can help us better cope with these unwanted thoughts. Let's delve into the role of various brain regions and the factors that contribute to the formation of intrusive thoughts:

The Amygdala's Role

The amygdala is a small part of the brain shaped like an almond. It helps us feel emotions. When we have unwanted thoughts, the amygdala makes our emotions stronger. This makes the thoughts feel very real and intense.

The Prefrontal Cortex's Involvement

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the region of the brain responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, and regulating behavior. When the PFC is unable to effectively filter out intrusive thoughts, these thoughts can become more persistent and distressing.

The Role of Neurotransmitters

Brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, play a crucial role in regulating our mood, thoughts, and emotions. An imbalance in neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine can contribute to intrusive thoughts and the distress they cause.

Memory Formation and Intrusive Thoughts

The hippocampus is a brain part that stores memories. It can be linked to unwanted thoughts. When it stores memories with strong emotions, those memories can come back as unwanted thoughts. This can make us feel upset and anxious.

The Brain's Default Mode Network

Our brain's default mode network (DMN) is a group of interconnected brain regions that are active when we're not engaged in goal-oriented tasks. The DMN is thought to be involved in mind-wandering and daydreaming, which can sometimes lead to the generation of intrusive thoughts.

A woman having intrusive thoughts

The Impact of Intrusive Thoughts on Daily Life

Intrusive thoughts can have a profound impact on an individual's daily life, affecting various aspects of their well-being, relationships, and overall functioning. Let's explore the various ways in which intrusive thoughts can influence daily life:

Mental Health

Frequent intrusive thoughts can contribute to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. The emotional toll of these thoughts can leave a person feeling overwhelmed and may lead to the development of mental health disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Intrusive thoughts can strain personal relationships, as individuals may find it difficult to share their thoughts and feelings with others. This can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and misunderstandings within relationships.

Work and School Performance

Unwanted thoughts can make it hard to focus. This can make work or school harder. It can also make stress worse because people worry about finishing tasks on time or doing their best.


Unwanted thoughts can make it hard to sleep. People might have trouble falling asleep or wake up often because of these thoughts. Not getting enough sleep can affect health, mood, and thinking.

Physical Health

The stress and anxiety associated with intrusive thoughts can manifest in physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension, and digestive issues. Additionally, individuals may engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse or overeating, which can negatively affect their physical health.

Self-Esteem and Confidence

Intrusive thoughts can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt, as individuals may question their own character and worth. This can significantly impact self-esteem and confidence, making it challenging to engage in social situations and pursue personal goals. [6]

An example of a brain with intrusive thoughts

Differentiating Intrusive Thoughts from OCD

The OCD Cycle and Its Relation to Intrusive Thoughts

OCD is a mental health problem where people have unwanted thoughts often and do the same behaviors over and over. They feel they have to do these behaviors. There are four main steps in the OCD cycle related to these thoughts.


The cycle begins with intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses that are unwanted and distressing. These obsessions can be related to a variety of themes, such as contamination, harm, or religious beliefs. Individuals with OCD often find these thoughts disturbing and irrational but are unable to ignore or dismiss them.


As a result of these intrusive thoughts, individuals with OCD experience heightened levels of anxiety, fear, or discomfort. The obsessions can trigger a deep sense of unease and urgency, making it difficult for the person to focus on anything else.


In an attempt to alleviate the anxiety and distress caused by the obsessions, individuals with OCD engage in repetitive behaviors or mental acts called compulsions. These compulsions can be time-consuming and disruptive, interfering with daily life. Examples of compulsions include excessive hand washing, checking locks, or repeating specific phrases.

Temporary Relief

The performance of compulsions can provide temporary relief from the anxiety associated with the intrusive thoughts. However, this relief is short-lived, and the obsessions often return, leading the individual to engage in compulsions again. This cycle of obsessions, anxiety, compulsions, and temporary relief becomes a self-perpetuating loop, making it difficult for the person to break free from the pattern.

The OCD cycle can have a significant impact on an individual's life, leading to:

  • Impaired relationships, as the person may become preoccupied with their obsessions and compulsions, distancing themselves from friends and family.
  • Poor work or academic performance, as the constant cycle can interfere with focus and concentration.
  • Physical health issues, such as skin irritation from excessive hand washing or sleep disturbances due to repetitive rituals.
  • Emotional distress, including feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment related to the obsessions and compulsions.[7]
A woman struggling with her intrusive thoughts

Causes of intrusive thoughts that make them feel so real

Brain process

Our brains pay more attention to thoughts that seem dangerous or bad. This means that thoughts about harm or things that can go wrong can feel very real.

