Be Gone, Thoughts!
8 Strategies For Managing Intrusive Thoughts
You know those annoying, often disturbing and weird thoughts you have that come out of nowhere? You could be lighting a nice smelling candle, and all of a sudden, your brain will say something along the lines of: "Burn your house down!" Maybe you even feel tempted to act on it, and come close to actually burning something. Pretty scary stuff, right? Well, that would be the work of an intrusive thought.
I came across this video while doing research for this story. I thought it was really informative and she does a good job explaining what intrusive thoughts are and what to do about them.
In the video, Kati says that pretty much everyone in the entire world experiences twisted and disturbing thoughts, whether or not you have a mental disorder such as anxiety or OCD. These thoughts mostly consist of violent or horrific actions that have the potential to hurt you or somebody else. But Kati says it's important to remember it's not just the thought itself that plagues you with fear. It's how you react to the thought and ruminate on it after it's left your mind.
Intrusive thoughts are irrelevant. They're not actual urges or impulses. Just because you may have a disturbing thought doesn't mean you need to question your character, or wonder if you're crazy. You're not a bad person for having the thought. Why, because they don't mean anything! Chances are, you're probably not going to burn your house down, or push someone of a ten story balcony or into traffic. Your intrusive thoughts don't reflect your true intentions. They come and go as they please. Trying to shut them down or suppress them entirely doesn't work. Doing so only makes the thought stronger, which will ultimately cause more anxiety.
However, there are plenty of actions you can take to make the thoughts easier to deal with. I rounded up a list of 8 different strategies to apply next time you hear that nuisance of a voice in your head telling you to do something bad. Just a little disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I want to share what I found in my research, and what has worked for me in dealing with my own intrusive thoughts, in hopes of helping others do the same.
1. Understand that intrusive thoughts are disturbing
As you probably now know, intrusive thoughts are disturbing, violent, graphic, etc. They shouldn't be confused or used interchangeably with impulses, which are usually not so scary (ex: "shave your head" as opposed to "what if you jumped?") One example of an intrusive thought I had a lot when I was in high school was simply to bang my head against the wall hard enough to knock myself unconscious. Why was I having that thought? No clue. But it was violent, disturbing, and made me really uncomfortable, especially when I got the urge to act on it. That's what makes it intrusive rather than impulsive. Impulses don't require much thinking. Intrusive thoughts stay there in your mind and manifest until they've run their course and disappear.
Also, intrusive thoughts aren't a one and done kind of thing. Accept that the thoughts are probably going to come back at some point. Usually it'll be when you least expect it.
2. Don't be afraid of the thoughts
This is a hard one, I know. I still need to work on this too, especially when they're really violent and graphic. Yes, they can be scary and cause you to panic, but they're just thoughts that only exist in your head. They're not real. Instead they are these automatic, uncalled for nuisances that love to instill fear and cause trouble. It's wrong to just totally avoid them. Don't force them out. Instead, tell yourself that you're going to be okay. Acknowledge the thought is there, and do not fight it.
3. Understand Why Your Thoughts Are Intrusive
I read one article in my research that said intrusive thoughts will usually go against your core values. For example, if you see yourself hurting an animal, you're probably one of the biggest animal lovers out there. You'd never actually harm one. Or if you see yourself jumping out of a window, you value your life and the lives of others. This doesn't make you suicidal either. You don't really want to die. But one reason why intrusive thoughts are so scary is because they attack the things you care most about. You might question why you had that thought in the first place.
4. Let Them Flow
I know that can be really hard when all you want to do is make the thoughts go away as quickly as possible. I've been there too, and I still think that's the easiest way to make them disappear. But it's not. Usually my first reaction to an intrusive thought is to push it out, especially if they come with the pressure to act and potentially harm myself or others. I just want them out. But the thoughts are already there. It's automatic. So what can you do? Let the thoughts in your mind. Let them run their course. Talk to them if you want to acknowledge their presence. Then, just shake it off and move on.
5. Continue What You Were Doing Before
I've personally found that distraction works really well for me in these types of situations. Whenever an intrusive thought likes to sneak into my brain, I'll go on Netflix and watch a show that I like. The thought is still there, but I also have something else to do instead of just wallowing in my fear. I noticed it also helps the thought pass quicker because it's not the number one thing on my mind. I'm too busy focusing on what's happening on the show to worry about what's going on inside my head.
If you're going to try this method, I'd recommend watching a show that's light and funny rather than something dark and intense. Shows like that actually make my thoughts worse.
6. Know What Triggers The Thought
If you know certain thoughts are triggered by something, this is where avoidance comes in handy. This way, you're more likely to prevent the thoughts from taking over. For me, there are scenes in movies I can't watch or parts of songs I can't listen to because they are directly related to some of my scariest intrusive thoughts.
Figuring out what situations trigger the thoughts will help you look for patterns, and you can take preventative measures. I've noticed recently that a lot of my intrusive thoughts like to surprise me when I'm in the shower. I know I'm not the only one who uses that time to think about weird, existential stuff. Throw in an intrusive thought or two, and I freak myself out even more. It's also when I'm most tempted to act on them. One way I combat this is by blasting music as loud as it can go. That way it will be loud enough to drown out the thoughts and keep my sanity in check.
7. Reach Out to Someone
Find someone you trust, like a close friend or family member to confide in. Tell them about the thoughts you're experiencing. I know this can be really hard, since the thoughts are so graphic. I've struggled opening up to people about them too. But if they're disgusted or think you're crazy, then they're probably not the right person to open up to. Remember that your intrusive thoughts are not a reflection on you and what you value. I remember being 14 and wondering what would happen if I just stuck my tongue in the electrical socket, and being really afraid to tell my mom about it because it was really bothering me. I didn't want to electrocute myself, so why was I thinking this? Luckily my mom was really understanding and we were able to laugh about it.
It's important to remember that everybody struggles with intrusive thoughts. Literally, everybody. Your friend probably has some crazy ones of their own, and you can exchange humorous stories for hours. Or if they're not so funny, you can help each other get better. You'll both have someone to go to when things get bad again. Having a support system is so important for healthy management of the thoughts.
8. Talk to a Professional
This is so, so, so important. I put off wanting to go to therapy for so long because I was way too scared to talk about my dark and twisted thoughts. But if you find that you need professional help, go for it! Especially if your thoughts begin to interfere with your daily life and make it hard to function. There is nothing wrong with seeking help whenever you feel it's necessary. A good therapist will acknowledge that your intrusive thoughts are real, and what you're feeling is valid. They will work with you to regain control of your life and talk through your thoughts. Usually cognitive behavioral therapy is the way to go. But if that's not for you, there are plenty of other methods out there.
At the end of the day, yes, intrusive thoughts are scary and unpredictable. But you know what else they are? Normal. Totally and completely normal. You're not crazy. Remember that you are more than your thoughts. They are manageable. Whether it's going to therapy, or watching your favorite show on Netflix, you can make the process easier. After all, they are just thoughts, right?
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