We have all had them, they jump up at inopportune times, in the middle of work day, or maybe they arise most at night. They pop up in our brain and wonder “what would happen if I started yelling in this quiet room?” other times they nag “ what if you go out today and something really bad happens??” Sometimes we are able to brush away these thought pop-ups and dismiss them as an odd occurrence, other times we become stuck in these thoughts and that brings us an incredible amount of distress.
Most of us experience what is called “intrusive thoughts.” These are uninvited thoughts that jump up out of nowhere into our mind or that consistently enter your mind against your will. They're considered intrusivebecause you simply cannot get them out of your mind, and they often pop up at unusual moments. These thoughts can be unwanted memories, violent or sexual thoughts, nonsensical, recall of embarrassing moments; the feature of these thoughts are they are disturbing to the person thinking them.
After having an intrusive thought that becomes “sticky” we may become distressed after not being able to shake off the thought. We often times think our thoughts dictate the type of person we are, or could be in the right conditions. An example may be someone who has a fleeting thought “ I could really hurt someone with that knife I see on the counter” turns into an ongoing loops of interpersonal anguish & questioning: “ If I had that thought, then I’m probably capable of hurting someone…..if I am capable of hurting someone, what is actually stopping me from hurting my loved ones? I am scared of what I could be capable of and now I can’t let myself be around anything that might be used as a weapon. I am a bad person who is dangerous.” This can go one for one hour or days on end.
Here are some helpful tidbits to remind yourself when you are dealing with intrusive thoughts:
There are also certain things that can make these unwanted thoughts linger longer than your college roommate’s friend who’s always around mooching your almond milk coffee creamer. These contributing factors are: stress, lack of sleep, drinking, using certain drugs, caffeine, temporary relief methods (such as compulsions), avoidance of the thoughts, engaging in distraction from the thoughts. Activating or traumatic events can also make these symptoms worse. So what can be done?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapiescan help with repetitive intrusive thoughts by teaching you to distinguish the difference between fear and actual danger. CBT may also incorporate other key elements, such as education around the brain’s alarm response system, known as the Amydgala. Through exercises and new ways of approaching these distressing thoughts, it is possible to retrain your brain to have newer non fear-based neural pathways when dealing with these thoughts. Think of it as your own manual software update, there might be “bugs” but you are continually working to improve your neural networks.
When we are able to implement recognition and nonjudgmental acceptance, we reduce the amount of reactivity to such thoughts. Thoughts can be scary, disturbing, frightening, haunting; with that said our thoughts are simply just that: thoughts floating through the mind.
P.S: Please have a happy and safe Halloween!
Alexis has been a part time contributor to the online website Patientworthy which is dedicated to education and awareness of rare and serious diseases. Links to articles written by Alexis: