There were times when I was bombarded by dark heavy intrusive-thought clouds. I used to think that focusing on the intrusive thoughts themselves would make the intrusive thoughts go away. I always dwelled on one specific question: “Why am I thinking such horrific thoughts?!” Unfortunately, that question only opened a flood gate of other disturbing irrational thoughts that would only intensify my anxiety and emotions even more, ultimately resulting in hours or even days of extreme emotional suffering.
Turns out, I just wasn’t asking myself the “right” questions?
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can be nuisance little buggers. They are unpleasant thoughts, mental images, or ideas that involuntarily pop up in the mind. Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, it’s not just an OCD thing.
See, the brain is constantly scanning and processing information, thus why some junk information may end up in the processing line with thoughts that actually matter. For the most part, our brain does a pretty good job at pushing intrusive thoughts through without us taking notice. However, we tend to dwell on thoughts that are attached to emotions; so if an intrusive thought just so happens to pass through our mind at the right time, like during a period of anxiety, we might accidentally lock onto that intrusive thought by attaching an emotion to it.
Generally, intrusive thoughts don’t linger around for very long and cause little to no emotional distress, because the fight or flight response system quickly realizes these intrusive thoughts are harmless and doesn’t require an emotional response; thus, releasing the emotional attachment allowing the intrusive thought to drift away from the mind.
However, for me, my faulty fight or flight response system doesn’t exactly know what to do with an intrusive thought and keeps me emotionally attached to my intrusive thought until it can be processed appropriately. Almost like, when a customer service representative encounters a questionable problem, but has to wait until their manager comes back to lunch to resolve it. Yet, with OCD, instead of waiting for the manager of my faulty fight or flight response system, I get the moody on-call supervisor (my OCD) to try to handle it for me, in which, we all know just makes matters worse causing emotional distress. I wonder if I can sue my OCD for emotional distress?
None Shall Pass, The Never Ending Thought Loop
Imagine you are stuck running in a loop and there is a toll booth. If you ask the right questions at the toll booth, you are free to leave the loop. If you ask the wrong questions, you continue running in an endless loop, dwelling more and more on your intrusive thoughts. Also, think of the loop as a dirt-road track, because the more you go round and round in your loop, the deeper the track gets from continuous tread from your shoes. Overcoming intrusive thoughts is a bit like that…at least for me it is.
I learned that the more I dwell on trying to analyze my intrusive thoughts, the more my anxiety and emotions intensify, leading to self-doubt. Once self-doubt kicks in, that is it! My OCD bully has nailed me in the gonads and I am just left to wait it out until my OCD episode ends on it’s own. This is because self-doubt is much more difficult to overcome than the emotions attached to intrusive thoughts. Self-doubt makes the intrusive thoughts personal and without cognitive practice, self-doubt is emotionally painful.
When intrusive thoughts become stuck, you just can’t not think about them….
Asking Different Questions
It’s all about changing tactics. If you do the same thing over and over again to try to solve a problem, you always get the same results. Usually, if you change your point of view, you discover a new way to tackle your problem to gain different results. So, if dwelling on the same questions is making anxiety worse, why not try asking different questions? Here are some examples:
- Instead of asking yourself, “Why am I thinking about these horrific thoughts?”
Ask yourself, “Why do these horrific thoughts bother me so much?”
- Instead of asking yourself, “Where did these horrific thoughts come from?”
Ask yourself, “Am I anxious about anything that could have triggered these thoughts?”
- Instead of asking yourself, “Why can’t I just let go of these thoughts?”
Ask yourself, “Are these thoughts really worth my time and energy to think about?”
- Instead of asking yourself, “Who am I?”
Ask yourself, “Who am I not?” Remember, intrusive thoughts do not define you.
- Finally, ask yourself, “What emotions am I attaching to these thoughts?”
And then, begin defusing those emotions.
Try to think outside the box! Ask questions that are constructive and positive to help lead you away from intrusive thoughts. And, always remember to take a deep breath!
It’s Not Always Easy
There is always more than one way to release yourself from your anchored thoughts, you just need to find which way works for you. The OCD bully brain wants to take advantage of intrusive thoughts to make you feel like a bad person. Don’t let it! You may not be able to control your thoughts, but you can for sure control how you respond to your thoughts.