Today I am going to share with you three of the greatest strategies for stopping those intrusive/anxious thoughts. You know the ones I am talking about… that thought you just can’t seem to get out of your head no matter how hard you try! This is one of the first strategies I teach many of my students. I explain to them that this strategy is super simple #simpledoesn’tmeaneasy, proven to work, and will be useful in so many different areas of their lives. I also share that most adults haven’t yet learned these important skills.
ps. Much of what I am going to share today is focused on intrusive/anxious thoughts, however these skills can easily be transferred over to worries, fears, and stressors.
What is an intrusive thought?
Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that enter your consciousness, often without warning or prompting, with content that is alarming, disturbing, or just flat-out weird. They’re thoughts we all have at some point, but for some people, these thoughts get “stuck” and cause great distress (Seif & Winston, 2018).
As a social worker I used to often talk to clients about their intrusive thoughts but never fully understood the experience of an intrusive thought until I experienced postpartum anxiety (you can read about it here) and became consumed by intrusive thoughts. It was a battle against myself, one I lost over and over again. One that sucked the joy out of life and made me mentally and physically exhausted. When I tried to explain them to my husband I shared that these thoughts are like quick flashes of vivid images or scenarios that my brain plays out in a daydream fashion, which are disturbing and feel so real. I then provided him with an example sharing about our recent camping trip. **warning: content may seem graphic to some** In the days leading up to our camping trip (which I was stressed about packing for and the upcoming life changes in September) I kept having this vivid scenario of my husband chopping wood with an axe and my little 2 year old running up to him as he was coming down with the axe and getting killed. Graphic? Yes! disturbing? Yes! Anxiety provoking? Yes! And if I don’t label it as an anxious thought it has the ability to take away my joy while camping as I anxiously parent and watch my kids, trying not to let them get hurt. So, why can’t I get this image out of my head?
Jokes on us…
The funny (not so funny) thing about our brain is that it likes to check-in and see how well it is doing on focusing on a task. Therefore its really hard to stop thinking about something you are trying to stop thinking about. Play along with me….
For the next 3 mins I want you to try really hard not to think about a purple elephant. I invite you to think about anything else you can possibly imagine, but do not let the image of a purple elephant come into your mind. I want you to time how long you can go before thinking about that purple elephant…. ready…. set… go….
Unfortunately for many of us, it does not take long before all we can think about is either a purple elephant or thinking about NOT thinking about a purple elephant. If its that hard to unstick a random thought, you can imagine how hard it truly is to get rid of an intrusive or anxious thought. The other interesting thing about intrusive thoughts is that scientists aren’t 100% sure on why people get them. There are a number of studies and hypothesis but it still isn’t very well understood.
When we are mentally healthy, have a ‘neurotypical brain’, and are aware of how to monitor and release our thoughts then these intrusive thoughts are just a hiccup. On the other hand if you are finding yourself dealing with these unwanted, often scary or disturbing thoughts on a regular basis, you may be dealing with symptoms of a mental illness, the most common associated with intrusive thoughts being anxiety and OCD. For those who find these struggles are negatively impacting their daily functioning I suggest finding a counsellor/social worker to connect with as CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is a great ‘treatment’ option.
For those of you who are looking for some concrete everyday strategies, I have included some below that I use and love!
Mindfulness Mediation – Thought Scanning
Meditation is a great way to work towards healing our brains/psyche and finding calm. Meditation is also a great coping strategy when you feel like you can’t escape the situation and is researched based! Mindful meditation is both a preventative strategy and coping tool. If you know anything about neuroplasticity you will know that our brain is constantly creating new neuron connections. This means that practicing meditation on a regular basis creates new positive neuron pathways and strengths your minds ability to release those intrusive thoughts (like brain weight lifting).
Here are George Hofmann’s (2013) instructions:
- Keep your attention on your breath and be fully aware in this moment—of sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and thoughts.
- Acknowledge each thought as it pops up, let it go, and return to your breath. Don’t analyze it, dwell on it, or ruminate over it, just let it come into your head and slide right back out. (as if you are watching your thoughts on a slideshow)
- If you’re having trouble, try labeling the thoughts.
- The intent of mindfulness for intrusive thoughts is to stay aware of what is going on around you, as well as what is going on inside you.
- Practice, practice, practice!
Sometimes when I am really focused on an intrusive thought I get lost in it and it consumes my mind. When I snap into the present and am able to label it as an intrusive thought I am then able to ‘deal’ with it. My favourite strategy is thought stopping which I will explain below, but first I want to introduce you to 6 of the steps Seif and Winston (2018) suggest taking to change your mindset and overcome intrusive thoughts
- Label these thoughts as “intrusive thoughts.” (Actually say to yourself, that is an intrusive thought)
- Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you. (Remind yourself its not your fault)
- Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away. (A game of catch a release – scan the thought as mentioned in the meditation section and then let the thought go)
- Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency.
- Expect the thoughts to come back again
- Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.
Here are some things that research shows doesn’t really help (makes the thought more stuck):
- Engage with the thoughts in any way. (Don’t let your brain play them out and dwell)
- Push the thoughts out of your mind. (Don’t just try not to think about it like the purple elephant, you need to name it and master it)
- Try to figure out what your thoughts “mean.”
- Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts
Thought Stopping Strategy
This strategy is simple but not always easy. There are 3 easy steps. I am going to walk you through an example of an intrusive thought I get often – I worry that someone is going to enter my house and hurt me.
- STOP – say your preferred STOP SIGNAL (it might be chill, hold up, hang on) in your head and label the thought as an INTRUSIVE THOUGHT. I am laying there in bed worrying about someone coming into my house and hurting me. I can feel my heart racing, and this thought of hearing someone walk around on the main floor of my house keeps running through my mind. And as I begin to dwell on the thought I allow my mind to try to create 50 scenarios of how I would escape the situation. In that moment I need to say “hang on Olly we need to stop as that is an intrusive thought”
- CORRECT & REASSURE – Say a correcting or reassuring statement to yourself. I say to myself, “you are safe“, “all the doors are locked”.
- DISTRACT – in order to change your thoughts you need to release the thought and distract (remember how hard it was to just stop thinking about the purple elephant?). The best way to distract is to do something that you need to use your brain for and something it enjoys thinking about. “I am going to read”, “I am going to listen to and sing my favourite playlist”, “I am going to journal about my day and my gratitudes”. “I am going to think about what I want to wear tomorrow to work”, “I am going to go over this weeks schedule in my head and make a list of what I need to get done”
*Remember the thought likely will come back at first and thats when you acknowledge it and let it go again, working through the thought stopping strategy and keeping the Seif and Winston (2018) steps in mind. These strategies will take time and lots of practice so be patient with yourself and don’t give up!
**Also try to recognize what your intrusive thought triggers might be whether its stress, hormones, a certain situation such as being home alone etc. and work to be preventative with self-care and someone to support you!
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