Lets talk about thoughts for a minute.
When you have an anxiety disorder, the number one rule of thumb is:
Every thought we have is not meant to be taken seriously.
This is a hard thing for those of us with anxiety to wrap our heads around. We think if we are thinking something, there must be a valid reason for it. It HAS to mean something.
But no. No, it doesn’t.
Thoughts can exist for absolutely no reason at all.
Not all thoughts require feelings or emotions. And not all feelings and emotions require thoughts. Those two things can work completely independently of each other. But because we believe that on some level they must co-exist, we have gotten ourselves all freaked out and have started assigning more value to certain thoughts than we need to.
I wonder how many thoughts a person has a day………thousands?
I am guessing that would be a fair answer. Well, let’s be realistic here. When you have thousands of thoughts running through your mind every day, they can’t all be profound little “gems”. There are bound to be a few “stinkers” in there. There is just no way around it.
It would be impossible to think nothing but pure, wholesome, “true” thoughts every second of every day of your life.
Nobody’s mind is capable of that.
Many of our thoughts just pop into our head without us putting any of our conscious self into them. It’s like our brain just lobs them out like fireworks to keep our heads from getting empty. It pulls thoughts up based on habit and association and memory. And I am convinced that sometimes it will just pull one up from the very bottom of the barrel just to mess with you. They don’t mean anything. They are just fireworks.
They are “brain junk”.
Sometimes these thoughts that the back of our minds lob out, and yes, even thoughts that we consciously think, are going to be a little “odd” or “out there”. Maybe even a LOT out there. And why wouldn’t they be? There is no rule or law or biological code that says:
“Every Thought Must Be Completely Within These Exact Set Boundaries”.
I never got that hand-out at birth. Did you?
On the contrary, if something occurs to us, we are allowed to think it.
Its our mind, our head space, our brains, our thoughts.
And we can think whatever the heck pops into our mind without feeling like we must be responsible for it, it must mean something, or like we have done something “wrong”.
That is the thing about thoughts: There are no boundaries. It’s not like with actions, when we must follow a pretty strict set of rules and guidelines and be responsible and accountable for every move we make unless we can prove we were sleepwalking. Our thoughts live in our headspace and our imaginations and they can be whatever they happen to be.
Any thought can be thought any time, any day, any place, any where……..no matter how odd, funny, serious, bizarre, inappropriate, or gruesome it is. That is just the way thoughts work. It has worked that way your entire life. Nothing has changed except the fact that the more tired and stressed out your mind is, and the more negative of a thinker you are, the more likely it will be that those odd or bizarre scary thoughts come to your mind and/or that you will be aware of them. Your thoughts aren’t any scarier now that they ever were. You are just more aware of the scarier thoughts now.
I can pretty much promise you that you have been having “stinker” thoughts ever since you were old enough to put thoughts together. Everybody in the world has them and has always had them and always will have them. You are just noticing yours now. That is the only difference.
Why am I only noticing these odd, scary thoughts now?
If you are like most people with intrusive thoughts, you are noticing them now because you are mentally exhausted, overly sensitized and hyper aware due to the constant stress in your life. Anything odd or different from the “norm” feels like a threat. Your brain senses trouble in your world so it has turned up the alarms in order to keep you vigilant and out of “danger’s” way. Your radar is picking up everything…including those little thoughts that would have never been a blip before now.
I always use this analogy, I know, but it’s so accurate:
Imagine how Barney Fife would be if he were left in charge of the jail after he had been awake for 48 hours and then drank two pots of coffee in an hour. He would be a hyped up, exhausted, nervous mess shooting his gun off at his own shadow. That is basically the mindset of somebody dealing with chronic anxiety and mental exhaustion, regardless of their particular symptoms.
Imagine Barney sitting at his desk wide-eyed, just waiting for something bad to happen. Then imagine he had the random thought of “What if I were to take this gun and shoot myself with it?” I can just imagine him getting even more wide-eyed as he turned toward the camera with a terrified look that said “What if I DID shoot myself?” Barney would jump out of his chair and he’d be fumbling to get rid of that gun and probably end up shooting himself in the foot and they would have to do a three episode series on how Andy convinces Barney to go near a gun again.
