Today I want to talk about what is probably my least favorite of all of the anxiety symptoms out there, and that is intrusive thoughts.
I try to find something to love about all of my anxiety issues, truly I do, but I gotta tell you, intrusive thoughts make it REALLY hard.
For those who are fortunate enough to NOT know what intrusive thoughts are, they are unwanted, anxiety producing thoughts that seem to play on a loop over and over and over again in the mind of the person having them. They are like little worms that crawl in the mind, and they slither around, promoting a sense of fear and dread. They can feel impossible to get rid of…like those little burrs that used to get stuck on your clothes when you were a kid…. and they are usually a little “off” or strange.
Quite often, intrusive thoughts are about something that the person experiencing them finds horrifying or gruesome, or goes against their religious or moral code. But really, these thoughts can be about anything under the sun. There is no limit as to what can become an intrusive thought and what can’t. Nothing is too mundane or “too crazy” or “out there” to make the cut of what constitutes an intrusive thought. If a thought bothers a person to a moderate/severe degree, if it is repetitive in nature, and if it feels like a thought that a giant spotlight in your brain is shining on, it can be considered an intrusive thought.
In this series of posts, I will be focusing on the more bizarre and scary type of intrusive thoughts, as opposed to the milder intrusive thoughts that are considered anxiety provoking simply for their repetitive nature, rather than their content.
To say that scary intrusive thoughts give the person experiencing them a sense of fear and dread is a major understatement.
Anxiety disorders always have a way of making a person feel like they might be a little crazy. Intrusive thoughts take it to an entirely different level, especially when the intrusive thoughts are about something violent or horrific. They can make a person wonder if not only they are crazy, but if a full-blown psychopath is lying under the surface of their personalities just waiting to come busting out.
My own anxiety timeline involves pretty much every anxiety symptom under the sun.
You name it, I have had it.
I would get one symptom under control, such as palpitations, but then because I hadn’t gotten the main source of my anxiety under control, a new symptom would pop up to replace the one I had just “fixed”. Intrusive thoughts were one of the later symptoms on my list.
My first experiences with intrusive thoughts were pretty mild, all things considered. Thoughts along the lines of “What if I can never stop thinking this thought?” or “What if this feeling of anxiety never goes away?” They were basically just “What if?” thoughts about any old thing that would get stuck on a loop in my mind. It was always about some internal happening in my mind – never about anything in my “real” external world. These thoughts were annoying and unrelenting and they definitely produced anxiety but still, they were pretty tame all things considered.
Once I got “used” to these types of thoughts and they never became anything other than mild annoyances, that is when I think my worry-loving subconscious mind decided I was getting a little “too good” at dealing with anxiety symptoms and that it needed to start playing hard ball with me.
This is when my intrusive “What if?” thoughts started becoming scary.
My first round with intrusive thoughts was during my post partum period after the birth of my first daughter.
It was a pretty hellish time. Andrea Yates had just done some terrible things to her children and after watching the story on the news, I started to wonder “What if I snap and do something to harm my kids too?” It had never dawned on me that women could just “snap” and kill their kids. Holy crap, what if it happened to me too??
It scared me enough to make an appointment to go see a counselor. It was hard for me to go in and confess what I was thinking because I knew it sounded terrible and I was afraid she was going to have me locked up. But when I told her my fears, she kind of chuckled to herself and said “I think you are very normal. You are tired and stressed out and saw something on the news and you are afraid it could happen to you. Why do you think that is so terrible??”
She reassured me that otherwise healthy people don’t just snap and harm their children, and the fact that I was so afraid that I would, was my proof that I wouldn’t. And something about the way she phrased it instantly made me feel better. It hit the “Reassure Me” target inside my head exactly in the way I hoped it would, and I felt so much better that I never even went back to see her for a second visit.
As soon as my FEAR of the intrusive thoughts went away, the thoughts themselves went away and I chalked it all up to stress and hormones and thought “Whew! Post- partum life is rough. I will be better prepared next time I have a baby.”
