Impulsive vs intrusive thoughts (6 Differences)

Thoughts can be conscious (voluntary) or subconscious (involuntary). If I ask you to solve a math problem, you’ll use your reasoning or conscious thought. The same is true for goal-setting, planning, and decision-making.

All these require conscious thought.

Conscious thoughts that arise from the conscious mind are a recent evolutionary phenomenon. The conscious mind is weak and has limited bandwidth. This is why when the conscious mind learns a task, it hands it to the subconscious mind.

That’s how habits form.

The subconscious mind holds your habits, memories, and experiences. Based on this information, it builds programs. These programs create subconscious thoughts.

The subconscious mind consists of programs from our past experiences as well as genetic programs from our evolutionary history.

The conscious, more rational mind is constantly battling with the subconscious, seemingly irrational mind. This is where most of the human internal mental struggle and distress stems from.

Subconscious thoughts are more powerful

Thoughts guide our attention to information that is important for us to pay attention to. Otherwise, we’d be paying attention to anything and everything, which is inefficient and a waste of our mental resources.

We haven’t needed our conscious mind for much of our evolutionary history. Like other animals, we did just fine using instinct and subconscious thoughts as our guide.

However, most modern problems require a well-sharpened conscious mind. But that doesn’t mean we can easily defeat or override our subconscious programs. Often in the battle between the conscious and the subconscious, the latter wins.

Impulsive vs intrusive thoughts

Subconscious thoughts are of two types- impulsive and intrusive.

1. Impulsive thoughts

These are automatic, involuntary thoughts that push us to do something immediately. Our external environment mainly triggers them, but they can also be triggered by our internal environment (bodily processes and memories).

When we’re being impulsive, we’re under the grip of impulsive thoughts. They can be hard to control, and we’re likely to cave and act on them right away.

Usually, people want to act on their impulses because these thoughts motivate them to get something they desire in the moment.

While that may be exciting in the moment, it often leads to disappointment and regret later. We don’t think about the consequences of the actions that our impulsive thoughts are pushing us to do.

Impulsive thoughts per se aren’t distressing, but they can lead to significant financial, health, and relational problems, leading to distress indirectly.

Impulsive thoughts are linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Examples:

  • Thinking about jumping off of a rooftop
  • Impulse purchases
  • Wanting to eat junk food
  • Taboo thoughts
  • Desire to say everything that comes to mind

2. Intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are similar to impulsive thoughts in that they’re automatic, involuntary, and challenging to control. But there are key differences.

Unlike impulsive thoughts, intrusive thoughts tend to be recurring and lingering. They can cause significant mental distress in an individual on their own.

Often, they’re unwanted, embarrassing, and scary. Because they tend to linger, they can quickly become obsessions and take over a person’s entire life.

Because they tend to linger in the mind, a person having them personalizes them, thinking:

“Is this who I really am?”

Intrusive thoughts can make you question your character and identity. This leads to cognitive dissonance, guilt, and shame.

Usually, people who get intrusive thoughts don’t want to act on those thoughts because they’re too inappropriate. However, when these thoughts become obsessions, the compulsion to neutralize them overpowers the desire not to act on them.

While most intrusive thoughts are negative, triggered by negative life events and emotions, they can also be positive. For instance, passion and euphoria can trigger positive intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts are linked to anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Examples:

  • Disturbing fantasies
  • Thoughts about harming self or others
  • Doubts about one’s relationship
  • Self-critical thoughts
  • Thinking about the worst-case scenarios
  • Paranoid thoughts
  • Worrying about orderliness (OCD)
  • Phobias
  • Fantasies of success and power
  • Fantasies of being perfect

Summary of key differences

Points of differenceImpulsive thoughtsIntrusive thoughts
DurationShort-livedLong-lasting
WantMostly wantedMostly unwanted
PersonalizationNoYes
Desire to act on themYesNo
Cause distressIndirectlyDirectly
Linked toADHD and BPDPTSD and OCD