Coping With Intrusive Thoughts

By Ian Disley

The thoughts and images that your mind comes up with are in the form of a story.
Every highly anxious person has to cope with intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are frightening thoughts about what might happen to you or someone you care about, or what you might do to yourself or another person. They seem to come from outside of your control, and their content feels alien and threatening.

For some people, intrusive thoughts are part and parcel of panic or intense anxiety. In these types of intrusive thoughts, it feels like the thoughts come about as a result of the anxiety, and they function to add more fear to the anxiety you are already experiencing. The intrusive thoughts keep the anxiety going, and maintain the fear-producing circle.

However, there is another class of intrusive thoughts that I call unwanted intrusive thoughts. These thoughts seem to come from out of nowhere, arrive with a distressing whoosh, and cause a great deal of anxiety. The content of intrusive obsessive thoughts almost always focuses on images. People who experience unwanted intrusive thoughts are afraid that they might commit the acts they picture in their mind. They might imagine hurting someone. Intrusive obsessive thoughts can be very explicit, and most people are embarrassed and frightened of them.

There are a number of myths about unwanted intrusive thoughts. The greatest myth is that having thoughts of a violent nature mean that you want to do the things that come into your mind. This is not true. You do not want to do the things that enter your mind when you have intrusive obsessive thoughts. In fact, the opposite is true. People with intrusive obsessive thoughts are gentle and non-violent.

The problem is that unwanted intrusive thoughts feel so threatening. That is because anxious thinking takes over, and the thought seems to have a high probability of occurring. And, you might think, even if the probability is fairly low, the consequences of hurting someone, are so enormous and horrendous, that the thought feels threatening and dangerous.

The big answer to getting rid of unwanted intrusive thoughts:
Here is what I suggest you learn. The content of your thought does not count. It is irrelevant. Your thoughts have no effect on what you will do. A thought – even a very scary thought – is not an impulse. You will not act on your unwanted intrusive thoughts. Your problem is not one of impulse control. You have an anxiety disorder. They are as far apart as chalk and cheese.

Remember that the content of your thought is irrelevant and you must apply the paradoxical approach to cope with them. If you try to engage your thoughts in any way – such as reasoning with them, pushing them away, altering your behaviour to stay away from threatening situations – all these approaches will only serve to make them stronger and more intrusive. As with other forms of anxiety, your job is to do the opposite.

Steps for coping with unwanted intrusive thoughts:
• Label these thoughts as ‘intrusive obsessive thoughts’
• Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and you can safely ignore them
• Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away
• Breathe diaphragmatically until your anxiety starts to go down
• Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought.

Try not to:
• Engage the thoughts in any way
• Push the thoughts out of your mind
• Try to figure out what your thoughts ‘mean’
• Convince yourself that you would never do what the thoughts are saying.

Reproduced with permission, originally published here

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