Differences Between Intrusive vs. Impulsive Thoughts

February 21, 2024

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Grasping the nuances of your thought processes can be intricate, especially when differentiating between intrusive thoughts vs impulsive thoughts. These two prevalent types of thoughts can often lead to significant confusion or discomfort.

In this guide, we aim to unravel the complexities of the mind by examining the difference between intrusive and impulsive thoughts, exploring their origins, their effects, and some strategies for effectively managing them.

Understanding Intrusive vs Impulsive Thoughts

Intrusive and impulsive thoughts are two types of unwanted thoughts, but they are different in what they are and how they affect you. Here’s a snapshot of impulsive vs intrusive thoughts:

  • Intrusive thoughts are sudden and unwanted ideas, images, or worries that come into your mind and can make you feel really anxious. They are often linked to mental health conditions like OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). For example, you might keep thinking about upsetting memories or have fears that don’t make much sense.
  • Impulsive thoughts, by contrast, are thoughts that make you do things quickly without thinking about what might happen next. These thoughts can lead to actions right away and are usually seen in conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and BPD (borderline personality disorder). An example could be suddenly deciding to buy something expensive or saying something without thinking.

Understanding the differences between an intrusive thought and an impulsive thought is highly beneficial for mental health. It helps you recognize when your thoughts might be causing you problems and need attention. This way, you can find the right ways to deal with them, like using CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) for intrusive thoughts or learning how to control sudden urges for impulsive thoughts.

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Knowing about these differences also helps you to be more understanding and supportive of other people dealing with these issues, which can make it easier for them to get help and feel better.

What Is an Intrusive Thought?

Intrusive thoughts are those unexpected, often unpleasant thoughts or images that pop into your head without warning. They can be really worrying and make you feel anxious.

For example, you might have sudden fears about safety, think about doing something embarrassing in public, or have unwanted sexual thoughts. These thoughts can upset you, especially if you think they’re wrong or shouldn’t be in your head. They can make you doubt yourself and feel guilty or ashamed, and trying to push them away often just makes them stick around more.

Some ways to handle intrusive thoughts are:

  • Accepting that everyone gets these kinds of thoughts and that they don’t make you a bad person.
  • Mindfulness meditation, where you notice your thoughts but don’t judge them, understanding that they’re just thoughts and not universal truths.
  • CBT, a type of therapy that helps you see how your thoughts are not always accurate and teaches you ways to think differently.
  • ERP (exposure and response prevention) therapy, a techique that gently makes you face the things you’re scared of to help reduce your anxiety and stop compulsive behaviors.

If these thoughts are really bothering you or getting in the way of your life, it’s a good idea to get help from a professional.

woman with headache representing difference between intrusive and impulsive thoughts

What Is an Impulsive Thought?

Impulsive thoughts are those sudden ideas or urges that make you want to do something right away without thinking about what will happen next.

These can include things like buying something you don’t need, wanting to eat unhealthy food when you’re trying to eat better, or feeling like saying something you shouldn’t in a group of people. These thoughts can make you act without thinking and lead to problems like spending too much money, health issues, or upsetting other people.

Some good ways to deal with impulsive thoughts are:

  • Mindfulness, which helps you notice when you’re having an impulsive thought so you can stop and think about it before you act.
  • Distraction, or doing something else to take your mind off the impulsive thought, like reading or going for a walk.
  • Waiting a bit before you act on the impulse, which can help reduce the urge and give you time to think.
  • CBT, which helps you understand why you get these impulsive thoughts and learn better ways to handle them.

It’s normal to have impulsive thoughts sometimes, but if they’re causing big problems in your life, it might be time to talk to a professional about them.

Intrusive vs Impulsive Thoughts Examples

Here are some intrusive thoughts vs impulsive thoughts examples:

Intrusive thoughts:

  • Health anxiety: Suddenly worrying that a minor symptom, like a headache, is a sign of a serious illness, leading to persistent concern and research about diseases.
  • Social taboos: Experiencing unexpected and unwanted aggressive thoughts about shouting in a quiet place like a library, or fears of acting out of character in public.
  • Unwanted memories: Recurrent flashbacks of an embarrassing or traumatic event that surface without warning, causing distress and discomfort.

Impulsive thoughts:

  • Shopping sprees: The sudden urge to purchase something expensive on impulse, without considering the financial consequences or actual need for the item.
  • Immediate gratification: Craving a specific unhealthy food and deciding to eat it instantly, disregarding dietary restrictions or health goals.
  • Social outbursts: Feeling an overpowering impulse to express an opinion or secret without thinking about the appropriateness of the timing or the impact on others.

Getting Help for Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can be distressing and overwhelming, but keep in mind that help and support are available. If you or someone you know is struggling with intrusive thoughts, consider the following steps to seek assistance.

Educate yourself

Understanding intrusive thoughts, their causes, and how they manifest can be empowering. Knowledge can help reduce the fear and anxiety associated with these thoughts. There are many reputable resources and books available that provide valuable insights and information.

Reach out to friends and family

Don’t hesitate to talk to trusted friends and family members about your intrusive thoughts. Sharing your experiences can help you feel understood and supported. Loved ones can also provide emotional assistance during challenging times.

Crisis hotlines

If you are in immediate distress or experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please reach out to a crisis hotline or seek emergency help. Your well-being is of utmost importance, and there are professionals available 24/7 to provide help and guidance.

Reach out to a mental health professional

One of the most effective ways to address intrusive thoughts is by consulting a mental health professional. Psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors are trained to help people manage and cope with intrusive thoughts. They can provide a safe and non-judgmental space for you to discuss your thoughts and feelings.


Cognitive behavioral therapy is a widely used and evidence-based approach for managing intrusive thoughts. CBT can help individuals identify irrational beliefs and thought patterns, learn strategies to challenge and reframe these thoughts and develop healthier coping mechanisms.


In some cases, medications may be prescribed by a psychiatrist to help manage severe intrusive thoughts, especially if they are associated with conditions like OCD or anxiety disorders. Medication should always be discussed with a qualified healthcare provider.

Support groups

Joining a support group can be beneficial as it allows you to connect with others who may be experiencing similar intrusive thoughts. Sharing your experiences and hearing from others can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide a sense of community.

Self-help techniques

While professional help is recommended, there are self-help techniques that can complement therapy and support. These include mindfulness meditation, relaxation exercises, journaling, and self-help books focused on managing intrusive thoughts.

Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, and there are numerous resources and professionals available to support you in managing and overcoming intrusive thoughts. Don’t hesitate to take the first step towards improving your mental health and well-being 

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Get Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts at Connections

If you require treatment for anxiety disorder or any other mental health condition, reach out to Connections in Southern California. Whether you have been experiencing impulsive thinking or intrusive thinking, we can help you recalibrate your life and restore functioning.

Our beachside treatment facility is designed to make you feel at home as you join a small group of peers tackling similar issues. With admissions limited to just six people at any one time, you’ll benefit from personalized care and peer support as you engage with science-backed treatments. The inpatient nature of treatment ensures that you can deal with mental health issues in an immersive environment free of distractions and triggers.

Call 844-759-0999 today and begin your recovery in Southern California tomorrow.

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