Intrusive vs. Impulsive Thoughts: Is There a Difference?

Intrusive vs. Impulsive Thoughts: Is There a Difference?Photo from Unsplash

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If you’ve been online for any length of time, you’ve probably seen a video of someone “letting [their] intrusive thoughts win” by cutting their hair or engaging in peculiar behavior. The trend has grown on Twitter, Tiktok, and Instagram as a means to communicate the urge to do “destructive” or weird things. But intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts are two very different things, and the former is probably not what most people assume it is, based on current popular usage.

Impulsive Thoughts

Impulsive thoughts are ideas, images, or lines of thinking that pop into one’s mind spontaneously and are generally considered to be inappropriate. These thoughts usually begin in childhood and are not necessarily harmful.

Impulsive thoughts tend to be short-lasting, easy to resist, and stem from ADHD or an impulsivity disorder. They can be unpleasant and annoying, and even resemble intrusive thoughts, but they’re usually fleeting and unobtrusive.

If a random, inappropriate thought crosses your mind and doesn’t leave you with lingering anxiety, it’s likely an impulsive thought.

Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts, on the other hand, are, well, intrusive. They can look similar to impulsive thoughts, but the main difference is that they trigger an anxiety response and cause you to ruminate on them for an extended period of time. Impulsive thoughts can make you feel afraid, guilty, or ashamed.

They tend to stem from OCD, a disorder that already causes repetitive thinking in many people. These thoughts can echo in your mind all day, causing you to feel like you’re a bad person. But that’s because you are misinterpreting them as being true to who you are.

Impulsive vs. Intrusive Thoughts

Ultimately, the difference comes down to how disturbed you are by your thoughts. If they cause you to spiral into anxiety, ruminate, and feel like you’re a terrible person for having those thoughts, they’re likely intrusive. By “letting your intrusive thoughts win,” you’re giving in and accepting the blame for the thought crossing your mind.

It’s important to remember with both impulsive and intrusive thoughts that it’s perfectly natural for these thoughts to cross our mind. More than 94% of all people experience unwanted thoughts, according to a 2014 study, and that includes those who are neurotypical.

Impulsive thoughts, even those that are violent or sexual in nature, pass easily. Often, the person who has the impulsive thought will bounce right back into “normal” territory, sometimes without missing a beat. Perhaps they notice the impulsive thought, are even mildly disturbed by it, but they don’t dwell on it for long. Some are able to recognize that these thoughts happen to everyone, and are thus able to shrug it off. Someone experiencing the exact same thought in an intrusive nature can know that it happens to all of us, and still feel overcome with anxiety. Ultimately, the difference between impulsive vs. intrusive thoughts comes down to your response to those unwanted thoughts.

The Trend

Now that we understand what intrusive thoughts actually are, the trend of letting them “win” needs to be addressed. To the surprise of no one, the thoughts people act on for social media content are not intrusive. They’re impulsive if anything, and people with chronic impulsive thoughts are already talking about it.

Dying your hair or eating a piece of confetti likely doesn’t cause you anxiety, guilt, or shame. And, if we did let our intrusive thoughts win, some of us would be in prison, or not here at all. While the trend isn’t necessarily malevolent, it definitely shows that some people lack the awareness of what intrusive thoughts are and how they can impact the people who have them.

What to Do About Impulsive and Intrusive Thoughts

Coping with disturbing thoughts can be difficult, but not impossible, without external support. The most important thing to remember is that having upsetting thoughts does not mean they have power or significance alone. You are in control of your body and mind, even when it doesn’t fully feel like it. You can choose whether or not to act on a thought.

Another important thing to note is that, according to the Handbook of Approach and Avoidance Motivation, attempting to suppress these thoughts can cause them to reoccur, often with more intensity than before.

This is why if you feel you are experiencing intrusive or uncontrollable thoughts, you should speak to a professional. A trained therapist can safely guide you through exercises to cope with and move past those thoughts. It can be terrifying to face thoughts of a violent or explicit nature, but a therapist is trained to help you face them without judgment and see them for what they are– just thoughts. If you’re looking for support with impulsive or intrusive thoughts, our team of therapists can help! At Modern Era Counseling, we offer specialized support for intrusive thoughts and the anxiety they may cause. Reach out today to learn more about our counselors and schedule your first session as soon as next week!

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