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Dealing With the Uninvited Guest of Intrusive Thoughts

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One of my symptoms from the combination of ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is intrusive thoughts. The categories vary, but the example I will use is the constant thought that everyone I love is going to hurt me. These thoughts can range from a hurt fueled by intention (purposely leaving me, disrespecting me, physically harming me) or unintentional/accidental harm (meeting someone else and falling for them, deciding one day they don’t love me anymore).

For a long time, before I was diagnosed with ADHD or PTSD, I had trouble regulating my emotions and distinguishing the difference between what was a real feeling/rational fear and what was an irrational thought based on fears that developed from past trauma (having nothing to do with the current situation). This caused me to have trouble maintaining relationships with partners, family and friends. I would have a thought (ex: my boyfriend got a new job and is going to meet someone and leave me), my ADHD brain would play all possible scenarios and outcomes, and my PTSD brain would try to prepare for the second shoe to drop.

My intrusive thoughts would cause many non-preferred reactions such as sarcastic comments, assumptions, blaming or pushing people away. Needless to say, my reactions to this symptom I did not know was a symptom, caused a reaction in the ones I loved that not only reinforced my thoughts, but ultimately led to my isolation and depletion of any self-esteem or self-worth I had.

It has only been two years since I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and PTSD, although I have had them all my life. During my healing process, I have learned more about myself and these conditions than I could have imagined, and the cool part is I am still learning.

The thoughts are called intrusive because they feel impossible to let go, forget about or talk yourself out of. They intrude like an uninvited, unwelcome guest at your Halloween party that refuses to leave. Most of the time, if there is an unwelcome guest in your home, you can simply ask them to leave. In the context of intrusive thoughts, that guest is going to put up one hell of a fight, it will exhaust every method you have and every tool in your toolbox to force them out. Intrusive thoughts are that unwanted guest. Once you’ve forced them out, you briefly feel relief. That is, until you realize they are still there, outside of your house, screaming at the top of their lungs to get your attention.

You can hear them in the background, and you will try to ignore it so you can enjoy the rest of your party. The voice will drown in the casual conversations with your guests, but it will occasionally become loud and clear during the small seconds of silence between your spoken sentences.

At some point, that voice will become overpowering and you will no longer be able to focus on your conversations, no longer enjoy your Halloween party, and eventually you will become overwhelmed and explode. The explosion could mean
lashing out at your guests because everyone’s voices suddenly become irritating,
or the physical harm you inflict on the unwelcome guest that is still standing
outside, screaming. The explosion could also be the decision to never host or attend a party again for fear of the unwanted guest showing up again.

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I have experienced significant trauma throughout my life, and my mind has developed in environments that were consistently in a state of chaos. Today, I am in complete understanding of my mental health, and I have been in therapy for quite some time. I have been working ridiculously hard every day and despite my efforts, my body and mind still have not adjusted to the feeling of relaxation, content or comfort. My mind has been protecting me since childhood; from divorce, childhood sexual abuse, family trauma, toxic relationships, military trauma and rape. Because my fight, flight or freeze response has been permanently activated, the moment I feel a sense of relaxation, my unwanted guest starts knocking on my door. My guest asks me questions that lead to fear, tries to predict the future, tries to give me a reason to prepare for pain, and loudly reminds me I am a not worthy of love.

I used to shame myself for these thoughts, after coming to the conclusion that if I cannot get rid of them or forget about them, I was a bad person, reinforcing my fear that I do not deserve love. Today, I give myself praise. I am not proud for having an unwanted guest screaming at me from outside of my home. I am proud of myself for learning how to acknowledge what my guest is saying, while looking at things inside of my house in a way I never have before.

The thing is… this is my house. I deserve to feel comfortable and safe in my house. The texture of my couch is smooth and comforting, the feeling of my feet sliding into my slippers in the morning is like walking on clouds. The smell of coffee in the morning while I sit outside on the patio and enjoy the fall weather is the most amazing feeling. The point is, the more you resist your guest, the more they will persist on getting under your skin. Our intrusive thoughts will never go away, especially when they are due to trauma or ADHD. When you learn to observe your thoughts as just thoughts, you learn to distance yourself from those thoughts, giving you a wider view of the things around you.

Instead of blaming yourself for letting your unwanted guest stand in your yard screaming, recognize that they are outside, and go make breakfast.

Your guest does not have any pull on your values nor do they represent who you are as a person. When a child is screaming for candy, and you refuse to give it to them, what do they do? The child might throw a tantrum, kicking and screaming for what feels like an eternity. But what will always happen if you do not give in? They eventually stop crying.

So, let your guest scream as much as they want. Observe them, acknowledge them, and take a moment to love yourself. Don’t give in to the things they are saying, and they will eventually go home, at least for the night.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova

Originally published: September 29, 2020
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