Those random thoughts we all have, just become incredibly believable when combined with exhaustion and adrenaline.
The way we act to intrusive thoughts..latching on to them….never letting them too far out of our minds……it seems like an OVER reaction, yes.
But it is a very normal reaction when you put in the context of everything else that is going on in your life.
Your brain is in hyper-alert mode. It is scanning for danger all of the time. It is picking up on even the tiniest bit of fear or hesitation you have over your thoughts, and because of that fear, interpreting the thoughts as “bad” and a “threat”. In response to the fear you feel it gives you some adrenaline, which makes you MORE aware of these thoughts. The thoughts feel more real and seem to have a life of their own. But they aren’t. They are just louder now…..which makes you more scared…. which makes you produce more adrenaline…. which makes you more aware…which makes you more scared. It’s the same old anxiety cycle that is behind every other symptom of an anxiety disorder. Your interpretation of your brains very normal reaction to what your tired mind is going through is causing some unnecessary drama.
Your whole fear adrenaline response system is working just as it should. All you have to do is change your response to it. You do that by lowering the stress in your life so that your alarm setting will be lowered and you won’t be so hyper-aware of your thoughts. You also must always keep in mind that these thoughts are not harmful and repeat that to yourself often. And you must learn to manage these intrusive thoughts by trying different techniques until you find one that works for you. I will get into some suggestions for that in Part 3 of this post.
Thoughts are not desires!
It is critical that you remember that a lot of them just don’t mean anything. Don’t let your analytical tendencies cause you to engage these thoughts and look for meaning to them that just doesn’t exist.
Intrusive thoughts are not “voices”.
The intrusive thoughts of anxiety are not the same as the “hearing voices” of serious mental illness.
You might say “How do I know if it’s a thought or a voice?”
Rule Number 2 of Anxiety: Trust your instincts – they will not let you down.
This does not mean trust your “primal” instincts. Those of us with anxiety disorders have primal instincts so strong we can practically still smell the cave. And more often than not, they lead us straight to trouble that doesn’t exist. No…what I am talking about are your gut instincts…….your intuition. That logical voice of reason is inside you still……you just have to listen for it. It will tell you what is REALLY worth being concerned about and what isn’t.
Deep down you know if thoughts are coming from YOU or some unknown entity inside your head. You have to listen to the REAL you, not your anxiety, and trust your own judgement.
If you have serious doubts about whether or not you are hearing voices as opposed to experiencing intrusive thoughts, then by all means contact your doctor. But generally speaking, even those of us with anxiety disorders can tell the difference between a thought and a “voice”.
If you listen closely, YOUR real voice will tell you the truth. And the truth is that you have stumbled on a thought that scares you, and now you can’t seem to get it out of your head. But that fear over the thought is the ONLY thing that separates intrusive thoughts from a pop song getting stuck in your head. In every other sense they are exactly the same. Some people have intrusive thoughts that would be considered much “scarier” or “violent” than the ones I list, but the degree of violence, disgust or revulsion doesn’t make them any more dangerous or abnormal.
Here is a list of some common intrusive thoughts:
- What if I am crazy?
- What if I “snap” and become a violent person like the people on TV?
- What if something loud and obscene comes flying out of my mouth?
- What if I drive my car into a ditch on purpose?
- What if I hurt somebody I love?
- What if I lost control of myself and hurt myself in some horrible, “crazy” way?
- What if am gay?
- What if I am going to hell because I am not a “perfect” Christian?
- What if I forget how to breathe?
- What if that one embarrassing or wrong thing I did all those years ago was to be discovered?
- What if I somehow hurt somebody and I just don’t know it yet?
Your type of intrusive thoughts may not be “What if?” thoughts. They could take another form and they can even be accompanied by horrible, disturbing imagery. Intrusive thoughts can be about anything. They don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to be “logical”. They don’t have to be anything except very troubling and intrusive to you.
Again, always remember that intrusive thoughts are just thoughts.
