Here's What The Internet Is Getting Wrong About Intrusive Thoughts

The internet, being the internet, does not always present the most accurate information. When it comes to mental health, misinformation online can be especially prevalent, and social media users without qualifications have a tendency to diagnose others or themselves with mental health issues. One of the most recent, more prevalent examples of misusing of mental health terminology includes language surrounding "intrusive thoughts." On TikTok in particular, a trend has circulated in which creators share videos of them "acting out" their intrusive thoughts, or "letting" their intrusive thoughts "win." The hashtag #intrusivethoughts has more than 1 billion views on TikTok at the time of writing, but in comparison, the hashtag #impulsivethoughts doesn't even have half of that, with close to 490 million views. Videos tagged as describing intrusive thoughts are typically not proper representations of intrusive thoughts, which can be highly distressing. Instead, they're representations of impulsive thoughts, such as dying your hair pink, playing with food, or giving yourself bangs. Conflating the two has real implications for those who genuinely struggle with intrusive thoughts, and those who pretend to have them — whether knowingly or not — are capitalizing on this misinformation for clicks.

Before we get into what the internet gets wrong about intrusive thoughts, know that having intrusive thoughts does not make you a bad person, nor do they mean that something is wrong with you. Should you be struggling with intrusive thoughts, seek counseling from a mental health provider. 

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are distressing and unwanted images, words, or scenarios that pop into our minds without us being able to control them. Intrusive thoughts are often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD). But just because you've had intrusive thoughts, doesn't mean you have OCD or PTSD. Regarding why we have intrusive thoughts, psychologists have suggested that it all comes back to our nervous systems. On a subconscious level, our brains are designed to keep us safe; to recognize the boundaries between what is dangerous, and what is not. So, it's rather logical that if you were looking over the edge of a high building, you might consider what would happen if you jumped. The thought could startle you. This is your brain's way of signaling to you that, while this is possible, it is not safe to do so; not that you should actually do it. 

Intrusive thoughts can be instigated by anything. Whether it's the environment you're in, like if you're driving a car and have the thought that you could swerve off the road, or something subconscious, surrounding thoughts around harm, pedophilia, or bestiality. Intrusive thoughts also tend to reoccur, and don't respond well to being repressed, no matter how well someone is able to distract themselves. 

What aren't intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are not, however, the same thing as impulsive thoughts. The two share some key similarities and key differences. First, impulsive thoughts do not cause significant distress like intrusive thoughts can. Where intrusive thoughts can send someone into a long-lasting spiral of shame and fear, impulsive thoughts quickly come and go, usually without happening again. An example of an impulsive thought would be the idea to steal an item while shopping, or to throw your phone against a wall at random. While both of these actions would be deemed socially unacceptable, they would typically not cause someone to ruminate on what they could mean, or about who they are as a person, like intrusive thoughts do. 

Both intrusive thoughts and impulsive thoughts happen without our control — this is a similarity between the two. And while impulsive thoughts can be disturbing in nature too, they typically don't cause someone to question their entire being. This TikTok video by Kristy Sarah (@kristy.sarah) exemplifies the conflation between intrusive and impulsive thoughts well. Though she describes "acting on her intrusive thoughts" by slapping her hand in a pile of eggs while making pasta, this is an example of someone acting on an impulsive thought. Commenters were quick to point out the difference. Several comments read, "If I acted on my intrusive thoughts I'd be dead," or "If I acted on my intrusive thoughts I'd be in prison." 

Intrusive thoughts can be upsetting

This is because actual intrusive thoughts can be downright disturbing. While they range in content, many of them fit into several common themes: physical harm or violence, including suicide; sexual attraction and sexual orientation; intrusive thoughts surrounding the strength of your relationships, for example, that your partner does not love you; religion; eating, weight, and body image; and others. It is crucial to reiterate that those who experience intrusive thoughts do not want to act on them. Experiencing such intrusive thoughts can be so frightening and confusing to some, that they may avoid environments where such thoughts could be triggered out of shame. While some intrusive thoughts could be considered warnings from our nervous systems, others are simply meaningless. Intrusive thoughts do not connote deep-seated significance. 

TikTok creator Aline (@adhdbaddiewithafatty) shares in a TikTok video the real extent to which intrusive thoughts can go, as they have "no limits," she says. She describes what intrusive thoughts can sound like. "Am I attracted to my family member? Am I attracted to my cat? Something racist, really racist. I want to stab someone," she lists. She continues to describe disturbing images that intrusive thoughts can conjure, as well as harmful actions, such as the thought to swerve while on the road. "You're not a bad person, and it's normal," she says. "Intrusive means you don't want them." 

Intrusive thoughts are common

While intrusive thoughts tend to surround taboo topics, one 2014 study cited in Healthline found that just under 94% of 777 college students polled across the globe had at least one intrusive thought in the past three months. By those results, intrusive thoughts are actually extremely normal. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says that while the intrusive thoughts themselves are not of much concern, the way that those who experience them respond to their intrusive thoughts can be detrimental to their health. It's a frustrating paradox that, the more someone engages with an intrusive thought — yes, even trying to make it go away is considered engaging with it — the higher the odds the intrusive thought will stick around. The ADAA instead suggests that you acknowledge the thought, call it what it is, accept the thought, and continue with what you were doing before. When you begin to regard your intrusive thoughts as neutral and out of your control, this is when they are least likely to continue bothering you. While it might take time, patience, and work, you can learn to simply let your intrusive thoughts happen, thus allowing yourself to move on from them. 

Conflating intrusive thoughts with impulsive thoughts can be harmful

While conflating intrusive thoughts with impulsive thoughts could be an honest mistake, it can have serious ramifications for those who do struggle with intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are hard enough to deal with on their own, let alone talk about with others, considering the serious nature of the thoughts. But acting as though intrusive thoughts are suppressed desires, or as though intrusive thoughts would be relatively insignificant, can be both stigmatizing and dangerous for those who have them. TikTok creator Made of Millions (@madeofmillions) explains in a TikTok video why the internet's impression of intrusive thoughts can be a problem. Using phrases such as "I'm so OCD!" or "When the intrusive thoughts win," when describing impulsive thoughts both spreads misinformation about what OCD really is, and assumes that people who have intrusive thoughts want to act on them. For those who are most vulnerable — such as those who may be suicidal because of their intrusive thoughts, or new moms who are afraid to tend to their babies because of them — having a proper understanding of what intrusive thoughts are and are not, can be an extremely sensitive matter. The fact that the internet continues wrongfully delegating impulsive thoughts to the realm of intrusive thoughts is first and foremost inaccurate, and as such, makes discussing mental health even more difficult. Let's do better for the sake of those who need it most.