*Trigger Warning – this blog has descriptions of Intrusive thoughts that may be distressing or triggering to some, please take care if you feel vulnerable*
Disclaimer – this blog post features my own experiences and opinions, please seek advice from your health care professional for treatment for Intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts come up in discussion quite often, whether it be at group, or online. People often want to know, what they are, and how I’ve overcome them. They caused me a huge amount of distress, and coupled with my maternal OCD were difficult to get under control. But I did, and so can you.
First of all what are Intrusive thoughts?
Truth is, most people have Intrusive thoughts (IT) and for the majority of people the thoughts disappears as quickly as they arrive, with little attention paid to them. However for some, these thoughts can be highly distressing, can spiral and become difficult to control. Sometimes these thoughts can become obsessive, and compulsions can develop, triggering Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Intrusive thoughts are commonly linked to OCD, but not always, they can also be linked with many other mental illnesses. Having IT doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD.
Intrusive thoughts can range from person to person. They can be repetitive, mental images or impulses and are usually unexpected. There are many types of Intrusive thoughts, they can be violent thoughts surrounding harm coming to others or yourself, they can be sexual or immoral. Through my own experience of speaking to parents, and in my own case, IT are commonly concentrated around violence & harm coming to our children.
A good example I often use is someone standing at the train station. When standing at the station and a train pulls in an intrusive thought may be “what if I jumped in front of the train?” For someone not struggling they may just brush it off as “that would be horrible” and get on with their day. For others who are struggling, they may ruminate on this and start obsessing about the thought and what that says about them. They may worry they really do want to jump off the platform, or they may have images in their mind which cause them great distress.
There are many examples I could use but this tends to be one many (whether struggling with IT or not) have had or can understand.
It’s important to remember that although these thoughts are distressing, and often disturbing, they are not a reflection on you as a person. You are not a bad person. Usually someone struggling with IT will be scared, or disgusted by the thought, and being repulsed in this way often shows that they don’t wish to act upon this.
If you are experiencing intrusive thoughts, and they’re beginning to have an impact on your day to day life, causing you distress it’s important you talk about it. I know it’s hard to open up about these type of thoughts, I had awful IT about harming my baby, by throwing her down the stairs, harming her or myself with knives, about crashing my car, the list goes on. I felt a sense of shame that they even came into my mind, but I soon learnt what they were and that they weren’t my fault. So do reach out, it’s a good first step in receiving help and getting them under control.
Often therapy is the key in getting things under control. Commonly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is used, this was something I tried and I also tried Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) both were helpful to me in learning to control the anxiety which fuelled the intrusive thoughts.
My IT were part of my OCD, the thoughts caused me great anxiety, which I would then try to ease by acting out a compulsion – this is often referred to as “magic thinking” I believed by doing something, eg counting, tapping, redoing tasks until they felt right, would stop my intrusive thought becoming a reality. My IT never did happen, which reinforced my belief that my compulsion had stopped it. Thus I found myself in an unhelpful thinking cycle.
CBT helps you break these unhelpful thinking patterns. Two CBT techniques which helped me in particular were “STOPP” and “Take The Thought To Court”
STOPP stands for:
TAKE A BREATH
PULL BACK – PUT IN SOME PERSPECTIVE
PRACTISE WHAT WORKS – PROCEED
I’ve added the graphics from getselfhelp.co.uk which have an in-depth description.
“Take the thought to court” is about taking a moment to look at the thought and find what facts/evidence you have for these thoughts. You can read a great description of this technique here and also find printable sheets to challenge your thoughts.
ERP is something which helps challenge the unhelpful thought, it can help you learn to resist the urge (compulsion) and while it felt extremely uncomfortable, it did help. I soon saw that the thoughts and fears I had, were just that, thoughts. They weren’t my ability to predict the future, they weren’t things that I wanted to do. This technique also helped me with the anxiety I had which lead to agoraphobia.
I also found mindfulness helpful. Often with IT we are advised we should not fight them or suppress them. We should let them come, acknowledge them and then let them float way. This can be really hard, but with practice (a lot of practice in my case!) mindfulness did help me. It’s not for everyone, as with all types of therapy, it’s about trying out different things and finding what works for you.
This is a very brief outline of Intrusive thoughts and what can help. It’s not easy opening up and revealing these thoughts, but it’s important to speak to someone. My number one tip is keep practicing, keep trying. As much as I wish I could wave a wand and things would be better, we can’t. It takes time, and it’s not easy, it is a path full of ups and down but what is important to remember is – you are not alone, and it can be done.