8 Strategies to Help You Break the Cycle of Intrusive Thoughts
It’s a simple word. To understand its meaning intellectually is one thing, but to experience it is quite another. I had become accustomed to the daily horror of a mind turned against you. It is a quiet pain. It is a stealthy enemy. It rises from the darkness and thrives in its continuance. I woke up, and I felt it. I went to school, and I felt it. I went to work, and I felt it. I went to church, and I felt it. I sat at home, and I felt it. I visited family, and I felt it. I went out with friends, and I felt it.
Day-in and day-out, so long as my mind was conscious, I felt… anguish. I felt stuck and confused. I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t talk about it. I was trapped within the confines of my mind, an unhealthy mind. A mind that could hardly distinguish reality from fiction anymore. Each day was full of fear and doubt. I didn’t know if this fear was unwarranted or not. To me, it was real.
I couldn’t trust myself anymore. How could I? At any moment I could lose control. I might turn into a monster and kill or assault an innocent person. I might bash their head in with a rock. I might run them over at a crosswalk. I might slit their throat. I might shoot them dead for no reason at all. And besides all that, I have all kinds of strange and weird thoughts that nobody else has. What is wrong with me?
Why would I have these thoughts? Only a disgusting “psychopath” would ever have these things run through their mind. I might be a danger to other people. I want to avoid them to make sure I can never do anything bad. It would feel nice to be locked in a padded room where I could be certain I would never hurt anyone. I just want to be a good person. A good person wouldn’t have these thoughts.
What Are Obsessions?
Those who have not struggled with intrusive thoughts and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) before might reasonably ask, “Why not just stop thinking about it?” It’s a good question. Unfortunately, the answer is not self-evident and that is exactly why so many people experience this problem. To answer the question quickly, fear is the reason people cannot stop thinking about it. Of course, I will be explaining more about this later and in fact, much of this project will be revolving around cutting off the power of fear and replacing it with hope and faith. As strong as fear is, it cannot exist in the midst of faith.
If you, the person experiencing intrusive thoughts, were to take an honest objective look at your psyche, I am sure you would conclude that you are not actually a “psychopath” or “crazy” or anything of the sort. This is, of course, true. You’ve never committed an atrocity, and the fact you try so hard not to think about these things means you don’t want to. And so, the only problem that remains is your fear you are actually a horrible person. As you intellectually know, this is an irrational fear. And yet, we both know very well that it feels like a real threat. It is not a trivial matter. It feels like it requires your immediate attention and compels you to consider if it is true.
And therein lies the real enemy. The real threat to your peace. The real demon that keeps you on the hamster wheel of obsessive thinking. It is that you worry the thoughts might be true. Or, to put it more precisely, you have an emotional reaction to the thoughts and you believe this emotional reaction is confirming the thoughts.
But it’s not. That is only your subjective interpretation. All we have to do is change that interpretation for your entire life to change.
Breaking Down the “Obsession Cycle”
When I was really struggling with intrusive thoughts, I wanted to identify the cause of the thoughts. I observed a simple pattern in my thinking that went like this:
“If I am to be a good person, don’t think about _______.”
Inevitably think about _______.
“Why did I think that?! My identity is ruined!”
Can you see how ridiculous this is? You can’t tell yourself not to think about something without marking it as important, and the mind will always think about things you mark as important.
For example, if I tell myself not to think about stabbing my friend, what is the first thing I will think about when I see that person? Bingo. Stabby time! (It’s OK to laugh. Hehe.) And how could it be any other way? I’ve worried about it and thought about not thinking about it for so long it becomes inevitable I will think about it. It’s that simple.
Can you see there is nothing “evil” or “crazy” about this? I was just accidentally directing my mind to exactly the thing I didn’t want to think about. Silly me!
Do you now see the logic that having the thoughts is not “bad?” You aren’t “crazy” or “messed up” or “psychotic” at all. You just misunderstand what’s happening, and that’s OK.
