The thing about intrusive thoughts is that they don’t just “go away”.
There is nothing I can say to you that will make them just – “poof” – disappear and never come back. You will never be able to say “Well, thank goodness those pesky intrusive thoughts are gone. Those were awful!”
Intrusive type thoughts will never leave you completely. They are part of the human experience. So you have to be very clear with yourself that eliminating them is not your goal. Your goal is to simply no longer notice them and/or be bothered by them.
Imagine you work at a job whose mandatory uniform includes an itchy sweater. Your first day of work, all you can think about is how miserable this sweater makes you. You hate this sweater. You want to take this sweater and run it through the paper shredder, or better yet just take it home and set it on fire. Your whole day is ruined because you cannot stop thinking about how uncomfortable you are and this continues on for days on end.
Eventually though, after wearing this sweater over and over again, you find yourself getting used to it. You don’t notice the itching so much anymore. Your skin adjusts, your mind adjusts and after x amount of time, it’s just something you wear to work every day. Of course, if you start thinking about the itchiness, you will notice it again and it will come back. But for the most part you are so physically and mentally “used to it” that it no longer grabs your attention.
It is the same way with intrusive thoughts.
The goal is for you to one day realize “Hey, I haven’t thought about my intrusive thoughts for a few days.” And then a few days will turn into a few weeks, and a few weeks will turn into a few months until one day you reach your ULTIMATE goal…which is to think about them only once in a blue moon and when you DO think about them – to no longer be bothered by them.
How did you get used to your itchy wool sweater?
How did you get to the point where it no longer bothered you and consumed your thoughts.
You wore it every single day.
If you had taken it off and tried to get rid of it every time the itching drove you crazy, do you think you ever would have gotten used to it? Do you think it ever would have stopped filling your thoughts every time you did put it on? Probably not. Only by exposing yourself to it day in and day out, by putting the time in to desensitize yourself to it, by accepting that this sweater “wasn’t going anywhere so you better learn to make nice with it”, did that sweater finally lose its power to ruin your day.
And the same goes for your intrusive thoughts.
There is no way to control what thoughts pop into your mind. There is no way to stop ANY thought from popping into your head no matter how grotesque or bizarre or unwanted it is. So you have to work with what you CAN control, and that is your attitude and reaction to the thoughts.
That involves a few steps:
Step 1: Make up your mind to embrace these intrusive thoughts and no longer allow them to be something you fear and retreat from. Tell yourself that no matter what, from this day forward, intrusive thoughts are NOT a bad thing. Intrusive thoughts are whatever you decide they are. They always have been. And from now on, they are meaningless, harmless bits of fluff. They are inconsequential and that is how they shall always remain.
Step 2: Make up your mind that you will resist the urge to look for meaning in these thoughts. Do not analyze them, question them or poke them in any way with any size stick. Let them be what they are, and nothing more, no matter how much they beg you to join them in the deep end of the pool.
Step 3: Expose yourself to these thoughts in a NON-analytical way over and over and over again, several times a day so they lose their power over you, you no longer react to them, and frankly, you become bored with them.
Step 4: When you are not exposing yourself to the thoughts, distract yourself from them and treat them as if they are no big deal.
I am not so far removed from my intrusive thought days that I don’t know how horrifying it can be to hear me suggest to you that you should expose yourself to your intrusive thoughts several times a day.
The idea of that is probably something you can barely fathom. Your first instinct would probably be to think that it would make your intrusive thoughts WORSE.
But you have to remember that what keeps the spotlight shining on these thoughts is your REACTION to them. The wording or specificity of these thoughts means nothing to your brain.
Stephen King writes about horror all day long but he and his brain are both just fine – because he is not afraid of what he is writing about. Its fun for him! He knows that thoughts are just thoughts. He knows his thoughts can’t “come to life”. He enjoys what he writes about and all is good. Since he doesn’t fear his thoughts, they come and go effortlessly and without discomfort.
You get to tell your brain what is scary and what isn’t.
YOU determine that. You process and analyze the information you take in, with that wonderful brain you were born with, and YOU get to decide what is good and what is bad. That is the way it works. Right now you fear your thoughts. However can condition yourself to respond to these thoughts in a healthier way.
Right now, due to mental fatigue and being overly sensitized about the thoughts, as well as being overly sensitized in the general sense, you are interpreting these thoughts as bad. In order for you to determine that your intrusive thoughts are NOT bad, you have to spend time with them. Hang out with them and encourage yourself to think about them so that you can see that nothing bad will happen when you do.
Intellectually you already know these thoughts are harmless, which is why just telling yourself they are harmless doesn’t change anything.
It is your subconscious that you need to convince that these thoughts are harmless.
