The Difference Between Intrusive and Obsessive Thoughts

Have you ever had an intrusive thought? What's the difference between this kind of thought and those that occur in the context of obsessive-compulsive disorder? Find out here.
The Difference Between Intrusive and Obsessive Thoughts
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by the psychologist Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 06 April, 2023

“Before going out, I have to make sure that the floor is clean.” An intrusive thought can be like an obsessive thought but it isn’t pathological. In fact, we all have these thoughts and, at times, they cause anguish.

Intrusive thoughts are far from being as disabling as those that occur in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Indeed, intrusive thoughts can occur in a healthy individual with no mental disorder. Firstly, we’re going to explain what obsessive thoughts are. We’ll then identify intrusive thoughts and consider the differences.

“A soul is like the “natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer”. While the gods have two good horses, everyone else has a mixture: one is beautiful and good, while the other is neither.”

-Plato (The Phaedrus)-

pensive man
Intrusive thoughts are less intense, habitual, and bothersome than obsessive thoughts.

Obsessive thoughts in OCD

“I must count quietly up to 75 or else my father will die.” Can you imagine the amount of suffering that this thought implies? Now, imagine it on a loop several times a day. For many days. Or, for months or even years. This would be an obsession.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that obsessions can take the form of thoughts. For example, “Every time the Virgin comes to mind, I must say four Hail Marys or I’ll go to hell”. Or, they can be impulses. For instance, “Every time I see the color red, I have to say the word, imbecile. I have to do it, it doesn’t matter where I am or who I’m with”.

These thoughts are completely unwanted. They force their way into people’s minds and, despite efforts to avoid or eliminate them, they often win the ‘mind game’. As a consequence, the individual feels exhausted. Moreover, their feelings of discomfort and anxiety are such that many other important areas of their life are seriously affected, such as those related to their work, family, or social life.

“An obsession is a recurring and persistent thought, impulse, or image that is experienced as intrusive or unwanted and causes significant anxiety or discomfort, for which the person attempts to ignore or suppress it in some way.”

-Amparo Belloch-

Intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are the younger siblings of obsessive thoughts. They’re similar and can break into your mind in an intense way. Obviously, you neither look for them nor want them. However, they cause you discomfort and make your daily life difficult. Basically, they’re uncontrollable.

These types of thoughts can involve any type of content. They might concern your family, the need to have everything perfectly organized, doubts about whether you’ve been keeping your house in order, or if you’re suffering from a catastrophic illness when you feel bad. That said, they’re perfectly normal.

“Intrusive thoughts are ideas phenomenologically similar to obsessions.”

-Amparo Belloch-

Woman thinking
The difference between a normal and an obsessive thought is the way in which it’s interpreted.

How are they different?

Basically, the difference between intrusive and obsessive thoughts lies in how they’re evaluated. In OCD, sufferers react to intrusive thoughts in such an exaggerated and outrageous way, their discomfort leads them to emit a compulsion or ritual to neutralize it. This extreme form of appraisal has been called primary dysfunctional appraisal (Belloch, 2022).

Therefore, the kinds of obsessive thoughts experienced in OCD in an individual without the disorder would be seen as merely intrusive. The element that turns them into an obsession is how they’re evaluated and interpreted.

For example, with an intrusive thought you might say “I know it’ll soon go away if I ignore it”, or “It’s completely irrational to think that if I don’t sing out loud my friend will die. I’m not going to sing”. On the other hand, an obsessional thought might take the form of “If I think of the color red, I’m going to kill someone. If I don’t want to kill someone, I have to say 50 Our Fathers”. This last thought is the kind of thought experienced by an OCD sufferer.

“Obsessive intrusive thoughts are brief and do not invade the entire stream of conscious thought.”

-Amparo Belloch-

Knowing how to differentiate

As you can see, intrusive thoughts appear with less intensity and are less common in the normal flow of thought than obsessive thoughts. In addition, the discomfort they cause is less.

You exhibit less resistance to intrusive thoughts because you value them correctly as passing thoughts, giving you a brief sense of being in control. They’re irrelevant and have little effect on your conception of yourself. In addition, they cause little interference in everyday life in comparison to obsessive thoughts.

On the contrary, obsessive thoughts are extremely threatening to the individual, which leads them to try to exercise tight control over them. This consumes a great deal of their time (sometimes in excess of eight hours a day). For this reason, their interference in their everyday life is extraordinarily powerful.

The difference between these two concepts is essential for making a correct diagnosis of OCD. After all, we’ve all experienced and will continue to experience intrusive thoughts. We simply react to them in a different way than OCD sufferers.

“The catastrophe that worries you so much is often less horrible in reality than it was in your imagination.”

-Wayne W. Dyer-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Belloch, A. (2023). Manual De Psicopatologia. Vol. II (2.a ed.). MCGRAW HILL EDDUCATION.
  • First, M. B. (2015). DSM-5. Manual de Diagnóstico Diferencial. Editorial Médica Panamericana.
  • CIE-11. (s. f.).
  • García Soriano, G. (2008). Pensamientos intrusos obsesivos y obsesiones clínicas: contenidos y significado personal.
  • Prats, C. M., Martí, A. G., Belloch, A., Morán, M. L., Rodríguez, C. C., & Barber, M. E. C. (2003). Pensamientos intrusos en obsesivos subclínicos: contenidos, valoraciones, estrategias de control. Revista de psicopatología y Psicología clínica, 8(1), 23-38.
  • Belloch, A., & Prats, C. M. (2002). Efectos de la supresión de pensamientos neutros y pensamientos intrusos análogos a las obsesiones en sujetos normales. Revista de psicopatología y psicología clínica, 7(3), 177-193.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.