Therefore, we can conclude the thoughts themselves are actually meaningless. Yes, meaningless. I’ll say it one more time just to drive the point home… the thoughts are meaningless. They are not connected to your character in any way.
Good. You might feel a sense of relief right now and that is great. However, there is a little fellow named anxiety that is going to come back into the picture at some point. Anxiety isn’t a bad dude; he just has some serious confidence issues. He is, unfortunately, very insecure to the point of irrationality. Anxiety is going to do everything he can to make you forget what you’ve just learned here today. He’ll try to tell you that you’re a horrible person again and that you’re f-ed up. And you know what? He’s going to be very convincing. You’re going to feel compelled to consider the things anxiety tells you. You’re going to feel like maybe you should ask those same old questions over and over and over again, like:
“What’s wrong with me? Am I crazy? Why am I thinking this?”
And when you feel the pull to fall back into that old pattern, you will have to make the conscious decision to say, “No, I won’t be bluffed by a thought or feeling. I know this is only a trick of the mind. Move forward. All is well.”
That is a powerful transformation because you are no longer letting anxiety control you. Remember, it is anxiety that is causing all your anguish, not the thoughts. The moment you stop listening to anxiety is the moment he loses all power. It is the moment you literally take back your life.
I want to emphasize that, for a time, these strong feelings will persist. Do not be bluffed by them! This is simply a symptom of having been anxious for so long. Your body, specifically your nervous system, has been conditioned to respond in this way. It will take a bit of time for your body to recalibrate itself. It is completely and totally normal. Don’t expect things to be bad! Expect them to get better. I promise if you allow the waves of anxiety to come and simply let them pass rather than fight them, the waves will become less strong and less frequent. In fact, it can never get worse than you have already experienced. Anxiety has its limits. That is a scientific fact. So, there is absolutely no reason to fight this feeling. Accept it, keep calm and carry on. You will not get eaten alive or spontaneously combust. I promise.
Strategies To Help You Move Forward
I am starting from the assumption you already have the desire to rid yourself of obsessive thinking. I am assuming you are ready to do anything to accomplish this great feat. It will be uncomfortable at times. How could anything so great come otherwise? But I assure you the small discomfort you feel will soon blossom into confidence and faith in yourself, something you may not have felt in a long time. When the going gets tough, remember this:
It’s never as bad as it at first seems.
You may have been struggling with intrusive thoughts for so long you feel very lost. I empathize with this feeling and how pervasive this belief may be, but all beliefs can be changed through experience. These strategies can help you consciously and purposefully change your mental state from one of fear and anxiety to one of calmness and hope. Be persistent. Be optimistic.
1. Avoid Second Fear
“Second fear” was a term coined by Dr. Claire Weekes in her book, “Hope and Help for Your Nerves” (I highly recommend it). Second fear is when you get nervous about your fear. You see, there is nothing strange about the fear you feel when your OCD or intrusive thoughts are triggered. As I said before, your body has simply been conditioned over time to respond in this way. It is actually a natural response and you don’t really have any conscious control over it. However, you do have complete control over how you respond. You see, that initial wave of fear is simply a physical reaction triggered by your body’s fight or flight response. But it is only a feeling. It does not have any power over you. You can consciously choose to accept that feeling and carry on with your day as though it were not there. Again, I emphasize, it is only a feeling. When you begin to get upset or fearful about the feeling, that is when you begin the cycle of anxious thoughts. So, simply put, do not fear the fear. Keep calm and carry on.
Face. Accept. Float. Let time pass.
This is another point made in Dr. Weekes’ books. I’ve already described most of these concepts in this post. Face the fear and thought. Accept the fear and thought. Let time pass. Floating is an interesting idea that is a bit nuanced and difficult to explain, but it works. To “float” past a thought or feeling is essentially to detach yourself from it. Do not get caught up in the thought or feeling. Imagine you are sort of observing it without getting involved with it. That is floating. It allows you to carry on when the wave of anxiety hits. It takes a little practice, but it is an invaluable part of recovery.
