How to keep those distressing thoughts from taking over your life.
If you’ve ever found yourself ‘stuck’ on a negative thought that seemed to just pop into your mind one day, and that returns more and more regularly, you’re not alone. Most people experience what psychologists refer to as ‘intrusive thoughts’ at some point in their lives, and sometimes they can be extremely distressing and difficult to move on from.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts seem to come from nowhere and can range from fairly benign, like a sudden worry you’re going to do something to embarrass yourself in public, to very disturbing, such as a thought about hurting someone you’d never want to harm in reality. A common worry is these thoughts mean something bad about you as a person, but they’re not actually reflective of your personality. Psychologists aren’t certain as to why we experience these unwanted intrusions, but they do agree they occur more frequently during times of high stress, such as in early motherhood.
Are these thoughts normal?
Almost everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, and although there’s seemingly no logical basis driving them, they’re a normal part of a healthy functioning brain. Some of the most common themes that tend to recur include:
- Death. Even if you’re in good health, you may suddenly become worried about dying of a heart attack, for example, or concerned without good reason that those around you are going to die.
- Safety. These thoughts tend to come with a sudden feeling someone you care about is in imminent danger, or has suffered a terrible accident, without any reason for such thinking.
- Children. Worrying thoughts are especially common for new mothers. For example, you may have
a sudden image flash across your mind of dropping your baby, even though you’re usually a happy, confident mom.
- Aggression and violence. These are often very distressing thoughts as they’re usually accompanied by imagining yourself physically harming or being verbally aggressive to someone you care about.
Obsessions and compulsions
However shocked or uncomfortable you may be after experiencing an intrusive thought, it’s important to understand while the thought itself is not a problem, the way you react can be. There’s a link between intrusive thoughts and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Although psychologists can only posit theories on where these thoughts come from, they agree there’s a definite way to make sure they keep coming back to bother you: keep ruminating on them and ‘poking’ at them like a sore tooth.
For example, if you experience an intrusive thought and recognise it as such, you can choose to pay it no attention and carry on with your day. However, if you hold on to the thought and try to analyse what it could mean – What does it say about me? What if I can’t stop that from happening? Maybe something is really wrong with me? – you begin to create an entire narrative, a pattern in your brain around what should simply have been a stray, unwanted glitch.
This could become an obsession, and lead to compulsive behaviours to try and deal with your thoughts. The only difference between an intrusive thought that appears and then leaves, and an intrusive thought that’s truly distressing and can lead to obsession, is how you respond to it.
A healthy brain and a good understanding of how to recognise and interpret our thoughts will allow anything intrusive to go by as strange but harmless blips. However, if you find yourself returning repeatedly to an intrusive thought, or find you’re experiencing unwanted disturbing or bizarre thoughts regularly, you may be dealing with a mental health issue like OCD or anxiety.
Did you know?
OCD is one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability worldwide, for individuals between 15 and 44 years of age, according to the World Health Organization.
Breaking the pattern
There are ways to work at alleviating your symptoms and dealing with your negative thought patterns on your own,
in addition to therapy and medication. Sally Winston, PsyD, and Martin Seif, PhD, authors of Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts, suggest these steps:
- Label them as ‘intrusive thoughts’.
- Remind yourself they occur automatically, they’re not within your control.
- Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind, don’t try to push them away.
- ‘Float’ – don’t struggle or try to actively bury the thought, just allow time to pass.
- Expect that the thoughts will return.
- Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought and just allow the anxiety to be present.
When you take intrusive thoughts personally and hold on to an emotional connection to them, you’re changing your behaviour to align with your unwanted and unhealthy thoughts, which isn’t helpful. It’s important to remember thoughts are just thoughts and you shouldn’t fear them.
Mindfulness meditation can be a helpful tool to cope with intrusive thoughts, as it involves both accepting and letting go of distressing thoughts and feelings. To get started:
- Focus on your breathing and be fully aware of all the sights, smells, sounds and sensations around you.
- As thoughts start to run through your mind, allow them to come. Acknowledge each one, then let it go and return your focus to your breathing.
- Take care not to dwell on thoughts; label them and allow yourself to move on and back to your breathing.
Another way to remove power from intrusive thoughts is to voice them to someone supportive. When you take those troubling suggestions and say them out loud in a rational setting, you’ll realise they aren’t actually true. You might be able to laugh at them, as you realise even though they’ve been so prominent they’re really rather unimportant. You’ll be able to see your negative thought patterns don’t define you, and that you’re still you.
Accepting that you’re extremely unlikely to act on any of your distressing thoughts, and they don’t make you a bad
person in any way, are steps in the right direction. Remember that we all have them from time to time and they’re completely normal – think of them as spam.
They’re unlikely to simply disappear altogether, but once you better understand what your intrusive thoughts are and
that they don’t deserve too much attention, they won’t have such a negative impact on your emotions. If you feel you have passed beyond intrusive thoughts and negative thought patterns and are suffering from OCD or any other mental health issue, seek treatment and contact a therapist.
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