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by Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD

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: http://www.drmartinseif.com/

Additional Resources

  • ADAA invites you to view Dr. Seif and Dr. Winston's corresponding free webinar, Overcoming Intrusive Thoughts.
  • Check out this helpful video by professional graphic designer and animator J. Nordby on how he overcame his struggles with intrusive thoughts. 

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

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

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

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.

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?

Hi Cmh520. I started Prozac 6 weeks ago today, and the past two days have been pretty rough. I have been through the roof anxious today and took hydroxazine for the first time which helped dull it down, but I am falling asleep at work. I am actually interested in switching to Celexa because I have a few friends on it for anxiety, and it is working so well for them. How long have you been taking it, did you get side effects, and when did you notice it working?

I just wanted to see how you are feeling? My negative thoughts started when my son was also born and around the time my grandma was brutally taken from us. I'd love to talk and see how you are doing. ?

Amen! I was almost losing hope that I'd ever find someone that understood. Some of the thoughts that have been going through my head have been horrific. But I was just like you. As soon as I started reading these comments, I immediately knew I wasn't alone. It's important people like us stick together in these hard times.

This all of a sudden happened to me this past year. July 4th, 2018 my life changed forever. I’ve been struggling with it every day since. The things that constantly run through my head keep me awake at night. I know these thoughts aren’t things I would ever do so I don’t know what triggered this in me. I’m searching for relief daily, I can’t keep living like this. I don’t like where my mind is and I just don’t understand how it just popped up on me so suddenly. If anyone can see this I’d love to talk to you. Life is getting progressively harder to live. Do I seek medical attention or cope with it? Coping with it does not work... I’m running out of options and just need direction

You're not alone. I understand entirely how you feel, trapped within your own mind. I'm no expert by any means, but if you feel something is wrong enough to get help, it can't hurt.

Yeh isn’t it interesting our choice of words, “Trapped” in our own minds, but that is how it feels it’s bizarre really, but comforting that lots of other humans experience similar things hopefully a really quick solution will be discovered soon.

Hi Ross, I wondered if you have had help/advice yet and how you are now?

Yeah I got sudden onset ocd 10 years ago, it gets easier when you get the right treatment and medication. I still live with it but I just ignore it as much as possible and live around it. Some people have diabetes, some are in a wheelchair, I have ocd. I really enjoy life and love having a good laugh, I learned that you can’t take everything seriously lol. What I do know is that it is triggered and worsened by stress so when I get it I know I need to relax myself, resting and mindfulness, meditation helps, then I get distracted then I forget about it. Hope this helps X

LOVE that you are positive. Some of the therapies I have seen are ridiculous. There was a webinar on one, I could look it up, but won't. The female "doctor" was using the therapy where you directly confront the fears. She had a patient that was afraid he would stab his wife, so he stayed out of the kitchen when she was in it. I don't see that as being such a bad thing if it makes someone uncomfortable. Then she would make him hold a knife while in the kitchen with her..then..yes really..she was going to have him hold the knife over her while they were in the kitchen. I have read articles on this and if it is for compulsive things like checking the stove I get it, but this seemed and seems absolutely ridiculous to me. That is why some people will call them quacks.

Please speak to a licensed psychologist. I had these exact feelings six months ago. My mom had died, I had moved once again to a new city where I knew no one. I was suffering PTSD and had no idea. Suddenly I started having horrible thoughts and considered running away or...worse. they caused me to have my first full-fledged panic attacks. I found a psychologist who helped me work through the weird thoughts. The thing about them is that they don't mean anything about you or your wants and desires. In fact they are like a magnification of your worst fear. Please find someone you can unload these thoughts on. They won't commit you or call the police. Thoughts are not a crime, and chances are you won't be the first of their patients with this issue. Please don't lose hope. Give counseling a chance.

Thanks for sharing that. It really resonated with me what you said about a magnification of your worst fear. I couldn't understand why I kept getting these thoughts as I knew they weren't what I wanted and in actual fact if these thoughts were to come to reality, I would be devastated. Thanks so much for your post. It gives me hope to think I can overcome my situation.

Ross I’ve being going through the same thing your going through for over 9 years and I still wonder what is going on in my life. From the time that I had my last child I’ve being having sleeping disorder that not even sleeping pills would handle, during my pregnancy I told my doctor that I was not having any sleep so he recommend me to read and so I did, but the following doctors appointment I had I told him that I still couldn’t sleep after reading and he just said I should read some more and there I went reading more and more but still didn’t work so I just give up, it’s like what I am doing right now will come back at me when I ready to go to sleep, so if any one can help with my issue I will greatly appreciated

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