Intrusive Thoughts, OCD, and Anxiety

Intrusive thoughts can be part of disorders like OCD and GAD. Learn facts about these disturbing ideas and images as a first step in breaking away from them.

Experiencing intrusive thoughts is one of the most terrifying aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). If you are repeatedly bombarded by distressing ideas and images, you might want to hide it because you are afraid that there's something wrong with you. However, intrusive thoughts aren't an indication that you are a terrible person. This look at intrusive thoughts in OCD and anxiety can help you understand what's happening and learn how to deal with these alarming, unwanted thoughts. 

What Are the Intrusive Thoughts of Anxiety and OCD?

Intrusive thoughts are just that--thoughts that force themselves into someone's mind. They typically pounce in out of nowhere, and their content is disturbing. Common themes of intrusive thoughts include:

  • Violence
  • Death
  • Thoughts of harming your own child
  • Inappropriate sexual thoughts 
  • Worries about sexual orientation 
  • Bothersome thoughts about your religion or aspects of your faith

People are usually the subject of their own intrusive thoughts. They might see themselves violently beating a spouse, running over a stranger with a car, or pushing an elderly neighbor down the stairs. Thoughts of violent or deviant sexual acts can strike out of the blue.

Understandably, intrusive thoughts can be terrifying. People are usually alarmed and horrified that they could have such thoughts, and it causes tension and anxiety because the people who have them don't think of themselves as violent, sexually inappropriate, or sacrilegious--or at least they didn't think that way before the disturbing thoughts began. 

Intrusive Thoughts: You're Not the Only One

People often keep quiet about their intrusive thoughts because they're afraid of the thoughts: afraid they might act on them, afraid they're horrible for thinking them, or afraid they'll drive people away. Because of the silence, many people think they're alone in having recurring dark thoughts. That's not the case, though. This is the case:

The amount of people affected by intrusive thoughts is even greater than what these figures indicate. These estimates consider only people living with a mental health diagnosis. Actually, almost every single human being experiences intrusive thoughts from time to time. They become a problem when they hook you and crowd out your other thoughts and experiences. Intrusive thoughts can significantly increase anxiety, worry, and fear and decrease quality of life.

The horrific thoughts can cause psychological stress and problems in relationships, work, and other important life areas. However, you can take your life back and loosen the grip intrusive thoughts have on you. It's a matter of shifting your thinking.

The next post will provide ways you can deal with and heal from the intrusive thoughts of OCD and anxiety. For now, remember that you're not alone and you're not your thoughts. 


  1. Seif, Martin & Winston, Sally, "Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts"Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Accessed October 3, 2018.
  2. Ackerman, Courtney, "What Are Intrusive Thoughts in OCD and Anxiety? + Treatment Options"Positive Psychology Program. July 2018. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2018, October 4). Intrusive Thoughts, OCD, and Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Cheri Hoff
October, 6 2018 at 1:56 pm

I haveOCD omugst other things. I have been on meds many years. Still get intrusive thoughts but when they come I see the illness for what it is and let it come and go. No big deal.

October, 7 2018 at 6:00 pm

Hi Cheri,
thank you for commenting and mentioning that you are able to let your thoughts come and go without them becoming a problem. This could be a source of encouragement for a great many people.

January, 5 2020 at 1:45 pm

I have had ocd before years ago but it settled but this year after three major traumas its all started again but my thoughts have been different and anything and everything I have went from thoughts of harming others to looking at them thinking they are the devil now its constant about wanting to do things to myself is this the normal its horrible hard very upsetting and no I would never harm myself or anyone am the most sociable person ever normally I have become so reliant on my partner and a can see it taking a strain on him not fair I have been tried on two different antidepressants one venlafaxine which made me feel like my eyes were saucers so stopped now sertraline a tried a 50mg was shaking then woke at 4am mind running constantly for two hours phoned doctor said try half so did but next time woke heart pounding sweating so stopped again but was at doctor again he asked me to try again which I did first day very brain fog but today been bad suicidal thoughts everywhere then anxiety level went thru the roof so now not keen its horrible and just want it to stop now draining makes me sad just wish I could get an antidepressant that would help and not make me feel crap

January, 6 2020 at 1:52 pm

Hi Caza,
This sound frustrating and frightening, to put it mildly. Hang in there. You mentioned settling your OCD symptoms before, so you can definitely do it again. While there are no quick fixes, these thoughts, emotions, and limitations can be drastically reduced and replaced with ones that you want instead.
Have you considered seeing a different doctor for a new evaluation and/or second opinion? Often, a fresh perspective can be beneficial. It may be that the medication you are on isn't right. (That said, only a doctor--preferably a psychiatrist--can determine the right medications with you. Never stop a medication without medical supervision as that can be dangerous.). Also, working with a therapist can be very helpful, too. Trauma can absolutely worsen OCD thoughts and mental health in general. A therapist can help you work through trauma plus obsessive thoughts.
The thoughts you describe are a common pattern in OCD. Having thoughts of harming yourself or others does not make you a bad person or prone to violence. They can, though, feel very real and scary. When those thoughts get intense, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (this is true for suicidal thoughts as well as thoughts of harming others). Reach them 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with them here: Because you're not alone in the thoughts you're having, the people there won't be shocked or judgmental. They're genuinely there to help.
You've demonstrated to yourself before that you can get through things, and it's still true even though this time is different. With your strength and support, you can get past this and reclaim a quality life. You deserve it, too!

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