3. Use Your Physiology
This is an interesting “trick” that helped me tremendously when I was in the thick of it and I still use it today. It is quite simple. Your physiology — how you use and move your physical body — has a large impact on your mental state. Think of a person who is depressed. How do you think they are using their body? They likely have their head down, shoulders down, their breathing is probably shallow, and they are moving lethargically. Now consider an athlete playing the greatest game of their life. How are they using their body? I would guess they have their head up, shoulders back, a smile on their face, taking full breaths and moving explosively and with purpose. The result? They are joyful and performing well, despite any nerves they might have had before the game.
Relax the body.
Let go of tension.
Put your head up.
Put your shoulders back.
Walk with purpose.
It is really incredible how quickly a little adjustment in your physiology can affect your mind. When you have an intrusive thought or feel a rush of anxiety, use your body. Do not shrink from it. Feel the power that comes from standing tall in the face of adversity. Take pride that you’re brave enough to face it. Each time you do, it is a great step forward. When I’m struggling myself, I would go wild with this to the point of laughing like a madman when the wave of anxiety hit. I wanted to spite that feeling. It would never make me shrink in fear again. That was my attitude, and it got me a long way.
4. Don’t Avoid What You Fear
This one is really important. Your intrusive thoughts might revolve around people you really care about or happen in places you need to be. Don’t avoid them. I know that this can be tough and that is why I mentioned it after the first three tips. Use those strategies to go out there into the world and face your fears. If you have intrusive thoughts, that’s OK. They’ve never harmed anyone before and they aren’t going to start now. They are only thoughts, and your feelings are only feelings. Don’t be bluffed by them!
I plan on doing a separate post dedicated to journaling because it was so crucial to my recovery. What a person doesn’t remember is of no use to them. Some days I write about my feelings, but a lot of times it is simply for me to record little lessons I learned throughout the day. For example, when I read something helpful, I write down the things that stuck out to me. Over time, I’ve accumulated tons of material that I can go back to at any time. In fact, all these things I’ve taught you today are written in my journal. I started finding lessons in the struggle that have been invaluable to me and will continue to be for the rest of my life. Simply put, when I started looking for what I could learn from my situation instead of wishing it would go away, everything changed. Yes, it was still hard, but there was suddenly purpose in the suffering. And when you can find meaning in suffering, it ceases to be suffering at all.
6. Talk to Someone
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but I do recognize how difficult it is. I did not do a very good job with this one myself, but once I finally opened up to just one person, it really helped. A lot of the pain associated with intrusive thoughts is the belief that nobody would accept you if they knew about them. But that is just not true!
7. Take a Walk
Yep. Just go outside and take a walk, even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes. I do this when I feel overwhelmed and taking some deep breaths of fresh air always feels nice. I also tend to think more clearly when I walk around. I think it can help you too.
8. Absorb Optimism
“Optimism is true moral courage.” — Ernest Shackleton.
This one sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Read your Bible. Listen to positive YouTube videos and uplifting music. Watch movies that inspire you. Talk to someone you admire who always seems to find the good in life. Go watch a sunset or wake up and enjoy a sunrise. Whatever gets you looking forward instead of backward, do that. You’ll be thankful you did.
This Is Your Moment
What more can I say? It sounds strange, but I now look back on my struggle with obsessive thinking as one of the most valuable times in my entire life. I learned so much. I grew so much. I discovered strengths about myself that I couldn’t have seen without first being in the struggle. You, too, will experience these victories. And when you have a rough day, don’t beat yourself up. At one point, I wrote myself a letter explaining how I was going to lead “us” out of the darkness and into a great future. I still read it every once in a while as a reminder to never quit.
If this helped you or you think it will help a friend, please share this with them. I would like it to be as useful as possible.
Thank you for reading.
Photo via Kristopher Roller on Unsplash