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One Size Does Not Fit All When It Comes to Managing Intrusive Thoughts

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Some of you may have heard of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or mindfulness. In that case, you may have also heard the accompanying metaphors used to explain intrusive thoughts or rules people have made up in their minds because of their exposure to #trauma. Intrusive thoughts, to clarify, are not limited to traumatic experiences. For personal reference, I struggle with intrusive thoughts because of trauma, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Here is an example of a metaphor I was first introduced to when I started ACT with my therapist:

You are a school bus driver, and your thoughts are the kids on the bus. Some are louder than others, some are more frustrating or hurtful than others and some are so obnoxious you want to stop the bus and run as far away as possible.

This metaphor is useful in recognizing you do not have control over the kids on the bus, and just because a kid is yelling loud and obnoxiously does not mean you stop driving. It means learning to sit on the bus with that child and continue your route because you know the other kids on the bus need to make it home.

That metaphor worked for me for a while, until I was overwhelmed by all of the kids. I was trying to give them specific names like “trauma response kid,” “prediction kid,” “ADHD emotional dysregulation kid” (you get the point).  It stopped working because there were too many kids, and I started to become frustrated with myself. I am extremely self-critical, and it was easy to lose track of the kids on the bus, forwarding my anger toward myself and my inability to “control” my thoughts.

I wrote an article previously about intrusive thoughts, comparing them to an uninvited guest who shows up at your Halloween party (I wanted to get creative and think of a new metaphor). For some reason, my mind did not connect the ease of creating my new metaphor with the possibility this method of viewing my own intrusive thoughts may be what was going to work.

I recently experienced a meltdown that lasted for about three days. I felt overwhelmed with exhaustion, depression and the daily stress of managing ADHD while in graduate school, and it caused a chaotic wave of intrusive thoughts. I am OK now, and I have had time to reflect on those three days. A small piece of that reflection included rereading my article, which sparked an idea.

The kids on the bus metaphor was not working anymore. So, I thought, “What if I turned those thoughts into one person instead?” I want to introduce you to my uninvited guest: Donald.

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Since creating Donald, I have been able to better separate my thoughts from who I am as a person, and it is more comfortable to sit with them. He is a person in my life who will never go away, but I can choose to sit with him, ignore him or tell him I know he is just trying to protect me. This method also works in my relationships. Rather than feeling bad because I know my thoughts and emotions come off as personal, I can use a phrase like, “Donald is telling me the people I love the most are going to hurt me.” That sounds a little easier to hear instead of, “I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me,” doesn’t it?

It’s not that I think you are the type of person to hurt me. It’s that I am hurting, and my brain is trying to protect me by predicting and attempting to control others’ behaviors. It is pushing blame and frustration away from me. It is diminishing the unrealistic idea that I had any control over what happened to me or what I am challenged with today. It also reminds me these thoughts have nothing to do with the people who love me. It is just Donald acting up again. What a silly guy!

I wanted to write about this to share my experience and recognize we sometimes will cling to the first option explained to us. We go to therapy because we are looking for answers and/or tools to survive, heal or recover. If we are introduced to a new strategy and think it will help ease our suffering, we may only see the first explanation as the only way. When that option stops working or does not work at all, we tend to blame ourselves, even to the point where we may feel as though we are failing our therapists. It is easy to lose hope in those moments, becoming overwhelmed and entering a panicked state.

The reality is there are so many different answers, and it is OK if one approach is not working for you. It does not mean you are “too messed up” or a “lost cause.” It just means you are ready to try something different. It is essential to do the things that work best for you, not what you think you should be able to do.

If you are a bus driver, driving hurtful kids, they will eventually get off the bus. Even when the next day arrives, and they are back on the bus. You show yourself each time they are only kids, and you can sit with them until they reach their stop. And one day, those kids will not have to ride the bus anymore. If you have a friend like Donald, he will be hurtful sometimes because he is trying to protect you. You and Donald are not the same, and eventually, he will learn he does not have to protect you anymore. If you don’t want to be a bus driver or have a friend like Donald, find out what works best for you.

Unsplash image by Natalie Grainger

Originally published: November 22, 2020
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