You do that by spending time with these thoughts and saying:
“See subconscious…….these thoughts can’t hurt us. We are fine.”
The more you spend time with these thoughts, and the more your subconscious sees that you are still okay after spending time with these thoughts, the more it will quit responding to them and allow them to fade into the background of your mind, away from the spotlight. You will still have bizarre thoughts from time to time, but you simply won’t notice most of them anymore. And the ones you do notice, you won’t care anymore, because intellectually and emotionally you will know these thoughts are not a threat.
Here are the things I did to help desensitize myself to my scary intrusive thoughts.
1. Journal Your Thoughts…..in a Huge Way.
Get a notebook and write them down in all their horrific detail. I know this may make some of you extremely uncomfortable and if you have a history of past trauma that plays into the particular intrusive thoughts you have, or if you just feel as though it would increase your anxiety too much to try this step then please feel free to skip right past this step, or try working on it with a therapist.
Anxiety recovery should encourage you out of your comfort zone, not throw you off the ledge.
But for those of us with generalized anxiety disorder or OCD who are having intrusive thoughts about things unrelated to trauma or that have simply popped up out of the blue, and if you feel comfortable trying this step, then write out your intrusive thoughts….journal your fears….and don’t leave out a thing.
Write them down in such a way that leaves nothing out. For example, if you were to have an intrusive thought that you might lose your mind and set your house on fire, you would write:
I am afraid that I will be sitting down watching TV one day and the thought to burn my house down will enter my mind. It will be an urge this time…not just a thought. I will get up out of my chair like a zombie and search my house until I find matches. Then I will find matches and set my curtains on fire and watch the whole room become engulfed in flames. I stand there watching the room burn, knowing that everything in my home is about to be destroyed – everything I worked a lifetime for. I will turn around and walk outside and because I will be like a zombie I will just stand there staring watching it burn. The neighbors will come over and ask me what happened and I will confess everything and they will look at me like I am insane and call the police immediately. The police will come and take me away and I will never see my friends or my loved ones or my home ever, ever again. I will be all over the news as the insane woman who set her house on fire and that is how I will always be remembered for the rest of my days.
How is that for drama?
You might be thinking “Well, I don’t know about all that. I just have the thought that I will burn my house down. My fears never get THAT involved.”
But you need to get that involved with them.
You have to OVER dramatize your fears in order to DE-sensitize yourself to your fears.
Put them down on paper in the most over the top way possible, with the worst possible outcome. (You know what your worst possible outcome is. No matter how ugly it is, write it down.) Then you take this paper, and you read it over and over and over again.
For at least ten minutes a day, you spend time with this piece of paper. Read it to yourself. Read it out loud. And read it again and again until you become good and bored with it.
You think its impossible to become bored with such a horrible scenario?
A person could hate horror movies with a passion but more than likely if they watched Friday the 13th 100 times, after a while it would be like watching The Care Bears. For me, this strategy worked amazingly well. Writing my fears down made me see that they were a little on the ridiculous side and second, I just sort of lost interest in these fears after reading about them so much. They no longer grabbed or hide my attention. I started getting bored with them after only a few minutes of reading them aloud. I am not saying it would start working that fast for you, but it did for me and that is the God’s honest truth.
Now, I was always a little nervous that one of these papers would wind up in my neighbor’s hands one day after the wind blew them out of the trash can so I aways wrote something like “Fiction assignment, due next week.” at the top of the page, just to be on the safe side. That actually makes me laugh now, but hey, you know what? I would do it again. A little paranoia comes naturally to me, and I am perfectly okay with that.
2. Another thing I did to help me deal with intrusive thoughts was that I wrote them in their simple form over and over again.
“I am afraid I will burn my house down”.
I used to write my intrusive thoughts over and over again until it was like I was writing Aunt Ida’s muffin recipe. By the end of writing that down a hundred times I started to become like “Good grief. Who CARES if I burn my house down? Can I be done with this now??”
Accepting these thoughts and encouraging them to come repeatedly shows your brain you aren’t scared of them. It says that they are nothing to you and the more you do it, the more the spotlight on them fades and the more you are able to see them for what they really are….harmless nothings.
Now, you can’t really sit around all day having tea parties with your intrusive thoughts. You have a life to live. So another thing you can do is just wait for them to come to you….and they will….and when they do you can try tip #3:
3. Encourage Yourself Not to Take These Thoughts Seriously
Whatever your intrusive thought is, don’t just let it lie in its original form. Flip it around in your head and turn it into something light and silly.
Intrusive thought: “What if I burn my house down?”
You: Burn my house down? Ha! That is silly. Like I would ever do that. I like my flat iron way too much to ever risk losing it in a fire.
