Warning: The following includes descriptions of intrusive thoughts that some readers may find distressing.
Have you ever been standing on a train platform, minding your own business, when your brain suddenly pipes up with the idea of jumping in front of the oncoming train? Or been driving and singing along to the radio, then suddenly envisioned swinging the car off the road? Most likely that was an intrusive thought.
These unwelcome flashes of imagination have no bearing on a person’s intentions or moral character. Almost everyone will have experienced an intrusive thought, even if they weren’t able to identify it at the time. Most of the time, people quickly abandon these thoughts and move on with their day.
"An intrusive thought is usually different from everyday typical thoughts and may be uncharacteristically violent," explains coach and psychologist Zoe Mallett. "If the thought feels disturbing to you and if you find yourself trying to distract yourself from that thought because you want it out of your mind, it may be an intrusive thought. It's usually something you wouldn't want anyone else to know and makes you feel ashamed or atypical."
It can be very damaging for someone struggling with OCD to be given inaccurate information about the nature of intrusive thoughts.
Dr Sarah Bishop
Research has found that 94% of people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts. Recently, the hashtag #intrusivethoughts has amassed over 996.9 million views on TikTok. While anyone can experience this phenomenon, as a medical issue it is most often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though sometimes intrusive thoughts can be triggered by big life stressors and periods of intense anxiety.
Thanks to its virality online, "intrusive thoughts" has become a TikTok catchphrase used by people to describe random, everyday impulses. Viral videos of people doing something out of the ordinary, like pressing the alarm button on an elevator, drawing on themselves with a tattoo gun or touching a dirty pole on the subway are captioned "my intrusive thoughts won". The comment sections of these videos are mostly filled with users correcting these content creators who misuse and make light of intrusive thoughts, fearing the potentially inaccurate use of the term dilutes the meaning of a real mental health issue.
These creators may well have experienced a sudden impulse to act in this way but people experiencing an actual intrusive thought will act in exactly the opposite way and certainly won’t be picking up their camera to film it. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), the most dangerous myth surrounding intrusive thoughts is that they might lead to action. In reality, intrusive thoughts are at odds with the desires or beliefs of the person thinking them, who will typically work hard to fight them.
As clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Bishop explains: "It can be very damaging for someone struggling with OCD to be given inaccurate information about the nature of intrusive thoughts."
"Our thoughts and behaviour are two separate entities," explains Bishop. "A behaviour is how we respond in reality to a mental event i.e. a thought or an emotion. Intrusive thoughts refer to mental events that an individual finds deeply disturbing and does not wish to act upon. We have a level of choice over our behaviour. We cannot choose however the natural byproduct of our mind's activity known as thoughts."
For some, intrusive thoughts come at a relentless pace and brushing them off can become more difficult. These thoughts are often of an inappropriate or taboo nature, perhaps involving children or animals, or having incestuous or violent themes (about 13 to 21% of people with OCD experience intrusive thoughts relating to sexual obsessions). The taboo nature, either personally or societally, is often so great that people who experience thoughts like this may go years — even a lifetime — without telling anyone about them.
"In OCD, individuals experience intense distress associated with their intrusive thoughts and then feel compelled to carry out associated actions in a desperate attempt to stop the thought. It can be a debilitating condition for some," says Bishop. Individuals may obsess desperately over the intrusive thought or act out compulsions such as tapping or counting to rid themselves of the thought.
Social media has gone some way to fill a void in the conversation around mental health by building communities and chipping away at stigma. However, false self-diagnoses and the misuse of medical terms can have a negative impact on the people who live with any of these serious disorders. In the freewheeling social media space, bad information can spread fast and people may even end up bullying those who share their real experiences of intrusive thoughts.
"For people who struggle with intrusive thoughts to the extent of meeting criteria of OCD, as millions round the world do, one of the biggest challenges is around nurturing the ability to accept thoughts non-judgmentally without reacting to them," explains Dr Bishop. "When we misuse terms around this, not only do we invalidate the struggle but it can worsen the problem through misinformation."
"If you have had a thought that you’d like to play a joke on someone and carried this out for a laugh or to gain likes and views on TikTok, this is not an intrusive thought," adds Dr Bishop. "It is wanted, intentional and planned; quite literally the opposite to intrusive thoughts and impulsive behaviours."
Intrusive thoughts themselves aren’t dangerous but when that thought crosses a line and begins to interfere with one’s ability to function in daily life, it’s important to seek help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. "We have to remember that you don't need a licence or credentials to open a social media account, which means anyone has access to creating a platform to give out educational information about medical diagnoses and treatments," says Mallett. "We all need to get into the practice of being critical about what we consume online. When you hear a new term or there's a mental health 'trend', question it."
Posting a TikTok about impulsively dyeing your hair or doing something silly in public and describing it as "my intrusive thoughts won" may seem inconsequential but as one Twitter user put it: "If my intrusive thoughts actually won I would be institutionalized for the rest of my life."