Skip to main content

Last Updated on September 5, 2023


Intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts are often confused with one another. Even though they may sound similar, they are very different from each other. Intrusive thoughts may mean something that causes distress and is difficult to manage. These can range from mild to severe psychological manifestations. Impulsive thoughts may be something that causes an urge without much consideration of the consequences. This may be something as simple as taking on a social media challenge.

In this blog, Revive Research Institute aims to go in-depth and try to understand the key difference between intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts. We try to look at exactly what they are, what causes them, and how they manifest. It may also help you to decide whether to participate in our Psychiatry Clinical Trials in Illinois.

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

When seeking the answer to intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts we must first understand what intrusive thoughts are. Intrusive thoughts encompass involuntary mental images, impulses, or notions that are usually stressful and difficult to manage.

They can present as disturbing fantasies, taboo reflections, or excessive worrying. While they can affect anyone, they are mostly linked with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When comparing intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts, it is important to note that intrusive thoughts don’t reflect a person’s true character or values; nevertheless, they can induce extreme distress and disrupt daily activities.

Common Examples of Unwelcome and Troubling Intrusive Thoughts

• The thought of pushing someone onto train tracks or leaping in front of a moving train
• Contemplations of harming a child
• Doubts about one’s relationship
• Outbursts of unfavorable remarks in public settings
• Questioning one’s sexuality
• Reflections on suicide
• Imagining crashing into a wall while driving or hitting your head on a wall

Categories of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts encompass a wide range of thoughts. They can be broadly categorized into five distinct groups:

• Violent thoughts: Involving self-inflicted or others’ harm.
• Sexual thoughts: Encompassing unwanted or inappropriate sexual scenarios.
• Blasphemous thoughts: Contradicting religious or moral convictions.
• Harm-focused thoughts: Entailing becoming ill or being in perilous circumstances.
• Self-doubt thoughts: Thoughts centered on personal inadequacy or mistakes.

Exploring Impulsive Thoughts

Getting a grip on impulsive thoughts adds another layer to the intricate picture of intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts.

— Impulsive thoughts are those out-of-the-blue notions or urges that can push us into snap decisions, often without weighing the outcomes first. They have various roots, like stress or anxiety, and can be sparked by things around us or the emotions inside us.

Impulsive thoughts are something we all bump into sooner or later. They’re like thoughts that spontaneously pop into your head, sometimes considered off-limits. You might picture yourself playfully smashing your face into a fancy wedding cake or tossing your phone out of a window. And occasionally, they can feel quite similar to those pesky intrusive thoughts. So, if a quirky, “inappropriate” idea pops up and you can shake it off fairly quickly without it taking over, chances are, it’s just an impulsive thought.

Comparing Intrusive vs. Impulsive Thoughts

Both impulsive thoughts and intrusive thoughts can stir up unease for folks. Intrusive thoughts are those recurring, unwelcome mental echoes that often feel hard to reel in. They kind of sneak up on us and unleash a storm of discomfort, anxiety, and even embarrassment. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, intrusive thoughts are known to affect over 6 million Americans. Though it’s a normal part of life to have these kinds of thoughts here and there, they can really throw a wrench in the gears if they start making a mess of our everyday routines or emotions.

Conversely, impulsive thoughts are those out-of-the-blue notions that crop up as reactions to triggers. They’re the little voices that urge us to do something right away, sometimes regardless of our better judgment or values. Think of snagging something you can’t really afford just because it’s on sale—classic impulsive behavior.

Also read: Obsessive vs Intrusive Thoughts: Understanding the Difference

Causes Intrusive vs. Impulsive Thoughts

1. Source of Trigger

Impulsive thoughts are typically triggered by intense emotions or desires and frequently involve sudden behaviors or decisions.

For instance, if you feel hungry and spot a cake in front of you, an impulsive thought might urge you to immediately grab and consume the cake without contemplating the outcomes.

Conversely, intrusive thoughts are unwelcome and often troubling reflections that enter the mind without an evident cause. They can be recurring and hard to overlook, often inducing anxiety or unease.

An example of intrusive thought is when one starts worrying excessively about the cleanliness of their house or themselves. It may also lead to experiencing intrusive images or reflections linked to violence or harm.
While impulsive thoughts are due to specific stimuli or circumstances, intrusive thoughts can arise spontaneously and persistently to the point they cause distress.

2. Duration

Regarding duration, impulsive thoughts tend to be brief. They often appear and vanish rapidly and do not go on for extended periods.

On the contrary, intrusive thoughts can endure and repeat. They might resurface repeatedly, potentially spanning years.

3. Frequency

When discussing the frequency of intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts, impulsive thoughts tend to manifest less often in comparison to intrusive thoughts.

Impulsive thoughts often stem from particular events or situations, while intrusive thoughts can emerge at any moment, seemingly unprovoked.

4. Level of Control

Impulsive thoughts are abrupt and unanticipated mental occurrences. Those who undergo impulsive thoughts often feel they lack control over their thoughts. Conversely, intrusive thoughts persistently resurface, even against the individual’s wishes. These thoughts might also be frightening or undesirable.

Individuals encountering intrusive thoughts frequently experience feelings of guilt or shame. It’s crucial to recognize, however, that having intrusive thoughts doesn’t reflect on one’s character or morality.

With therapy and support, it’s feasible to learn effective strategies to manage these thoughts and minimize their impact on everyday life.


Intrusive vs. impulsive thoughts similarly refer to sudden negative ideas, urges, or mental ideas that come to mind and disrupt a person’s thought process. These thoughts may be distressing, embarrassing, or alarming, as they often involve taboo or forbidden topics that go against a society’s moral or ethical values.

Having these thoughts sometimes can be a normal occurrence, but experiencing these regularly could point toward conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nonetheless, therapy and medication can help mitigate the impact of these distressing conditions.

Dr. Hamza Nadeem

Dr. Muhammad Hamza Nadeem currently works as a Patient Recruitment Associate. He has a firm grip on the medical research process and patient safety in clinical trials. His experience in writing combined with an academic background in medical science makes him well-suited to assist individuals in clinical trial participation.

Close Menu

Revive Research Institute, Inc.

28270 Franklin Road
Southfield, MI

T: 248-564-1485