Intrusive thought: “What if I go crazy and hurt somebody I love?”
You: Oh yeah, like that is going to happen! I can’t even watch the commercials about abused animals without sobbing like a 3 year old. I think the world is safe from me. How silly!
Do this every single time, for every single intrusive thought.
You MUST be consistent.
Speaking of 3 year olds, intrusive thoughts are a lot like a 3 year who is learning to sleep in a big kid bed for the first time. You have to put that 3 year old back in bed every single time he tries to climb out, even if you have to get up fifty times a night to do it. And you have to treat the intrusive thoughts the same way. Never ever let them have the upper hand on you, because that only fuels them. You are in charge of them. You run the show. Never stop telling them how utterly silly they are, and NEVER stop refusing to take them seriously. They need you to take them seriously to survive. Do not give them that.
I know it seems as if these intrusive thoughts will stick in your mind forever, but your thoughts WILL move onto something else. The human mind and our thought processes were meant to move very smoothly and flow from thing to thing to thing. You couldn’t keep your thoughts stuck on these intrusive thoughts forever, even if you tried. So just trust that if you keep challenging them, eventually something else will catch your attention.
4. Just ignore them.
I hear a thousand voices yelling out “Well that’s easier said than done.”
But just trust me when I say that it gets easier with time.
Ignore these thoughts and keep carrying on as if you aren’t even having them. Distract yourself. Sing a song. Call a friend. Do the dishes. Do anything that engages some other part of your brain other than the part that wants to analyze and question. (I’m sure that part of the brain has a name, I just don’t know what it is.)
Go through old photo albums, think of happy memories, sing a favorite song to yourself, try to recite the alphabet backwards. Or just use mindfulness to take note of the little details in your surroundings or to keep yourself focused and “present” with whatever activity you are currently doing. There are many parts of your brain and believe it or not, a lot of them aren’t the slightest bit interested in your anxiety disorder or your fears you might burn the house down or harm the neighbor’s cat. Use those parts of your brain to put the worry wart part to sleep for a while.
The worry wart part will be loud and relentless, but eventually if you pay him no mind, again, just like that 3 year old, he will quiet down and go to sleep. And this will get easier and easier the more we do it. Our inner child and our anxiety really are very intertwined, readers. And a lot of times, you have to handle them the same way you would a real child….with common sense, reassurance, love, consistency and some confidence boosting.
5. Positive Affirmations- With a Twist
Getting the spotlight to stop shining on the intrusive thoughts can be a bit of a challenging task. So sometimes it is necessary to create a pretty obvious diversion…as in doing something really silly so your brain has no choice but to focus its attention elsewhere.
One thing I used to do when I was stuck in an intrusive thought loop was to say “I am in complete control of myself” , over and over, in as many different ways as possible.
I would say it with a British accent. As a grumpy old man. As Mickey Mouse. As a wealthy elderly socialite from the 1930’s. I tried to be as creative as I could be and bring out as many characters and voices as I could. I really wanted to get out of my “anxiety center” and use a completely different part of my brain as I was before, and to lighten up the mood in my brain – while reminding myself that yes, I really was in control of myself.
This is obviously a tip that I only did at home, but I used to do it with my kids all the time and we would almost always end up laughing hysterically because it really is so absurd.
Doing positive affirmations to remind yourself that you are in control will be beneficial regardless of whether or not you make them silly.
But why not make them silly and really throw your brain for a loop?
Its okay to have fun with your anxiety! There is no law that says you can’t. Anxiety may be over-protective and downright obnoxious sometimes, and it may seem like it loves to mess with your head – but nobody ever said that you can’t mess with it right back.
Anxiety symptoms of all kinds need you to follow a very specific script of dialogue and behaviors and reactions
Throw that script in the trash and go rogue.
Your intrusive thoughts and your anxiety will throw up their hands and close down the show.
My anxiety doesn’t know what to make of me 90% of the time because I definitely do not follow the preferred “script” anymore. And that is precisely why my anxiety no longer has any control over me. As soon as you stop following the script, you will be in control of yours as well!
Don’t do what anxiety “expects” you to do. Embrace your anxiety, become friends with it. Have fun with it….be grateful for it. Do the opposite of everything you have been doing up to this point, and your whole relationship with anxiety, and your life, will change for the better.
In addition to using the tips I have suggested here, you can use my Anxiety Recovery Steps to help you desensitize yourself, lessen mental fatigue, decrease your adrenaline output and start thinking and responding in a more rational way.
Not everybody responds to all anxiety support and advice the same. If this series of posts isn’t quite giving you that “click moment” you were hoping for, check out this post where I talk a little more about this topic.
No worries, readers – you can handle this.
Header Image: Pixabay