“I keep having dark and unwanted thoughts that make me really anxious. I don’t want to go into detail about my awful thoughts but needless to say, I find them really disturbing. My mind seems to go into autopilot and I can’t stop it. What should I do?”
Our brain’s job is to think. It feeds us an almost endless narrative, a relentless stream of thoughts in the form of words and images. Most of our thoughts are automatic – they just appear. Unlike when you sit down to do your tax return and have intentional, deliberate thoughts (about what to do next and which receipt is for what), intrusive thoughts pop into mind. “Thoughts happen to us” I often say to clients. You don’t choose them; they simply appear in our mind, just as weeds appear in the garden and you’ve no idea how they got there!
Some intrusive thoughts are neutral or fairly innocuous: “What will I have for dinner? or “What is that person doing over there? Are they judging me? Oh, who cares!” But every anxious person know about the other kind of intrusive thoughts.
The other kind of intrusive thoughts are anxiety-provoking or even seriously disturbing. Often our mind is working way too hard to try and keep us safe by worrying about disaster scenarios in its attempt to stay vigilant. Other times, these intrusive thoughts are a mystery; we don’t really know where they came from or how to stop them.
The kinds of disturbing or obsessive intrusive thoughts that people experience include:
- Involuntary memories or flashbacks
- Sexualised thoughts
- Intrusive thoughts in relation to children
- Violent or harm-causing thoughts
- Intrusive thoughts relating to accidents, injury or death
- Religious intrusive thoughts
- Intrusive thoughts regarding your sexual identity
- Intrusive thoughts regarding your family
- Needing to always know that people are safe
Myths about intrusive thoughts
There are a number of myths about intrusive and obsessive thoughts. One common myth is that having thoughts of a sexual, impulsive or violent nature means that you will do (or want to do) the things that come into your head. This is not true. You do not want to do the things that enter your mind when you have intrusive thoughts. In fact, the opposite is true. People with these kinds of intrusive thoughts are almost always gentle and non-violent, and care deeply about others. Another common myth relates to superstitious thinking: the belief that your mind is somehow clairvoyant and predicting some future disaster. This is also not true.
In actual fact, intrusive thoughts always seem to latch onto things that are important to you, such as people or property, or onto areas of sensitivity, such as sexuality or personal identity which relate to wanting acceptance and belonging. For example, if you adore your child or friend, if a thought even pops into your head of harm coming to them, this will grab your attention because it shakes your values to the very core.
We actually have many uninvited thoughts pop into our heads that go unnoticed. But the ones that tap into our core values stand out against the rest. When uninvited thoughts tap into our core values, we feel strong emotions, like alarm, terror, or disgust. When an intrusive thought taps into a core value, the amount of attention we continue to give it determines how much power and momentum it gathers.
If we can simply notice the thoughts and accept that they are hanging around, but then go about our day and find ways to refocus, they will wither. Don’t fertilise the weeds! This takes practice.
But if we keep worrying about the intrusive thoughts, trying to analyse them, and focusing on not wanting them, this become our practice, a recurring mental experience that sculpts our brain through repetition, and eventually a pathway is created, so the thoughts become automatic. Brain cells that fire together wire together.
Therapy options for intrusive thoughts
Different forms of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) including a modern form called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help you to learn to take thoughts less personally, accept them, and then to question or challenge them. When these thoughts pop into your mind, you can accept they are happening but not give them much control over your behaviour. It is possible for thoughts and behaviours to exist simultaneously and independently from one another. In other words, I can feel anxious about doing something, and do it anyway.
For example, if we have intrusive thoughts about plane crashes, air travel becomes a perceived threat and so we refuse to travel in planes. But a loved one lives a plane trip away and we want to visit them. With some effective therapy, we can learn not to give in to those intrusive thoughts. We can be kind to ourselves as the anxious thoughts begin to intrude, but behave the way we know we ultimately wish to, and hop on the plane.
Very often intrusive thoughts make us avoid certain situations, places or people, and this very avoidance is what makes the thoughts seem so real. Using mindfulness (paying attention without judgement, deep breathing, and relaxation) along with graduated exposure (a gradual build-up) to the things we have come to fear is a good approach. Facing our fears sends the message to our brain that the content of our obsessive thoughts does not count for anything. If avoidance is your issue, a good therapist can work with you to develop a graduated exposure plan.
Remember that the content of your thought is irrelevant and you must apply the paradoxical approach which is this: The more intense your intrusive thoughts, the more you need to detach from them. If you try to engage with these thoughts in any way—such as reasoning with them, pushing them away, altering your behaviour to stay away from perceived threats—all these approaches will only serve to make the thoughts stronger, more powerful and more intrusive. As with other forms of anxiety, your job is to do the opposite of what anxiety demands.
If you have any questions, or comments about what has helped you, please leave a comment below or contact us for an appointment.