Intrusive thoughts: what they are and how to manage them
It goes without saying that taking care of our mental health is more important now than ever. We are constantly being bombarded by frightening and distressing messages at the moment because of the coronavirus pandemic. Add to this the restrictions we are living under, where we cannot be with loved ones and the people who make us feel good when things are tough, and it’s clear why we are faced with a ‘mental health crisis’. But one thing I want to get across is that we all have ‘mental health’ – whether it is positive or negative is what matters.
It is absolutely normal to be struggling in our minds during such a difficult time. It would actually be quite strange to be happily ticking along without being a bit jaded at the moment. With less time spent doing the things we once could, it’s not uncommon for people to spend more time thinking, and this can sometimes lead to focusing on intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that can cause significant distress. The thought could involve violence, harm or something else that is socially unacceptable and disturbing. They often pop into our heads out of nowhere and can cause feelings of anxiety. It is a vicious circle as a person will feel distressed at the thought, and this distress is intensified by the anxiety that surrounds it – we are worried about worrying.
The greatest concern for someone experiencing intrusive thoughts is that they are scared having such thoughts means there is something wrong with them. They feel that they must be a terrible, horrible person for ever having such an awful thought enter their mind. They sit with these anxious feelings because they are too embarrassed to tell anyone about them. They feel these thoughts are so awful that they need to be kept secret, which intensifies the idea that there must be something wrong with them. They are also fearful that because they have had such a dreadful thought, it means they may want to do what is in their thoughts or that what they thought will actually happen.
Rest assured, this is absolutely NOT true. In fact, the opposite is true. As an example and something which is not uncommon, for someone who has recently become a parent, they may have unwanted intrusive thoughts about something terrible happening to their child. This does not in any way mean that the parent is a terrible person. What it does mean is that they are incredibly protective and loving of their child and would never want any harm to come to them. As another example, in light of the current pandemic, people may have intrusive thoughts about a loved one becoming ill or even dying. Again, this does not make them a terrible person. It just shows that they care enormously about their loved one and want them to be safe and well.
It is natural to want to try to push intrusive thoughts away, since their content can be frightening, unacceptable, disturbing and does not adhere to who we are as a person. However, it is the amount of energy people put into trying to fight off intrusive thoughts that makes them more likely to pop back in their minds again. Also, not every thought needs to be examined. Examining an intrusive thought just spends more time and energy on it, making it more likely to reoccur. The more anxiety around such thoughts, the more power you give them and the more likely they are to stick around.
To better manage intrusive thoughts, you need to develop a better relationship with them. Rather than worrying about them and giving them attention by getting anxious about them, accept that it is just a strange thought, do not pay it attention and let it go. This can take some getting used to but practicing this approach will lessen your sensitivity to intrusive thoughts so that gradually, they don’t become an issue at all. It will stop you from reinforcing them by trying to unnecessarily analysing them. Leave them be, don’t force them away and don’t show them any interest. With time, they will fade away.
Remember, everyone has strange, scary and pretty bizarre thoughts from time to time. They do not make us a bad person – they make us human.