A young girl doesn't know if her thoughts are intrusive or impulsive.

Are Your Thoughts Intrusive or Impulsive?

May 17, 2024

5 min.

Struggling with unwanted thoughts? Charlie Health reviews how intrusive thoughts differ from impulsive thoughts, as well as how to manage the symptoms of each.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

Clinically Reviewed By: Meghan Jensen

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process


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Table of Contents

If your thoughts make you feel anxious or distressed, you might wonder if you’re dealing with intrusive or impulsive thoughts. Both kinds of thought can significantly impact daily functioning when left unaddressed but differ in how they happen and what they look like. Below, we break down the similarities and differences between intrusive and impulsive thoughts and explain how to manage and overcome all kinds of distressing thoughts. 

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What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, or sensations that lead to significant distress and discomfort. They’re often strange or disturbing and seem to appear out of nowhere. Common categories of intrusive thoughts include:

  • Violent or aggressive acts, including causing harm to others
  • Germs or contamination
  • Sexual thoughts, including inappropriate or taboo subjects
  • Concerns about leaving tasks unfinished or doing them wrong
  • Saying the wrong thing or behaving the wrong way 
  • Religious thoughts, such as committing sins or acting against a person’s beliefs

While intrusive thoughts can feel concerning or disturbing, they are somewhat normal and most people will experience them at some point. One study reported that 94% of participants experienced at least one intrusive thought in the three prior months. And although they can cause fear, guilt, and distress, it’s important to remember that these thoughts are often unfounded and occur at random, without a specific cause. 

How to spot intrusive thoughts 

Here are some signs that you may be experiencing an intrusive thought:

  • The thought is unusual or different from your typical thoughts 
  • The thought is bothersome or disturbing
  • The thought is repetitive and difficult to ignore

What are impulsive thoughts?

Impulsive thoughts are spontaneous thoughts that often lead to impulsive behaviors. When people have impulsive thoughts, they typically make decisions without considering the potential outcomes or consequences. For example, impulsive thoughts can lead to abrupt or unwanted behaviors, such as:

  • Spending large amounts of money regardless of your financial situation 
  • Leaving a job 
  • Changing your personal appearance, such as getting a haircut or tattoo 
  • Taking an unplanned trip
  • Running away from home 
  • Ending a relationship 

How to spot impulsive thoughts 

Here are some signs that you may be experiencing an impulsive thought:

  • The thought comes on suddenly without much deliberation or planning
  • There is an intense or urgent feeling accompanying the thought
  • The thought is focused on actions that grant quick satisfaction but could lead to problems later

Intrusive vs impulsive thoughts

Although intrusive and impulsive thoughts may seem similar, they have different origins, symptoms, and effects. Below, we delve into the differences between intrusive and impulsive thoughts. 

Intrusive thoughts

Impulsive thoughts

  • Repetitive in nature
  • May cause shame or low self-esteem when left unaddressed
  • Often linked with mental health conditions like OCD, PTSD, and eating disorders
  • Sporadic and related to specific triggers
  • May cause guilt or regret when left unaddressed
  • Often linked with impulse control disorders, ADHD, and certain personality disorders

1. Nature

Impulsive thoughts are often sporadic and related to specific triggers, while intrusive thoughts tend to be more repetitive. Also, impulsive thoughts are usually followed by impulsive behaviors, while intrusive thoughts aren’t typically acted upon.

2. Consequences

When left unmanaged, both categories of thought can have psychological effects. Intrusive thoughts can cause shame or guilt, which may eventually contribute to low self-esteem and social isolation. Impulsive thoughts are typically linked to feelings like guilt and regret, especially if the thoughts contribute to unwanted consequences and behavior patterns, such as stealing, problems at school, or taking financial risks.

3. Associated mental health conditions

Anyone can experience intrusive thoughts, but experts often link them to mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders. By contrast, impulsive thoughts are typically associated with impulse control disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and certain personality disorders.

How to manage and treat intrusive and impulsive thoughts

If intrusive or impulsive thoughts are starting to affect your daily life, you may want to consider therapy, medication, or lifestyle changes to help manage symptoms and improve your overall quality of life. Here are some steps you can take to manage and treat either kind of unwanted thought. 

1. Talk therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of mental health treatment that is often used to help people identify, understand, and change irrational thought patterns and behaviors. Once you learn how to challenge harmful thoughts, you’re better prepared to replace them with more rational and empowering alternatives. Therapy can also help people address the underlying problems causing distressing thoughts, such as anxiety, stress, or trauma. In addition to individual therapy, group therapy can connect people with other people with similar mental health concerns and struggles, including intrusive and impulsive thoughts.

2. Medication

Prescription medication may be another option for some people who are struggling with distressing thoughts. Antidepressants and other drugs can be used to manage the underlying conditions that contribute to intrusive or impulsive thoughts, but it’s best to speak with a mental health professional to understand which treatment is right for you. 

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation exercises are often used to help calm the mind and reduce harmful urges. With mindfulness, people learn to sit with their thoughts, including intrusive and impulsive thoughts, and let them pass without judgment. By simply noticing and observing these thoughts, people can learn to separate themselves from fear, guilt, and low self-esteem.

Other tips for managing intrusive thoughts

Experts make the following suggestions for learning to manage and overcome unwanted thoughts:

  • Label the thoughts as intrusive 
  • Remind yourself that the thoughts are involuntary 
  • Accept the thoughts instead of pushing them away
  • Give yourself time to process your thoughts 
  • Understand the thoughts might return 

Other tips for managing impulsive thoughts

Know your triggers. If you’ve ever experienced impulsive thoughts, make note of the people, places, and situations that trigger these thoughts. Knowing what sets you off may help prevent future impulsive thoughts or behaviors. 

It may also be helpful to try counting to 10 when an impulsive thought comes on. If you feel the urge to act on an impulsive thought, consider a delay strategy like counting to 10 before you take any action.

A young girl is in virtual therapy for intrusive thoughts.

Get help for unwanted thoughts at Charlie Health

If unwanted thoughts or impulsive behaviors are impacting your mental health, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions and symptoms, including intrusive and impulsive thoughts. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions to make healing and meaningful change possible.  

Complete the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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