But then, a few years later, I developed intrusive thoughts during a NON post-partum time in my life. It caught me completely off guard. I didn’t have the hormones to put some of the “blame” on and I was even more terrified than I was during the first round. “This time it must really be coming from ME.”, I thought. “This time I really must be going crazy.”
(Make a mental note that every new round of anxiety symptoms, even if its an encore performance of symptoms you already had and “conquered” in the past, will always feel much worse “this time”. “This time” it will always be more severe. “This time” will always be different. “This time” will always be the time where you are sure that something is really, really wrong. But “this time” is just your subconscious mind’s way of adding a little creepy music to the background of this scary movie its producing. It’s just theatrics. Don’t buy into it.)
Back on point here... my second round of intrusive thoughts all started on just a regular old day, during a typical time in my life when I had a lot of stress going on, I was getting very little sleep and doing nothing to take care of myself . I was putting the dishes away and the thought of me stabbing myself with a knife popped in my mind.
It wasn’t an urge or a desire to harm myself. It was just a quick little flicker of a thought that popped into my head. The problem was that it popped in, but it didn’t pop back out. It stuck to my brain like one of those little dart board balls covered in velcro.
I was horrified. “What is that?”, I thought. “Where did THAT come from? Why am I thinking THAT? Am I suicidal – or crazy?”
I was SO upset about this thought….really freaked out…. and I wanted it out of my head as fast as possible.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get that thought to leave my mind.
That thought..that fear… about me harming myself with a knife stuck in my head for weeks. It would pop into my head at random times, and it would enter my mind EVERY time I went near a knife. I was a bartender at the time, and when you are a bartender you have to cut a lot of lemons and every time I did, I was wondering if I might snap and go crazy and stab myself in front of all my customers..
Now, to complicate matters, not only was I thinking about this a lot of the time, but every time I thought about it, I then felt an overwhelming urge to over-think it. I needed to analyze it and get to the bottom of it. I wanted to dissect it and put it under the microscope and find out WHY, WHY was I having this thought?
I would tell myself “Just don’t think about it.” But it felt impossible not to.
How could I just “ignore” the fact that I might be suicidal?
I am just supposed to “let that go”?
“Letting something go” is just not my nature. I felt like that would just make the thought grow larger until it took over completely.
“No”, I thought, “I have to stay on top of this thought. I can’t ignore it because if I pretend it doesn’t exist, it might start controlling me instead of me controlling it”. So I kept at that thought, working it like a puzzle just looking for the answer to “what it meant” so that THEN, I could let it go and know for sure that I wasn’t crazy.
It all seems so silly now that I am looking back on it with a clear mind. But at the time, it was all very threatening and dark and very heavy.
I would analyze these thoughts all day, trying to get to the root of them but it never helped. it only seemed to make things worse. We all know what happens when you scratch an itch too much. It makes it itch more and more, and just like an itch that I couldn’t satisfy, the thoughts tugged at me to scratch them more and more. The more they came, the more they terrified me and the more they terrified me, the more they came.
It was a terrible cycle. It felt as though I literally could NOT stop thinking these thoughts.
Of all the times during my anxiety disorder that I thought I was crazy – and there were MANY – this period of time topped the list. I was SO mentally exhausted. It was just an absolutely horrible time in my life.
As so often happens with me and my anxiety symptoms, I eventually got to the point where I just had to tell somebody.
As I said before, it’s a heavy burden carrying all of these fears and thoughts, and I always finally reach the point where I have to drop the load and let it all out and let whatever is going to happen, happen.
“Let the chips fall”, I always say. “If I really am crazy lets just find out and get it over with”. Or to quote Carnie Wilson..pardon the language here….I tell myself I just have to “Throw this shit up in the air and see where it lands.”
I thought about making another appointment with the counselor I had seen one time previously with my post-partum intrusive thoughts. She had done a lot in that one visit to make me feel like I wasn’t a lunatic with these types of thoughts. But those intrusive thoughts were post-partum thoughts. Those were “normal” scary crazy thoughts, right? This time was different so she might not have such good news for me. Finally, I decided it didn’t matter because I couldn’t wait for an appointment and it all had to come out RIGHT NOW.
