A Simple Guide To Managing Intrusive Thoughts
Thinking a lot can be exhausting, especially when the thoughts are unexpected and frightening. Here's how I learned to manage intrusive thoughts and accept them for what they are.
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
My head goes a thousand miles an hour, and it's easy to lose control of it. I think I speak for everyone when I say that among thousands of rational thoughts in a day, it's easy to run into singular, irrational thoughts that surprise and scare us.
Let's start with an assumption: the thought is never the problem. The problem is the attention given to it.
I didn't know how to define the nonsensical and disturbing thoughts that popped up in my head from one moment to the next. After doing adequate research, I identified the nature of my thoughts, and I discovered what the so-called intrusive thoughts are and that so many people suffer from them.
But let's proceed in order:
Maybe you are walking quietly in the park, and when you spot a tree you imagine what it might be like to climb it and let yourself fall. Maybe you do the same when you see a window, or you start thinking about what it would be like to be injured when you see an ambulance passing by, to avoid mentioning the most frightening thoughts that might pop into your head.
They hit you like punches in the stomach, and immediately make you feel shameful. They emerge unconsciously, without motivation. What's scary are the questions we begin to ask ourselves soon after.
Why am I thinking about this? Why do I want to hurt myself? Am I a bad person?
This is how we fall into a spiral of doubt and fear that leads to unnecessary and self-destructive analysis.
After years of making self-judgments that didn't lead me towards anything productive, I want to share a formula that helped me accept them for what they are and not hate my brain for the dark places it leads me to.
The first thing you need to understand is that the more attention you pay to a thought, the closer they get to reality. The brain activates new connections to prepare the person, for example, for possible danger, determining new behaviors aimed at "saving" themselves from the fear of this thought that seems so close to reality.
Intrusive thoughts can be of different types, and it's good to try to put them into categories, to recognize them better. Naming things is one of the best ways to normalize them. They can be violent thoughts, instilling fear of causing pain to ourselves or people around us, even though we know we never will.
They can be sexual, concerning gender identity or our religious beliefs. They can be about our relationship, putting a constant doubt in our minds that we are not enough or that we've been betrayed.
If the thoughts become constant, it's good to ask yourself if they're becoming a real obsession. When they interfere with daily life, and the subject puts behaviors to keep them under control in place, we may be facing an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
If obsessions are involuntary, compulsions are actions enacted intentionally, although they may seem automatic. They are behaviors implemented to relieve the anxiety of an obsessing thought and prevent the feared event.
Coming back to the subject of intrusive thoughts, it's possible to learn how to manage them. We know that pushing a thought away can be very tricky, because even if our mind is so powerful that we can gain control over it, it's extremely difficult, to the point of seeming impossible.
The first step is to understand that we are not our thoughts, and they do not reflect a person's character.
Cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) can allow you to distinguish functional thoughts from dysfunctional ones, but without having to leave our home, practicing mindfulness has been extremely helpful. It allows you to "observe" your thoughts and see yourself as a thinker of thoughts. Being able to shift into focus will do magic for your mental health.
One of the techniques that helps the most in managing them is acceptance, as trivial as that may sound. The brain learns from repeated experiences and makes constant connections, attributing meaning to everything.
Through cognitive reconstruction, we can conclude that thoughts of shame and fear are unfounded, and the threat our brain perceives is not real. And if you are not enough to help yourself, don't be afraid to reach out to a professional with whom you can have a healthy discussion, even if you are like me and think you can handle it on your own.
In the meantime, try to remember that you are so much more than your thoughts, which do not define you.