How I Learned to Manage Impulsive and Intrusive Thoughts

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Monica Drake

| 3 min read

People often used the words "intrusive" and "impulsive" interchangeably – but they don’t mean the same thing.
Intrusive thoughts are sudden, involuntary thoughts that are often repetitive and can be disturbing and distressing, while impulsive thoughts and behaviors aren't inherently dangerous. They are spontaneous ideas or quick actions with no thought to the consequences.
If you say, “My intrusive thoughts won today," you'd probably be dead or in a hospital or in jail, but if your "impulsive thoughts won," you may just have ragged bangs that you trimmed yourself.
I've personally experienced both my fair share of times.
I’ve definitely acted impulsively. I've been out with friends and decided, "I want a tattoo," then immediately went to a nearby tattoo shop and got one. While I probably should have thought more about something that was going to be on my body forever, it's not like my impulsive act was dangerous.
On the other hand, when I get an intrusive thought, it's something like "You should walk into traffic" or "You should put your hand in the garbage disposal." This is obviously completely different than, "I'm going to get a tattoo!" Intrusive thoughts are dangerous and something I should never ever, ever, ever, ever act on.
For the longest time, I thought it meant something was wrong with me. But, as Kelly Bilodeau, former executive editor of Harvard Women's Health Watch, says, "While intrusive thoughts may be disturbing, they aren’t harmful or a sign that you have a secret desire to do the things that popped into your mind."
Intrusive and impulsive thoughts do have similarities, so it's understandable why they're often mistaken for one other. They are both fairly common, they can be symptoms of various mental illnesses, they're usually spontaneous thoughts, and they both start with the letter "I" and end with "sive."
And, while intrusive thoughts are usually more scary than impulsive thoughts, that doesn’t mean they can’t both be destructive to the person experiencing them. Impulsive thoughts aren’t just getting a random tattoo or cutting your hair (although if you're getting so many tattoos that you can't afford basic necessities — yeah, you should probably get help for that too).
For instance, one time when I was angry, I impulsively threw a TV remote across the room. This action didn't hurt anyone — except for that piece of plastic — but it was definitely not a healthy coping mechanism. It led to a huge argument with my husband and was something I regretted immediately after doing it.
If you've experienced either or both of these kinds of thoughts, know you're not alone. Everyone behaves impulsively sometimes, and intrusive thoughts affect about six million Americans, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
But, when intrusive or impulsive thoughts start affecting your daily life, it's important you seek help because it can be a symptom of a mental health disorder.
Impulsivity is a symptom of borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, while intrusive thoughts are more likely to be a symptom of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Talk to your health care provider to find out what therapy is best for you.
Opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or its subsidiaries and affiliates.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Monica Drake

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