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When Your Body Reacts Physically to Intrusive Thoughts

Being able to recognize thoughts as irrational, but not being able to get my body to understand that, was one of the hardest things for me to both understand, and come to terms with. My mind says, “This scenario is unrealistic” or  “This scenario didn’t even happen” while my body feels as if the scenario is happening/has happened to me in real life. I know in my mind I shouldn’t be physically reacting, but I can’t do anything about it.

Overthinking/overanalyzing plays a huge role in this for me. If I can’t keep my mind occupied, it starts to wander and I end up coming up with different scenarios of how what I’m currently doing could go. I will also think into the future, coming up with different ways things could play out, as well as things from the past, thinking about how they could have turned out differently. For me, intrusive thoughts generally come after overthinking or a wandering mind. It’s very frustrating when I know my thoughts are irrational but I have no control over them or how they affect me.

While driving, I will start to have intrusive thoughts of car accidents ending with myself, or others, being dead or severely injured. My mind knows that it’s unlikely to happen, but I’ll get a pit in my stomach from anxiety and my heart will start to race, I get paranoid and hyper-attentive to the road. My body will almost go into a panic attack while I’m just driving the same route I do every day. I can tell myself I’ve driven this route five days a week for the last month and a half, and nothing like what is playing in my mind has even come close to happening. But even if I dismiss one scenario, another immediately takes its place.

For the longest time, I would have to stay awake doing multiple things at once until I knew I’d be able to fall asleep almost immediately as my head hit the pillow (playing computer games while watching TV was the most common). If I’m laying down in bed and my mind isn’t occupied enough, I will start to have thoughts of someone coming and killing me in my sleep, someone breaking into my house and stealing or even just thoughts of me having nightmares — and I will not be able to fall asleep. At first it will just be a wandering mind, but it quickly turns into intrusive thoughts I can’t control. I will start to shake with fear, I will get anxious to the point of almost throwing up. A lot of the times, even trying to find something else to occupy my mind isn’t enough alone once the intrusive thoughts are flowing. This would often cause me to only get a few hours of sleep because I wouldn’t be tired enough until 5 or 6 a.m., even with sleeping aids.

If I’m just sitting around, for example, I will think about someone I had a disagreement with, and how my relationship with that person could go in the future. Anything from trying to discuss the disagreement leading to heated argument with that person, to that person using the disagreement to turn everyone else against me will play in my head. While the thoughts are going through my head, I physiologically react as if the scenario is happening. I’ll get really sad and have a pit in my stomach at the thought of other people disliking me, or I get angry at the thought of a heated argument.

It’s hard with relationships because I need a significant other who can be transparent with me, which isn’t always fair (or realistic) to ask. If there is an argument and I don’t know how they are feeling after it, my mind always goes straight to worst case scenario. Even for just little arguments, if my significant other needs time to themselves (which is very fair) and don’t reassure me at some point, I will get very anxious and will assume they don’t like me anymore or that I’m too toxic and that they don’t want to be with me anymore, even if they do still care about me. This is something I am working on myself but is still something I definitely struggle with and that does cause problems.

These intrusive thoughts and my mind wandering can happen anywhere, at any time. It’s easy for me to sit here while I’m not anxious and recognize times where my thoughts were completely irrational and that I absolutely was overthinking and overreacting, but that’s not the case while I am having intrusive thoughts. In the heat of intrusive thoughts and anxiety, I have no control and that alone is still one of the worst things I’ve ever felt — having no control over thoughts and how I am feeling, no matter how hard I try. Occasionally I will have intrusive thoughts and will start to get sensory overload and normal background sounds become extremely loud and I feel as if I’m in a blur and have to isolate myself from everything. This ultimately leads to an anxiety attack and, more often than not, a panic attack with it.

Purposefully being mindful when intrusive thoughts come in was one of the best things I could do to help ground myself and get my body to realize it was safe. The thing that helps me the most is to be able to vocally process my thoughts with someone else, even if it’s just them listening and reassuring me that I’m safe and that my thoughts aren’t real. Being able to hear that the rational part of my brain helps my body to come to terms with that, and then I can relax and my rational brain will start to take over. I wish I could say that after four years, I’ve overcome this — but I have not. I have made huge improvements though, and I do have hope that one day, I’ll have more control of my anxiety. Until then, I will keep trying to find what really works for me, and find what kind of environment is best for me.

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Unsplash photo via Tanja Heffner