by Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD

On-Demand Webinar with ADAA members Drs. Kissen and Greene - What Are Intrusive Thoughts and How Can You Deal with Them?

Read the Q&A Blog Post About Intrusive Thoughts and How to Deal with Them Blog Post by Drs. Kissen and Greene.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are stuck thoughts that cause great distress. They seem to come from out of nowhere, arrive with a whoosh, and cause a great deal of anxiety. The content of unwanted intrusive thoughts often focuses on sexual or violent or socially unacceptable images. People who experience unwanted intrusive thoughts are afraid that they might commit the acts they picture in their mind. They also fear that the thoughts mean something terrible about them. Some unwanted intrusive thoughts consist of repetitive doubts about relationships, decisions small and large, sexual orientation or identity, intrusions of thoughts about safety, religion, death or worries about questions that cannot be answered with certainty. Some are just weird thoughts that make no apparent sense. Unwanted Intrusive thoughts can be very explicit, and many people are ashamed and worried about them, and therefore keep them secret.

There are many myths about unwanted intrusive thoughts. One of the most distressing is that having such thoughts mean that you unconsciously want to do the things that come into your mind. This is simply not true, and, in fact, the opposite is true. It is the effort people use to fight the thought that makes it stick and fuels its return. People fight thoughts because the content seems alien, unacceptable, and at odds with who they are. So, people with violent unwanted intrusive thoughts are gentle people. People who have unwanted intrusive thoughts about suicide love life. And those who have thoughts of yelling blasphemies in church value their religious life.  A second myth is that every thought we have is worth examining. In truth, these thoughts are not messages, red flags, signals or warnings--despite how they feel.

The problem for people who have these thoughts--and one estimate is that more than 6 million people in the United States are troubled by them-- is that unwanted intrusive thoughts feel so threatening. That is because anxious thinking takes over, and the thought—as abhorrent as it might be—seems to have power it does not.  People tend to try desperately and urgently to get rid of the thoughts, which, paradoxically, fuels their intensity. The harder they try to suppress or distract or substitute thoughts, the stickier the thought becomes.

People who are bothered by intrusive thoughts need to learn a new relationship to their thoughts--that sometimes the content of thoughts are irrelevant and unimportant. That everyone has occasional weird, bizarre, socially improper and violent thoughts. Our brains sometimes create junk thoughts, and these thoughts are just part of the flotsam and jetsam of our stream of consciousness.  Junk thoughts are meaningless. If you don’t pay attention or get involved with them, they dissipate and get washed away in the flow of consciousness.

In reality, a thought—even a very scary thought—is not an impulse. The problem is not one of impulse control- it is over control. They are at opposite ends of the continuum.  However, sufferers get bluffed by their anxiety, and become desperate for reassurance. However, reassurance only works temporarily, and people can become reassurance junkies. The only way to effectively deal with intrusive obsessive thoughts is by reducing one’s sensitivity to them. Not by being reassured that it won’t happen or is not true.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are reinforced by getting entangled with them, worrying about them, struggling against them, trying to reason them away. They are also made stronger by trying to avoid them. Leave the thoughts alone, treat them as if they are not even interesting, and they will eventually fade into the background.

Here are steps for changing your attitude and overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

  • Label these thoughts as "intrusive thoughts."
  • Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you.
  • Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away.
  • Float, and practice allowing time to pass.
  • Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency. 
  • Expect the thoughts to come back again
  • Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.

Try Not To:

  • Engage with the thoughts in any way.
  • Push the thoughts out of your mind.
  • Try to figure out what your thoughts "mean."
  • Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts

This approach can be difficult to apply. But for anyone who keeps applying it for just a few weeks, there is an excellent chance that they will see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of the unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Our book is “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts”. Selected in March 2019 as an Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Book Recommendation - an honor bestowed on outstanding self-help books that are consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles and that incorporate scientifically tested strategies for overcoming mental health difficulties.

Get the Spanish version of the book "Guía para superar los pensamientos atemorizantes, obsesivos o inquietantes" here. 

To sign up for a free e-newsletter that answers questions about intrusive thoughts, please visit this webpage:

Additional Resources

Dr. Winston and Dr. Seif In The News: 

About the Authors

SeifWinston.PNGDr. Winston and Dr. Seif are both Founding Clinical Fellows of ADAA. They are co-authors of the books “What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders” and “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts” 

Dr. Sally Winston is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. She is nationally recognized for her expertise in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Winston has been active with ADAA for over 30 years. She has served as chair of the ADAA Clinical Advisory Board and was the first recipient of the ADAA Jerilyn Ross Clinician Advocate Award.

