Eat cardboard. Put cinnamon in your water. Taste test the dirt beneath your feet. These actions are all examples of impulsive thoughts, thoughts that, although sometimes unpleasant, are not inherently harmful. However, people often confuse these notions for intrusive thoughts, which are graphic, triggering, and unwanted thoughts that are often a result of mental illness or neurodivergence. Intrusive thoughts are more repetitive and scary than impulsive thoughts, and confusion of the two undermines the severity of intrusive thoughts and the disorders they result from.
Intrusive thoughts are not minor, day-to-day distractions. Rather, they are persistent interruptions that can impair your ability to think or act clearly, and leave you with a sense of discomfort, worry, and shame. Their intrusion on your everyday life is what deems them “intrusive” thoughts. Intrusive thoughts can include unwanted sexual images, as well as dark or violent intentions one has to work to ignore. They can also manifest as recurring fears. For example, sudden and unforgettable convictions that your entire family is dead are intrusive thoughts. Most of the time, mental illnesses or disorders are the cause of intrusive thoughts; professionals most closely link these perceptions with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
On the other hand, impulsive thoughts are spontaneous ideas that are typically short lasting impulses, hence “impulsive” thoughts. Impulsive thought processes are usually the result of ADHD or impulsivity disorder. These thoughts can be harmful and risky, though they are distinctly different from intrusive thoughts. Oftentimes intrusive thoughts are marked by more graphic and disturbing images or perceptions, whereas impulsive thoughts are less alarming and intrude less on everyday life.
Though both are unpleasant and aggravating, people must start to recognize the difference between impulsive and intrusive thoughts. They are results of differing disorders, and have different impacts on people. Intrusive thoughts are more disturbing, long lasting, and intrude further open everyday life. Their characteristics and results are more damaging than impulsive thoughts, and confusing the two can undermine the severity of intrusive thoughts, leaving individuals who suffer with these ideas feeling invalidated or ignored.
(Sources: Harvard Health, Quora, Twitter, WebMD)