Emotional response

The amygdala is a part of the brain that helps us feel emotions. When we have thoughts that cause us to feel strong emotions, these feelings can seem more true and serious.

Cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that make thoughts seem bigger and more important than they really are. Thinking the worst, seeing things as only good or bad, and making broad conclusions are examples of this.


Trauma can cause bad thoughts in your brain. Your body will try to protect you and will be ready to fight or run away when it remembers the bad thing that happened. This is controlled by the amygdala, a part of your brain.

Belief systems

Sometimes people have thoughts that don't match their beliefs, values, or what they think is right. For example, people who believe in religion might have thoughts that go against their faith. This can be upsetting.

Mental illnesses

Thoughts can be impacted by mental illnesses. Mental health problems can cause a person to have thoughts that are irrational, obsessive, or pessimistic. This can be related to the changes in brain chemistry.

Illnesses that cause intrusive thoughts:

  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD]
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Dementia
  • Brain injuries
  • Parkinson’s disease [6]
a graph about coping with intrusive thoughts

How can you cope with intrusive thoughts?


Mindfulness is a way to help you notice when you're experiencing intrusive thoughts without judging them. Your bad thoughts will stop bothering you and won't be as strong.

Ground yourself

Grounding yourself means focusing on the present moment and your immediate environment. Take deep breaths, focus on what you're feeling or seeing, and make sure you are safe.

Tip: Soft background noise can help reduce your fear and anxiety.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

CBT is a type of counseling that helps people notice and question thoughts that make their unwanted thoughts worse. A therapist can teach them how to handle these thoughts better.

Exposure and response prevention

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a type of therapy for OCD. It means facing the things that make you have bad thoughts, and not doing anything to try to stop them. With time, this can help the bad thoughts be less frequent and less strong.


Medicines can help if you have anxiety, OCD, or depression. These medicines, like SSRIs, can reduce the feelings and thoughts that make intrusive thoughts worse.

Look for support

Talking to someone you trust, like a family member or friend, can be helpful if you are having an intrusive thought. You can also join a group of people who have similar experiences and get support from them.[7]

Self-care tips

  • Don't push away or suppress the thoughts
  • Remember it's just thoughts
  • Try not to look too deeply into these thoughts [8]

Intrusive Thoughts and Autism: A Complex Connection

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition where people face challenges in social skills, communication, and behavior. People with autism can also have unwanted, repeating, and upsetting thoughts that make anxiety or emotional pain worse. These thoughts can be extra hard for them because dealing with feelings and uncertainty is tougher.

To help people with ASD who have these thoughts, we need to know the special challenges they have. We can use ways to cope like mindfulness, CBT, and ways to reduce stress. Talking openly and having a caring, understanding space helps build strength and self-acceptance.

Don't miss our latest article on "Understanding Autism and Intrusive Thoughts: Coping Strategies and Support" to delve deeper into this important topic and learn how you can empower yourself or your loved ones to effectively manage intrusive thoughts.


Undoubtedly, it's natural for these thoughts to occasionally surface and recede, reflecting the intricate emotional landscape we all navigate. By embracing patience, empathy, and effective coping strategies, you can master your thoughts and move forward in life unimpeded. We welcome your thoughts on online therapy in the comments below, as engaging in a dialogue can be valuable for personal growth.


How do I challenge irrational thinking related to intrusive thoughts?

Generally speaking, identifying irrational thinking related to intrusive thoughts is an important part of managing them. Strategies such as cognitive reframing and mindfulness can help you challenge the assumptions that underlie irrational thinking, allowing you to gain a better perspective on your intrusive thoughts.

OCD feels so overwhelming. How can I cope?

OCD can be a very debilitating condition, but there are strategies that you can use to manage it. Start by exploring your personal triggers and the thoughts and emotions associated with them. It is also important to practice challenging irrational thinking, use relaxation techniques and grounding exercises, and engage in self-care activities.


  1. University Counseling Center: Intrusive Thoughts
  2. Intrusive Thoughts and Stress During the Evacuation Phase
  3. University of Pittsburgh: You are not “so OCD”
  4. The experience of intrusions scale: A preliminary examination
  5. CiteSeerX: Managing unwanted intrusive thoughts
  6. University Counseling Center: Intrusive Thoughts

⚠️ Disclaimer: The content of this video is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Consult a qualified health professional for any medical concerns.

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Jamie Armstrong
I have a passion for writing. I work as a Senior Marketing Manager for Islomania LLC. I have developed a strong interest in writing articles and website management during my time here. I enjoy both article writing, poetry, and story writing. In my role as a marketing manager, whether I’m writing an article, or a story, or improving other writers’ content, I always try to engage my readers and give them something to think about.
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