Dr. Martin Seif is a master clinician who has spent the last thirty years developing innovative and highly successful treatment methods for anxiety disorders. He helped found ADAA and has served on its Board of Directors and Clinical Advisory Board. Dr. Seif has offices in Manhattan, NY and Greenwich, CT. For the last 18 years, he has been Associate Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center for White Plains Hospital Center. He also trains therapists and psychiatric residents at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Intrusive thoughts also mean your shielding of the soul is removed and different worldly souls can enter you. Only way this can be treated by increasing your awareness of who you are. Consider yourself as a peaceful soul and whatever is intrusive is non peaceful and non loving. once you identify your true self you will be able to ignore wandering souls

Thank you. I had just read this article myself and was seriously helped by it at first (and still will be), and when I saw their comment it set off some pretty bad emotional and religious abuse I've been through. It felt reassuring to see that someone else noticed it and validated that it could do some damage to people. I know this might be odd, but seriously, thank you for speaking up..... It is appreciated.

Whether its spirits or not, it still manifests in our biology. As soon as we stop putting weight on them, they go away cuz we stop caring. But yes I go through terrible obsessive thoughts. All anxiety. Your body will continue to exist and you won't go insane no matter how scared you get. Going insane would be a bad panic attack and lack of sleep

I'm sorry you went through emotional and religious abuse. I struggled for a long time wondering if I had done enough good and avoided enough bad or whatever to go to Heaven. It didn't help that I was hearing contradictory statements that didn't make sense and they were trying to tell me it wasn't a contradiction. I ended up leaving that church. It's no coincidence that preachers who preach contradictory messages have a lot of people in the church worried about whether or not they're going to Heaven. It's even worse when people already have anxiety or ocd. But, I don't think feeling scared after all that means people are "too sensitive" or just struggling with mental health - I actually think it means the people worried are simply very logical and honest with themselves. After a number of years, I was able to finally gain peace. I learned that believe actually means simply believe. When I chose to simply believe in what Christ did for me, I felt better. I hope anyone else who is struggling is able to find peace over this kind of damage as well.

I agree with this author that it helps to simply think of the thoughts as intrusive thoughts and not worry about them. I had an intrusive suicidal thought today even though I really wasn't feeling suicidal. I just dismissed it as something I wasn't really interested in and went about my day.

Jacob, I believe that two professional doctors would know more about what they are talking about. Are you a licensed doctor?

Could it be that you said that on purpose as you find pleasure in scaring people, and making them feel as though they can't have faith in something that is actually quite helpful. To put more fear and doubt inside of people who are already feeling very fearful and doubtful of what could be wrong with them.

The realization of one's authentic self is extremely important work that is a lifelong journey. "Identifying your true self" would be like claiming you have achieved the same enlightenment as Buddha, Jesus, whatever you believe, and reached a transcendental state. Is that realistic? Finding the true self is the theoretical basis for countless philosophers through the ages. "The shielding of your soul has been removed and different worldly souls can enter you?" That is religiosity and has little to no value in the context of intrusive thoughts. By giving the intrusive thoughts humanizing characteristics you are essentially making them more tangible. It is not a "wandering, worldly soul." It is not a thing that can be "non-peaceful" and "non-loving." And “ignoring” them does not make them go away. If only it were that easy. That is completely opposite of what this article challenges the sufferer to do. And exactly what the authors say NOT to do. Consider reading the “Steps” and the “Try Not To” again.
Some of the “Steps:” Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away. Some of the “Try Not To:” Engage with the thoughts in any way. Push the thoughts out of your mind.

But where is my soul ?? My own soul? Where does she go when other souls are taking over .. this is very true! These evil spirts that communicate with me have either different personalities, or different souls entering and it’s crazy .. I’ve experienced some really crazy stuff and I’ve had a normal life growing up, popular kid growing up! Went to church every Sunday I have NO clue why I have to experience this stuff

I also perceive this, at the beginning of November, I had a serious intrusive thought, and those days were “Día de muertos” (day of the dead) I went to get a cleansing and that helped, gradually I’ve been feeling better, If you believe that we are energy, we have a soul, then it’s not to crazy to think that something from another plane felt your energy vulnerable enough to poison you, throwing this junk at you, something that could never cross your mind just popped out of nowhere, you must be strong spiritually, empower yourself with inner strength, focus on what you hold most precious, fight for that! Also, talking to someone you trust does help ease up the inner struggle, don’t bottle it up! You are not alone!

Just want to express my gratitude for this article. Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed with my intrusive thoughts and anxiety I read this artice and remind myself I’m not alone.

