How to eliminate intrusive thoughts
People who experience anxiety and panic attacks frequently have to deal with the negative side–effects of unwanted thoughts that creep into their minds. These thoughts can range from worries about health‚ concern over loved ones‚ or even fears that do not make any rational sense at all but continue to linger in the mind.
Sometimes‚ the unwanted intrusive thoughts come from previous experiences; other times they are simply bizarre‚ leaving the person worried as to why such strange thoughts are occurring. In all these cases‚ the person is upset by the anxious thoughts because they are causing distress and worry. I will guide you through a simple two–step process that is in part related to the One Move which I teach but tailored specifically to dealing with anxious thinking.
Anxious Intrusive Thoughts
Tackling anxious intrusive thinking effectively requires a two–pronged approach. To eliminate the negative thinking patterns‚ there needs to be a shift in attitude along with specific visualization tools.
The Attitude Shift
It is not the intrusive thoughts in themselves that cause you distress. It is how you are responding to those thoughts. It is the reaction you are having to the thoughts that enables them to have influence and power over you. In order to better understand how unwanted thoughts come about‚ it helps to paint a playful visual picture of how this happens. This is a fictional example and will help you better understand how to deal with the issue.
Imagine yourself standing on a street and all around you thoughts are floating lazily by. Some of the thoughts are your own‚ other thoughts are from outside sources you access such as newspapers‚ TV‚ magazines‚ etc. You notice that when you pay attention to a thought it gravitates nearer. The thoughts you ignore float on by.
When you focus and examine a thought up closely‚ you notice how it connects to another similar thought‚ and you find yourself jumping from one thought to the next. Sometimes these are practical‚ day–to–day thoughts such as bills‚ chores‚ etc.‚ or the thoughts can themed by the past or a fantasy/daydream.
In our imagined scenario‚ you unexpectedly notice a thought hovering in front of you that scares you. This thought is called “Fear X.” X could be panic attacks‚ ill health‚ or something bizarre. You find it impossible not to look at the thought‚ and as you give it your full attention‚ this causes it to come closer and closer. When you examine the thought‚ you begin to react with fear as you do not like what you see. You further notice how that initial scary thought is connected to more worrying “what if” thoughts that you also examine in detail. The more you try to escape from the thought by pushing it away‚ the more it seems to follow you around as if it were stuck to you. You try to focus on more pleasant thoughts‚ but you find yourself continuously coming back to the fearful thought.
There is an expression of “thoughts sticking like glue.” The very act of reacting emotionally to the thought glues the thought all the more to you‚ and the more time you spend worrying and obsessing about the thought‚ the more that glue becomes hardened over time. The thought and all its associated connected thoughts are there in the morning when you wake and there at night when you are trying to get some sleep. The thought becomes stuck to your psyche because your emotional reaction to it is its sticking power. Thoughts are a form of energy‚ neither good nor bad. It is how we judge those thoughts that determines how much impact they have on our lives. Thoughts need firstly to be fed by attention‚ but what they really love is a good strong emotional reaction to make them stick!
Thoughts that stay with us are first attracted to us by the attention we pay them and then stuck firmly in place by the level of emotional reaction we have to them.
This is an important point. A thought–even negative intrusive thoughts–can only have an influence over you if you allow it to. The emotional reaction from us is a thought’s energy source. What’s interesting is that either a positive or a negative emotional reaction is fine for the thought. Energy and attention is what it is attracted to. Once you are having an emotional reaction to a thought‚ you will be regularly drawn to that thought until the emotional reaction has lost its energy and faded away.
For example‚ if someone you know pays you a very positive compliment‚ you may find yourself unintentionally drawn to that thought anytime you have a spare moment. You probably find it improves your overall level of confidence and mood throughout the day. Sadly however‚ we tend to focus less on the positive and more on the negative. We seem to forget those positive compliments all too easily and are drawn more frequently to what might upset us. Taking the opposite example‚ if someone you know insults you‚ I am sure that you find the emotional reaction to that thought much more intense and probably very long–lasting.
So the basic pattern of thinking is as follows:
If you are not engaged with an activity or task‚ your mind will tend to wander to any thoughts that you are having a strong emotional reaction to. In general‚ as they are the ones that you are probably reacting most strongly to‚ angry or fearful thoughts seem to surface quickly.
What I am suggesting is that the most ineffective way to eliminate intrusive thoughts is to try and suppress them. Thought suppression studies‚ (Wegner‚ Schneider‚ Carter‚ & White‚ 1987) have proven that the very act of trying to suppress a thought‚ only results in a higher frequency of unwanted intrusive thoughts occurring. This reoccurrence of the thought has been termed the ‘rebound effect’. Simply put: the more you try suppressing a thought‚ the more the unwanted thought keeps popping up (rebounding).
So how do we begin to tackle this problem of intrusive thoughts?
