The Surprising Difference Between Intrusive vs. Impulsive Thoughts
Every day, twelve-year-old Emily is consumed with the fear that she might accidentally hurt somebody or cause them harm. One day, she sees a knife on the kitchen counter and the thought “you could walk into the other room and stab your father with that knife” immediately pops into her head. For the rest of the day, Emily ruminates on why she had that thought. She wonders if it might be because she actually wants to stab her father. This fills her with agony and despair, because she loves her father and what kind of monster is she for thinking about stabbing him? Emily can’t bear to sit with not knowing if she has actually been a cold-blooded killer her whole life without realizing it. She goes on to the computer and searches for “how do you know if you actually want to kill people”. She scrolls though the results and although she does not relate at all to most of what she finds, there is one line in an article that says “serial killers often think about murdering people”. This sends Emily into a tailspin because she had that exact thought when she walked into the kitchen and saw the knife. Emily’s anxiety eventually decreases and she feels OK for a few weeks until one day when she is on a hike with her family. As they stand on top of the mountain enjoying the view from up high, the thought “what if you pushed your brother off the cliff?” pops into her head. This starts the cycle all over again, filling Emily with even more mental anguish. Emily is experiencing intrusive thoughts.
John is a teenager who is generally well-behaved but shows some signs of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One day, he walks into the kitchen and sees a knife laying on the counter. The thought “you could walk into the other room and stab your father with that knife” immediately pops into his head. This makes him think of a horror movie he saw recently about a serial killer. He enjoyed the movie and starts to think about one scene in which the bad guy stabbed someone. John immediately picks up the knife and makes stabbing gestures in the air. He thinks “wow, it’s kind of spooky that anyone can pick up a knife and kill someone”. This thought makes him feel a little uneasy, so he puts the knife down and decides to sit on the couch and scroll though social media. Within a few minutes, John is engrossed in his phone and has forgotten all about the knife. John just experienced an impulsive thought.
As these narratives illustrate, having intrusive thoughts and having impulsive thoughts are two very different experiences. The problem is that because their content and sudden nature are so alike, people often use them interchangeably. This is invalidating to people who struggle with intrusive thoughts. Imagine how Emily would feel if John told her, “I also have intrusive thoughts about killing people. I know exactly how you feel.”
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are a characteristic of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). They are thoughts, ideas or images that are unwelcome, upsetting and recurrent.
The specific intrusive thoughts associated with OCD varies from person to person. However, they can be generally categorized into one or more of the several subtypes of OCD:
- Contamination/Mental Contamination
- Sexual Orientation
What are impulsive thoughts?
Everyone experiences impulsive thoughts, usually starting in childhood. Impulsive thoughts are ideas or images that pop into one’s mind spontaneously and are considered “taboo”. These thoughts can be as innocuous as slamming your face into a beautiful, expensive wedding cake or throwing your cell phone out of the window. Other times, their content can be very similar to those of intrusive thoughts. The narrative at the beginning of the post shows that John’s initial impulsive thought (i.e. killing a family member with a knife) was similar to Emily’s. If a random, “inappropriate” thought enters your mind and you are able to move on from it relatively quickly without significant anxiety, chances are it is an impulsive thought.
How intrusive thoughts differ from impulsive thoughts
A key difference between intrusive and impulsive thoughts are effect that it has on the individual.
For the person with OCD, intrusive thoughts cause great anguish and torment. They are more repetitive and scarier than impulsive thoughts. These ideas turn into non-stop obsessions that can fill the individual with confusion, fear, and dread.
Intrusive thoughts also cause an individual to think they are a “bad person” because they had the thought. For example, Emily had the thought that she could stab her father and interpreted that fact that she had that thought as evidence that she was a bad person. Misinterpreting these intrusive thoughts as meaningful and significant leads to feeling a great deal of anxiety and distress, which can lead one to resort to strategies to gain relief from those feelings. Those strategies can include seeking reassurance from others, checking to make sure one did not do what they thought, or going over scenarios in one’s mind.
People experiencing impulsive thoughts can recognize them as spontaneous, automatic and therefore completely out of their control. They think “how could something that is outside of my control be a reflection on me as a person?
Try using the following techniques to respond more effectively to intrusive thoughts:
- label your thoughts as “intrusive thoughts”
- write down your intrusive thought with the words “I’m having the thought ____”.
- allow yourself to think of the intrusive thought—bring it into your mind intentionally to show yourself that it is insignificant and nonthreatening
When responding to intrusive thoughts, try not to do the following:
- push away the thoughts
- distract yourself from the thoughts
- analyze or figure out what the thoughts “really mean”
- ask others about your thoughts, or if they think you would ever do what you are thinking
Remember that intrusive thoughts are automatic and it is not up to you whether or not you have them. What is up to you is how you respond and whether or not you allow them to have power over you.
Seeking Mental Health Support
Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center is a good first step in talking through upsetting thoughts. Our therapists specialize in treating OCD and are familiar with all types of thoughts — intrusive and otherwise. Meet our team to learn more!
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