I am 13 I I have been having a hard time getting bonners off of my mind one day I got picked with a pencil and it gave me a bonner now I can get them out of my head and it has been months now I get a bonner from anything even my sister I tried this method and it did not work please help

I feel you Ben as long as your not aroused you should be good there just thoughts that give you anxiety I been struggling too for 2 months straight your not alone

As a guy, trust me, what you're going through is normal. Make sure to keep any activities in a private space by yourself until you're mature and ready to explore which will be years away yet.

Ben its just your brain locking on to it and at your age its so very normal to get a boner over anything. Do not block the thoughts out, except them; just remember that there are millions of boys your age experiencing the same if not worse thoughts as yo. The fact that your on this page and you are worried about it indicates that is not going to be a real, physical problem for you.

Finding this website has made me feel so much better. Reading the posts from other people who are struggling with the same obsessive, irrational thoughts has been so helpful. Actually I've been struggling with anxiety off and on for most of my life. My husband passed away in 2012. Since I had family living with me at the time the loss didn't really hit me for quite sometime. Losing my beloved husband has affected so many areas of my life. He understood who I was and was the one who supported and encouraged me. For the last couple of years I have missed him so much and my thoughts have been extremely scarry and negative. Like some of you, I really don't share much of this information, even with my closest friends for fear they won't understand at all. If anyone has gone through a similar situation and could offer helpful suggestions, I would very much appreciate it! Love and peace to all of you!

I can understand very well and You are really brave because you are handling your life very well. I am and millions of people around the world feel the same and we all are with you. Much love!

I've been having intrusive thoughts along with an image of a girl romaing in my mind. I have consulted a psyctric and he says it's a part of anxiety. Just wanted to know has anyone gone through the same problem

I have struggled so much myslf. It comes and goes back. I find that accepting the thoughts helps and truing not to argue with them helps. Im currently very anxious it hurts. Im even thinking of opting for medication

Hi Marge, I just wanted to say hi and that I was really touched by your words. I'm sorry for your loss, your husband sounds like the greatest guy. I can tell he really loved you very very much. When I was 13, I was put on zanax and a bunch of other meds, mainly anti-anxiety and anti-depressants. Back then the panic disorder got so bad that it led to agoraphobia. As the years went by, it got a lot better. I still have depression and my thinking feels off a lot. My main issue today is Borderline Personality disorder and I'm getting help for it, but it's still a fight at times. I just wanted to say hello and that I am with you in spirit, Andrew

Same! This releaved my anxiety within the first few sentences. I was feeling so alone and ashamed. I couldn’t handle my bad thoughts anymore so I googled and found this—then burst into tears, being releaved to have found out I’m not alone and that I’m not a monster for thinking such f**ked up things.

Same here nicole. My thoughts took me as far is the mental health institution. But articles like this help put everything into perspective. Ive read others but some kind of traumatized me.

Hi i been dealing with depression and anxiety and my bad thoughts ever since i was 18 years old and i am still dealing with them and i don't know what to do i want these bad thoughts to just go away for good but how? I am taking medication and im still dealing with everything please help me please?

Maybe u need to change or up the medication. Sometimes I think u have to swap about ti find what helps you, remember though try not to fight the thoughts easier said I no but it does work I've done it b for takes alot of practice but ull get there, tell ur self it's just a thought each an every time, then try an find a positive thought anything at all

I can really relate to that since I've been dealing with the same thing 7yrs before you did I just hope that another day, another psychiatrist that I can get over my anxiety and my bad thoughts too.

Don't know you,mate. But here we are. I'm 37 and have to say, the thought always came but have became more frequent. Really, Its not hard to sort out. I've been watching horror since I was a kid. And of course Porn. This has a effect on us GOOD ppl. Your mind is like your belly, mate. You are what you eat. Please pray for me as I will for you.

I thought that I was going mad and would not share my thoughts with anyone. On certain occasions they felt overwhelming and I assumed i must be some some of freak now after reading your comment I feel the same as you that it is a normal process that certain people go through and that makes me feel a lot better and reassured that such feelings will now pass.

I feel/ felt the same this was out of nowhere and it hit me hard because the thought was the opposite of the person I am I’m a good person and always been positive and happy. I actually thought I was going mad too and the day it hit me hard I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t tell my parents how I felt but now I feel better after a week because I know the person I truly am and that these random thoughts shouldn’t affect me

Oh Nicole. I actually started crying even more when I read your comment, because that was my exact same reaction. It's good to know one is not alone, and that we all have each other's backs.

Ive been going through this for about 5 years. It started when I got pregnant with my son 4 years ago and it has only gotten worse. I take medication and go to therapy. I feel so lost and confused. Is there medication for this?