Thanks to a Twitter follower of mine for sharing her thoughts on this with me, and pointing out that those of us with these types of thoughts may feel a sense of urgency that accompanies them, depending on what the intrusive thought is about. But, if so, we shouldn’t mistake this urgent feeling as meaning that “deep down we must want to do this terrible thing”. On the contrary, this type of urge is a fear based, adrenaline fueled urge and just another indicator that you find your thoughts revolting and don’t want to act on them on any level.
On a final note, another thing that I want you to keep in mind is that just thinking about something all day is not going to make it true.
I have been down the road of “Well, maybe I am not a crazy, violent person NOW? But what if I BECOME a crazy, violent person tomorrow because I keep thinking about it?! What if I brainwash myself into this happening?”
But that could NEVER happen. As long as a thought continues to horrify you, and trust me your scariest intrusive thoughts will ALWAYS horrify you until you learn to master them…. you will never get the urge to do the thing that you fear.
I don’t care how bad your anxiety is, and I do not care how abnormal or horrific your intrusive thoughts are. You are 100% in control of your choices every single second of your life. If you do not want to do the horrible thing you are afraid of – you WILL NOT DO IT. You haven’t lost your free will. You are not mentally ill.
You are still you through every anxiety symptom you have and you will never stop being you.
You may be you scared. You may be you freaking out. You may be you huddled in a corner crying or you may be you sitting on the couch freaking out that you may go do something terrible to somebody. But that is all part of you being you. Those reactions, no matter how strong, all come from who you are as a person. You are nervous, you are a worrier, you are under a lot of stress and your anxiety symptoms all stem from that.
You doing something violent, or doing losing control of yourself and doing something humiliating in public…..that is not you and those things do not have a root in who you are and what you are made of. So those things will not happen.
Also keep in mind that just because an intrusive thought is recurring, that doesn’t mean that it already is true but you just aren’t aware that it is true.
For example, if the thought pops into your had one day that you “might be gay” and this becomes a repeated intrusive thought/fear you have – even if imagery accompanies these thoughts – that does not mean you are gay. Intrusive thinking of this sort is very common because there is no easy, tangible, scientific way to “prove” it to yourself one way or the other. It is a very easy line of thinking to play worry games with – the perfect “ball” for your worry addicted yet mentally exhausted subconscious to throw back to you over and over.
Again, you have to listen to your inner voice. There is a difference between what you fear and what you “know” or strongly suspect. If you really are having trouble differentiating between the two, then please seek professional guidance. Sometimes talking to a counselor and just dumping it all out there can help you organize and make sense of what is going on in your head. It can really clear away the fog and help you see things as they really are.
(I am not using being gay as an example of an intrusive thought because it is something that should be considered scary or horrible, but rather because the people who have this type of intrusive thinking are usually very bothered by the “not knowing” and the “wondering” if it is true and the compulsion to analyze it can REALLY start to take over their life and it can feel quite horrible for them.)
Okay, so now you know the truth about those scary intrusive thoughts.
And from now on, every time you think an intrusive thought that upsets you, whether it’s mildly or intensely, I want you to remind yourself that it is proof that your brain is working just as it should.
I learned how to get my intrusive thoughts under control, and if I should ever go through another round of them again in the future, I am confident I will get them under control again. And you can do it too.
For more reading on the topic, here is a link to a fantastic post about intrusive thoughts from Martin N. Seif, Ph.D. and also check out Part 3 of this blog series Taking the Spotlight off of Intrusive Thoughts. If you are looking for a book on this topic, I recommend Dr. Seif’s “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts”, which can be found on Amazon. I have done a lot of reading on this topic over the years, and in my opinion, Dr. Seif is the best of the best when it comes to helping people understand intrusive thoughts and get them under control.
Read, read, and read some more readers! Don’t read just what one person says..or two people. Read as much as you can by as many people as you can about any anxiety issue that concerns you. All this reading, even if you just take the tiniest little something out of each book or article you read, is what will eventually get you in control of your anxiety, instead of IT controlling YOU. YouTube videos are good too and there are a lot of great anxiety related videos to choose from.
Thanks for stopping by! Click here to return to Part 1 of this post.
Remember, no worries.
Photo Credit: All Photos Courtesy of Pixabay Public Domain
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