I broke down in a sobbing heap and told my husband.
I was in the car on the way home from getting my hair cut, I will never forget, and I was telling my husband about all of this stuff going on in my head.
Now, my husband is not the kind of guy to get phased by anything…..certainly not by anything going on in my head. He knows me better than anybody and is well aware of the places my nervous imagination will take me.
The map spans far and wide, let me tell you.
I was explaining to him all about these intrusive thoughts and how they were different from the post-partum irrational intrusive thoughts I had because of their intensity, content, and extreme repetitive nature. I was crying and sobbing and oh, it just felt so good to get all that out. (It always does…….I don’t know why I hold stuff in as long as I do. I think its a pride thing. Then again, it could just as easily be a “This time they might REALLY cart me away” thing.)
He kept trying to tell me how it was no big deal, just as he always does and I continued to press on saying “No..you don’t understand. Its different this time! It feels different from before.” He got kind of exasperated with me, as he usually did ( I don’t blame him..I was pretty exhausting back then) and he looked at me and said “I don’t know why you get so worked up about all this stuff. It’s just a bunch of brain junk. It’s not even worth your time.”
And that moment right there was probably one of my top three anxiety related life changing moments….ever. Something happened in my brain that was so profound. Something clicked in my head and I “got it”.
It’s all just brain junk.
Intrusive thoughts are just debris…..debris flying around our brain. It is all just random nonsense that doesn’t mean anything. It is meaningless. It is nothing. It’s junk.
I started laughing so hard. I was absolutely giddy with the relief I felt. I am not one to feel “happy”. “Joy” is not in my emotional “zone” at all, but I felt joy at that moment. I kept yelling “Oh my gosh, I get it now!”
My husband looked at me like he NOW thought I had lost my mind.
(You see, this is why I am such an advocate of talking about your problems and educating yourself about anxiety in as many different ways as possible. You never know when you are going to stumble across that one thing that just clicks in your head and makes everything fall into place. Not to mention the fact that the truth is, as annoying as the condescending “normals” of the world can be, sometimes their direct, level-headed common sense can be exactly what we need to hear. My husband is great for that. He knows how to shoot a “Get a Grip” arrow that manages to find its way through the fog in my head straight to my common sense.)
From the moment I had that epiphany in the car with my husband, my fears and beliefs about my intrusive thoughts dramatically lessened. Never once did I ever take them as seriously again.
I am not saying the thoughts completely went away. It’s not quite that simple. But they went from being a huge ugly demon looming over me, to a growling dog. It became manageable fear that didn’t take over my life. My power was back and it wasn’t long before I figured out how to deal with those ugly little thought worms and forget all about them.
The truth is that every step forward in my anxiety recovery has been when I found another little piece of my power.
If you never have an “epiphany” about your intrusive thoughts, that is okay.
That is, of course, what I strive for with my blog. I want to give every reader that “Aha!” moment that flips a switch for them. But I know we aren’t all wired that way and even if you never have that same revelation about “Brain Junk” as I did, just take this post as a little puzzle piece and tuck it in the back of your brain somewhere. Who knows – maybe someday you will realize that your subconscious put it into place without you even realizing it.
That is how I managed to get control of a lot of my anxiety symptoms.
I put the knowledge into my head and let my brain and subconscious sort it all out and work the anxiety puzzle without me. You would be amazed to know how much your conscious self is NOT needed when it comes to solving the anxiety puzzle. 🙂
Okay enough for now. Click here for Part 2, where I get to what is at the root of these scary intrusive thoughts.
Best wishes, and remember that anxiety-related intrusive thoughts, no matter how scary, will never ever come to fruition.
The only damage they will cause is the mental exhaustion that comes from fearing them and analyzing them. They are simply harmless little dark comic strips that play out in our heads and that is how they should be treated.
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