04/10/2014 08:44 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2014

Pretty Much Everyone Experiences Unwanted Thoughts From Time To Time, Study Finds

Radius Images via Getty Images

Having many intrusive, unwanted thoughts or impulses is a known element of obsessive compulsive order. But a new study shows that these same kinds of thoughts are also experienced -- though fewer in number and less disruptive to daily life -- by the general public without the mental condition.

"This study shows that it's not the unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are the problem -- it's what you make of those thoughts," study researcher Adam Radomsky, a psychology professor at Concordia University, said in a statement.

"For instance, most people who have an intrusive thought about jumping off a balcony or a metro platform would tell themselves that it's a strange or silly thing to think, whereas a person with OCD may worry that the thought means they’re suicidal," Radomsky added. "OCD patients experience these thoughts more often and are more upset by them, but the thoughts themselves seem to be indistinguishable from those occurring in the general population."

The study, published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, includes data from 777 university students from 13 different countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Italy, China and Iran. Researchers found that nearly all of the people in the study -- about 94 percent -- reported experiencing at least one unwanted thought in the last three months.

The researchers made sure to work with the study participants to distinguish between unwanted thoughts and lingering worries or ruminations. In general, the most common unwanted thoughts experienced by people in the study were related to doubt, while unwanted thoughts about sex, religion and immorality were the least experienced by people in the study.

However, the types of unwanted thoughts did differ by site. For example, people in Ankara (in Turkey) and Thessaloniki (in Greece) were more likely to report having unwanted or intrusive thoughts about contamination. Meanwhile, people in Chambery (in France) were more likely to report unwanted or intrusive thoughts about harm, injury or aggression. In Hong Kong, people were more likely to say that intrusive or unwanted thoughts about religion or immorality were most distressing, while in Makeni (in Sierra Leone) and Montreal (in Canada), intrusive or unwanted thoughts about sex were most distressing.