Intrusive vs. Obsessive Thoughts: What’s the Difference?


At any given time, you are only partly in control of the thoughts that pop into your head.

Ideas, observations, judgments, memories, bits of music, and a thousand other types of mental jetsam are constantly flowing through your mind, according to research — and most of that is going on without your say-so.

A lot of these thoughts arise without you being aware of them. For example, a song might be stuck in your head for most of an afternoon before you take notice of it. But other times, an uninvited thought or image can pop into your head and immediately surprise you or catch your attention. Experts refer to these attention-grabbing thoughts as intrusive thoughts.

Nearly everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at some point in life. In general, they’re not a problem. However, for some people they can become very difficult to manage and can contribute to significant anxiety, distress, sadness, or self-doubt. These intrusive thoughts are known as obsessive thoughts, and they can be problematic for your mental health.


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