There needs to be a change of attitude. By a change in attitude‚ I mean a change in the way you have been reacting to the intrusive thoughts. A change in attitude will quickly disarm the emotional reaction you are having to the fearful thoughts. Once the emotional reaction has been significantly reduced‚ the anxious intrusive thoughts will dissipate. In the past you have probably tried to rid yourself of the thoughts by attempting to struggle free of them.
The trick‚ however‚ is not to attempt to be free of them but to have a new reaction to them when they run through your mind. We can never fully control what goes through our minds‚ but we can control how we react to what goes on there. That is the key difference between someone who gets caught up in fearful thinking and someone who does not.
The thoughts that terrify us are not fuelled by some unknown force; they are our own. We empower them and equally we dismiss them. When you have an uncomfortable thought you would rather not be thinking‚ your first reaction is usually to tense up internally and say to yourself‚ “Oh no‚ I don’t like that idea. I don’t want that thought right now.” The very act of trying to push these intrusive thoughts away and then understandably getting upset when that does not work causes the thoughts to become more stuck to your psyche.
It’s like saying to your mind over and over again “whatever you do‚ do not think of pink elephants‚” and guess what? You can’t get a single thought in that is not related to pink elephants.
As long as you struggle with the thought‚ your mind‚ like a bold child‚ will keep returning to it. This is not to say your mind is maliciously working against you. It is better to compare the mind to a radar scanner that picks up on thoughts within us that have high levels of emotional reaction connected to them.
To not react emotionally to intrusive thoughts you need to learn to disempower the “fear factor” of the thought; then you must accept and be comfortable with whatever comes to mind. Don’t hide from or push the anxious thoughts away.
So to take an example:
Say you have fear “X” going on in your mind. That fear can be virtually anything your mind can conceive. You know the thoughts are not a realistic fear‚ and you want them to stop interrupting your life.
Next time the fearful thought comes to mind‚ do not push it away. This is important.
Tell yourself that that is fine and that the thought can continue to play in your mind if it wishes‚ but you are not going to give it much notice and you are certainly not going to qualify it by reacting with fear. You know in your heart that the thought is very unlikely to happen. You have a deeper sense of trust and will not be tossed around emotionally all day by a thought. Say to yourself:
“Well that thought/fear is a possibility‚ but it is very remote and I am not going to worry about that right now. Today I am trusting that all is well.”
What is of key important is not to get upset by the thoughts and feelings as they arise. To avoid any fearful emotional reaction to the fear/thought give the fear some cartoon characteristics.
Imagine‚ for example‚ it is Donald Duck telling you that “Something awful is going to happen. Aren’t you scared?” Give the character a squeaky voice and make it a totally ridiculous scene. How can you take seriously an anxious duck with his big feet? This use of cartoon imagery reprograms the initial emotional reaction you might have had to the thought and eliminates any authority the thought may have over you. You are reducing the thought’s threat. When that is done‚ move your attention back to whatever you were doing. Remember‚ you are not trying to push the thought away or drown it out with some outside stimulus.
This takes practice in the beginning‚ but what will happen is that you will find yourself checking how you think/feel less and less during the day‚ and as it does not have a strong fearful emotion connected to it‚ your mind will not be drawn to troublesome intrusive thoughts. To put in another way‚ the thought becomes unstuck and fades away because the emotional reaction has been neutralized. In fact‚ that is the first step to moving away from anxious thoughts — neutrality. It is as if your mental energy was spinning in a negative cycle while you were caught in the anxious intrusive thoughts. Now‚ you are learning to stop the negative cycle‚ and move into neutral (see illustration below).
From this new position of neutrality‚ you will experience a much greater sense of clarity away from the confusion of an overanxious mind. Moving into this mindset of neutrality is your first step. Thoughts generally lead us in one direction or another — a positive cycle (peace/sense of control and order) or a negative cycle (anxiety/ fear/ disorder). The next step is to adopt a relaxed peaceful state of mind and move your energy into a positive cycle of thinking.
You might have wondered why it is that some people seem more susceptible to worries and unwanted intrusive thoughts than others. You now know the answer to that. The difference is that the people who seem carefree are the ones who are not reacting with a strong fearful emotion to an anxious thought. These people see the same array of thoughts as an anxious person‚ but they do not make a fearful thought a part of their lives. They dismiss the thought or laugh it off and have a sense of trust that things will work out fine. They see no point in reacting with fear to these thoughts‚ and that ensures the thought has no power or authority over them.
You may feel that you are by nature an anxious person and that you will always react with fear to these thoughts because you have done so for years. That is not the case. Continuous or obsessive anxious thinking is a behavioral habit‚ and just like any habit it can be unlearned. I have outlined the quickest and most effective way to do this by using a unique shift in attitude. You can undo years of anxious thinking and reduce your level of general anxiety very quickly. All it takes is practice.