Tips with Trish: Intrusive Thoughts
Tricia Borelli (TheLorian)
Dear Trish and Italee,
This is going to sound crazy, but I feel like I can’t control my thoughts anymore. It doesn’t really matter what I do, I just get these doubts. It’s hard because I know in my heart these aren’t true, but my head is doing everything it can to make me feel like they are. I have doubts about my classes, my friends, even my relationship that honestly has been the healthiest it’s been so far. My self-esteem has just gone downhill, and I don’t feel like myself anymore. I’m starting to doubt I even like Loras anymore, though the campus has been good to me so far. It’s almost like my mind is gaslighting me, but if I talk about it, people might think of me differently. What is going on with me? Am I the only one who goes through this? How do I get back in control of my head?
I’m so sorry that you are going through this. It sounds stressful, and I can understand why you feel like you’re going crazy. However, this isn’t exclusive to you, and I want you to take comfort in that. What this sounds like are unwanted or intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are common and shockingly so with an estimated 6 million people in the US being troubled by them!
Intrusive thoughts feel like they come out of nowhere and tend to bring a lot of anxiety. They tend to focus on sexual, violent, or generally socially unacceptable things. People with intrusive thoughts are afraid they’ll follow through with the acts they picture in their mind or that the thoughts hold some kind of truth about themselves as a person.
Intrusive thoughts can include:
· Repetitive doubts about relationships (both platonic and romantic)
· Questioning decisions both small and large
· Debating sense of identity or sexual orientation
· Fear about safety
· Worries about questions/uncertainty/unknown
· Explicit acts
· Nonsense (Just Plain Weird Thoughts)
Does this sound familiar? Intrusive thoughts can make anyone feel ashamed or worried so it makes sense why you don’t want to talk about them with people. However, I will say that there are also a lot of misconceptions and myths surrounding intrusive thoughts.
Two myths include:
“If I think about this, then I must want to do it.” The opposite is true. It’s not that we want to act on them but the more we fight the thoughts, the more likely it is to return and just stick in our brains. People with violent intrusive thoughts are most likely gentle. People with thoughts of suicide most likely value their lives. And people with thoughts of being kicked out of the church most likely enjoy their religious faith.
“Every thought we have is worth examining.” Not really. These thoughts aren’t messages or red flags or signals – the emotions attached to them just make them feel that way. They feel threatening so our minds conclude that the thought holds weight when the thought could be, “I’m going to fail this class!” and you have an 89% in it. The threatening feeling you get is a gateway for anxious thinking to take over, which can just lead down a rabbit hole of more anxious and intrusive thoughts.
It sounds like you, along with a whole boatload of other people with intrusive thoughts, need to learn to have a new relationship with your thoughts in general. Sometimes the content of our thoughts is irrelevant, unimportant, or just plain weird and that’s okay! These “junk thoughts” are just part of our stream of consciousness. Meaningless. If you don’t pay attention to them, they fade once you find a new focus. Still, they are scary, and it’s okay to acknowledge that.
You say you want to get back in control of your head, but you never lost control of it in the first place. Intrusive thoughts are not a product of needing some kind of impulse control – in fact, it’s a result of overcontrol! We get bluffed by the anxiety the intrusive thoughts bring and become desperate for reassurance that they are untrue. However, to effectively deal with intrusive thoughts is by reducing one’s sensitivity to them instead of being reassured that it won’t happen or that the thought isn’t accurate. This is easier said than done, but intrusive thoughts get reinforced by worrying about them and getting fixated on them. Leave the thoughts alone and treat them as if they aren’t interesting, and usually they fade into the background.
Obviously, this is a lot of work. It’s almost a skill, and you might be thinking, “How the heck do I do that?” Well, here are some steps to start:
· Label the thoughts as “Intrusive Thoughts”.
· Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you.
· Accept and allow the mind to enter your mind; don’t try to struggle against them.
· Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency.
· Expect the thoughts to come back.
· Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while acknowledging the anxiety present.
I won’t lie, this will be uncomfortable. As people, we try to avoid discomfort at all costs, but understanding that discomfort is part of our day-to-day and allowing it to pass is so powerful. Actively practicing this kind of patience with ourselves can be difficult, but if you keep at it for a few weeks, there will be a good chance that the frequency and intensity of the intrusive thoughts will decrease.
That being said, you don’t have to do this alone. Some people find this harder than others. Maybe there’s some anxiety, depression, OCD, or trauma mixed in. Or maybe you just feel too overwhelmed with doing this on your own. Either way, contacting the Counseling Center or contacting a counselor, in general, may be your next option.
I hope this was helpful in explaining what you’re going through.