Intrusive thoughts are everywhere. I personally often have the intrusive thought, “I should lie down on the floor right now” or sometimes, “What would happen if I just bear-hugged this friend I’m talking to?” If you have never experienced an intrusive thought like this, it is as odd as it sounds. It is an idea that I did not choose to have, it just appeared. Often unrelated to the conversation at hand, not triggered by something that happened, just a random but powerful thought.
But sometimes the ideas that come to our minds are much darker than a light-hearted or harmless impulse. Sometimes these intrusive thoughts feel dangerous — horrific thoughts of violence, acting out sexually, tragic accidents, obsessive fear, inappropriate or embarrassing behavior. They feel farthest from what we would actually want to be thinking about.
Intrusive thoughts – what are they?
Intrusive thoughts bring with them feelings of shame, powerlessness, fear, doubt. One wonders, “What does this mean about me?” But the thought feels so foreign, so our minds spiral quickly to, “maybe I’m going crazy.” They are completely uninvited and not welcome. [Like when the neighbor drops by and you’re in your underwear, “I just hope they go away and think that no one is home.” And unfortunately, sometimes they don’t go away. They have a spare key and find a way inside, make themselves comfortable. This leads to a whole myriad of other thoughts, “Oh no, what do they think of me?” or “Did I invite them and forgot?” and “How do I get them to leave?” along with the overwhelming shame of being vulnerable. Exposed, trying to hide, and very confused.]
While sometimes passive, these thoughts can also come with a sense of compulsion. In these cases, a person doesn’t really want to act out violently, sexually, or impulsively, it just comes to mind. And our gut responds, “This doesn’t make sense.” The more we try to stuff them, the more they seem to come back, and we find more uncomfortable or unreasonable thoughts turn into a web of confusion. We start to feel trapped.
All of this can leave one feeling powerless and fearful even of themselves. And continuing to spiral leads to panic attacks, compulsions, withdrawal. Are these thoughts really our own? Are they dangerous? What do we do with them?
Are these thoughts our own? Are they dangerous?
At the end of the day, intrusive thoughts really are just thoughts. They come and they go. Everyone experiences them to some degree. But it is important to note that these thoughts are not at all indicators of your identity or desires. Usually they represent the thing we are most afraid of, the most heinous idea our brains could come up with. As our brains process this deep-seeded fear, it bubbles to our consciousness. These thoughts are like comets falling to earth, they blitz through and then they’re gone. They were never meant to hit the earth’s surface. Our brains are working through so much and sometimes things fire off in directions we would not expect. It can be very startling and alarming, but research shows that having intrusive thoughts does not correlate to an increase in these types of actions. You are no more likely to put this thought into action that anyone else. It is truly just a thought.
What do I do about it?
“Great, glad they aren’t dangerous, but I don’t want them here!” you say. They still induce so much stress, anxiety, fear. Let’s see what we can do.
- Call it what it is. Identify the thought as an intrusive thought. Even say out-loud “That is an intrusive thought.” The more we try to suppress the thought, the more powerful it seems to become. Like a toddler being told, “no.” Instead, just notice it. This is different from exploring it or analyzing where it came from, this is just saying, “I see that.” Until the thought is something tangible, we have nothing to work with. We cannot deal with a figment of our imagination that is continually shoved down. When we call it what it is, we bring the thought into the present and take back power over it.
- Notice what you are feeling. A wide variety of emotions can accompany these thoughts. What comes up for you? It might start with “anger,” but then you realize there is a lot of shame and fear underneath. Or “sadness” but along with that comes dread and powerlessness. Just like the thoughts, being able to name the emotion takes that emotion from the right side of the brain – the feelings and abstract ideas part of the brain – to the left side of the brain – the one that deals with tangible and concrete ideas and facts. Saying what you’re feeling brings self-awareness which adds an ability to calm the storm of whirling emotions and take back control. You start to think, “I can overcome this.”
- Be Reasonable. Now that we’re working in the more rational part of the brain – ask yourself, “Have I done what is reasonable to avoid this horrible thing happening?” In the midst of COVID-19, there is so much fear about getting sick or someone else getting sick. Of course, there will always be parts of our world that are outside of our control, and there will always be more we can do. We could isolate completely, farm our own food, bathe 10x a day in Clorox… But that would not be reasonable. Instead focus on what is in your control. In this season it is so tempting to put life “on hold” in order to obsess about every detail. But what we must do is continue to live. Responsibly, reasonably, with hope and joy.
- Accept Uncertainty. This is where we have to accept that there will always be some degree of uncertainty. With this virus especially, but in every season of life there are unknowns. Each of our realm of control only goes so far, and even in that, something like a pandemic can altar that circle drastically. Though this may sound anxiety-inducing, this is the beauty of life. Knowing that we are all a part of something bigger and more powerful than we are. That we don’t have to make all the calls, we don’t have to be in control of every piece. All we can do sometimes is respond the best way we know how. And make the most of what we have.
- Move On. Finally, let the thought pass. Intrusive thoughts gain their greatest power from the shame experienced in the midst of them. From thinking, “maybe this is who I really am?” We want to follow the thought along the rabbit trail, wondering why it’s there and what it means. But sometimes a thought is just a thought. Like seeing something out of the window, it is there and then it is gone. So let it pass and find something full of life to focus on and enjoy. Go for a walk, call a friend, read a challenging book, cook a new recipe, dance.
Don’t go at it alone.
Whatever your experience with intrusive thoughts, know that you are not alone. Everyone has them and it would make sense that a pandemic could trigger these thoughts even if you’ve never experienced them before. If you feel your intrusive thoughts or compulsions are more than you can manage alone, tell someone. As counselors, our greatest joy is to be able to walk alongside you through some of the darkest places in life, journeying together toward wholeness and healing. We would love to be a part of helping you find your way back to yourself if you don’t have someone walking with you already. These thoughts do not have to take over your life or your mind. At Alethia Counseling Center we believe that in Truth there is healing. Focus your mind on what is true, what is known, and what you can control. The rest is a beautiful mystery.