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When Your Own Thoughts Frighten You

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What is a thought?

Thoughts flit harmlessly in and out of our minds, don’t they? thousands of different thoughts a day, some we pay attention to, some we like and enjoy, some we don’t. But what about those thoughts that frighten us? That cause our bodies to react with fear and worry, sometimes panic? What if you are one of those people who can’t let go of the thoughts that terrify you and instead prod them, probe them anxiously until they grow in power and become all you can think about?

I am one of those people. I have always been a “worrier,” someone who has dwelled on bad events, worried incessantly about something I might have said or done wrong, worried my parents might die, that the world could end. As a child the list was endless. However it wasn’t until my late teens that I began to really feel the impact of anxious thoughts, my monsters.

My thoughts usually begin with “what if…” Those two dreaded words, usually accompanied by a flash of an uncomfortable image in my mind, are enough to send me into a spiral of panic. Thought after thought races into my brain, images flash uncontrollably in front of my eyes despite how much I want them to stop, to get off the helter-skelter, to walk in the opposite direction of the thoughts and fears that are plaguing me. The more I try to resist, bracing myself and my body, knowing they are inevitably coming, the more powerless I am to stop them.

Of course, my body doesn’t escape from the thoughts either; my heart thuds painfully, my stomach churns with a gut-wrenching nausea that so often accompanies me and my monsters, my head pounds and my chest feels tight and uncomfortable. I would, in those terrible moments, do anything to escape my own body and mind. The injustice of the experiences I go through every day and am too ashamed to admit to takes the shine off almost everything I do.

Depression likes to bully me when it can: “You’re so weak! Nobody else feels like you do.” “You didn’t leave the house today because you were afraid… what a coward.”
“You spoil everything, you and your stupid thoughts… everyone is going to get sick of you. You’re so boring.”

Sometimes it feels as if I am standing at the top of a black abyss, feeling a magnetic pull towards the bottom of the pit. I have an uncontrollable urge to dive into the “what if” thoughts and try and solve them all, reassure myself these are worries I can control and prevent from occurring. If I could just solve them, answer the unanswerable questions, then I’d be OK and they wouldn’t come anymore. I’d be free from the constraints of my thoughts.

I know it is the wrong thing to do, that by diving to the bottom of the pit I risk eventually being consumed by my fears, but it feels so right, so comforting and the urge is so strong.

The monsters in my mind like to play with what I hold most dear, toy with my deepest, darkest fears until I am so afraid that the thoughts are in fact true and not monsters at all, that I can no longer think straight. I begin to avoid anything I think will make the monsters shout louder. I try desperately to reassure myself the thoughts are not true. They’re not… are they? They could be, couldn’t they? How can I prove they’re not true, that my fears are not going to happen? And so the monsters continue to grow, and their shouts get a little louder. At times, my life revolves around my monsters. I won’t do something or go somewhere in case they start their incessant shouting again – I would do anything to avoid the thoughts and the feelings that come with them.

I get days, weeks even, where I am stronger. I ignore the monsters, labelling them for what they really are – anxious, intrusive thoughts that make my body react in unpleasant ways. I don’t avoid things or places; I don’t jump into the deep pit in an attempt to “solve” the problems and uncertainties. I realize the monsters can’t make me do or say anything I don’t want to – they’re just background noise. Feelings and thoughts can’t hurt me. I’m happier then; the monsters are quieter and I find I have more energy, I sleep better, I do the things I love… even depression’s snide comments lessen. I can see beauty in the things around me, I can laugh from my belly and feel deep love and contentment with my boyfriend.

That’s when I’m cocky – I get complacent. The thoughts are never far from my consciousness, just waiting for me to tentatively probe them, to dive in once more. I fail to resist the magnetic pull just once – then they’re back – my monsters. And the cycle begins again.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock photo by agsandrew

Originally published: December 9, 2016
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