“My intrusive thoughts won,” a TikTok user said as she kicked two children into a foam pit. Another used the phrase to explain why they smashed a cake and ate it with their bare hands, while a different user showed a deodorant stick with a bite, saying that their intrusive thoughts took over that day.
On TikTok, the term “intrusive thoughts” is ubiquitous. It’s used in videos depicting actions that most people would consider weird, uncommon, or even harmful. There are videos of people sharing what kinds of thoughts they’re having and how they’re trying to fight them, specifically with people living with mental conditions such as OCD and ADHD. However, most show how they let their intrusive thoughts take over.
But what exactly are intrusive thoughts? And how can this mental health buzzword—one often misused on TikTok—win over us?
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Cutting off all your hair, pushing a button with a sign that says not to, and getting the sudden urge to eat a delicious-looking Tide Pod (is that still a trend?) is what most of TikTok considers as intrusive thoughts. While they make for weirdly relatable content, most videos get it wrong. They’re most likely describing impulsive thoughts, or urges or ideas that we get at random and without explanation, like wanting to smash a cake with your hands.
Intrusive thoughts, on the other hand, also typically occur involuntarily but they carry a different effect on us. If the urge to eat a Tide Pod appears only when you come across people doing the challenge, then the thought is more impulsive than intrusive. But when you obsess over doing it even without the prompting of a video, it’s more characteristic of intrusive thoughts. They’re these unwanted ideas—images or actions—that come to our head seemingly for no reason, and are difficult to get rid of.
Are Intrusive Thoughts Harmful?
There’s no master list of intrusive thoughts because no two humans think exactly alike. However, the most common thing that messes with our heads is self-doubt, according to a global study on intrusive thoughts by psychology professor Adam Radomsky. It turns out, constantly worrying whether we’re doing things right or if we’re good enough is a universal feeling.
The topics in intrusive thoughts are wide-ranging, and may include things like obsessing over germs (like with germophobes) and calories (which can be symptomatic of disordered eating), as well as having sexual images during inappropriate times and violent thoughts and tendencies.
Intrusive thoughts are not inherently harmful and are even normal. Believe it or not, even the sudden thought of harming your family is normal and more than 94% of people have similar unwanted thoughts. But while some people can easily keep intrusive thoughts at bay, others are can’t. Individuals with mental disorders, from obsessive compulsive disorder to anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder, are more likely to be affected deeply by intrusive thoughts.
Radomsky also says, “OCD patients experience these thoughts more often, and are more upset by them, but the thoughts themselves seem to be indistinguishable from those occurring in the general population.”
What separates one person from the next when having intrusive thoughts is the way they react to them. A person with OCD may be driven to overthinking that an intrusive thought could turn debilitating. Why did I have this violent thought? Is there something wrong with me? Will I actually end up hurting myself or others?
On the other hand, a person who has intrusive thoughts depicting violence might be able to simply brush it off because of how their brains are wired. So the way we react to them, whether voluntarily or not, determines how harmful intrusive thoughts actually are. When they cause significant stress and change in our lives, then it may be time to seek professional help. Otherwise, intrusive thoughts are as fleeting as the collective urge to consume a Tide Pod.
How to Not Let Intrusive Thoughts Win
Another thing that TikTok gets wrong about intrusive thoughts is the amount of control we have over them. Given that they are more concerning for people with a mental condition, it’s not as simple as exerting a little self-control. People with intrusive thoughts that interrupt their life are recommended to seek various forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and psychotherapy. How not to let intrusive thoughts win is to treat your underlying mental condition that’s making you prone to obsessing over unwelcome thoughts in the first place.
As for the rest of the population living without mental illness, stopping yourself from pushing a child into a foam pit is as easy as telling yourself not to do it. And going about the rest of your day without the persisting urge to harm others out of nowhere. It’s simply choosing not to act on an impulse, even at the expense of a TikTok video.