Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts
The many physical symptoms that co-exist with anxiety, such as blushing or stuttering in social anxiety, or those associated with feelings of panic such as palpitations or feelings of breathlessness, are what often drive individuals to seek help. However, intrusive thoughts can also be present with anxiety and can be equally debilitating.
What is an Intrusive Thought?
• We all have thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere, that feel strange or ridiculous but that also pass after a few minutes.
• These thoughts can be about worries that could happen to you or someone you love, about mistakes you have made in life or could potentially make.
• Some individuals intrusive thoughts are linked to their anxiety and focus on a fear of their anxious feelings, such as what if my heart beating faster is a sign of a heart-attack? What if I fall apart in doing this presentation as I’m so anxious and I can’t speak clearly or go blank? Here, people become fearful of their own anxiety and can get stuck in an anxiety-fear loop, fuelled by intrusive thoughts.
Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
Other types of intrusive thoughts are called unwanted intrusive thoughts. These can be a cause of much upset, and trigger feelings of anxiety, guilt, disgust or dread and often have a sexual, violent or socially unacceptable subject matter.
A classic example, I often talk through with clients, is that weird feeling we can get when standing on a train platform of “What if someone tried to push me off?”, or even “What if I try to push someone off into the path of the train?” Such thoughts can cause someone to worry they might act on the image in their mind and therefore are a terrible person.
Unwanted Intrusive thoughts can also be quite explicit in nature, and many people are ashamed and upset about them, and are reluctant to seek help. But if this piece is to inform you of anything, it is to reassure you that having thoughts like this, are really normal, (it goes without saying that acting on such thoughts is not normal). Frequently, thoughts like these are so difficult for people precisely because behaving in this way is so repulsive to them.
A good-way to work out what is happening with your intrusive thoughts is to imagine that for most people intrusive thoughts come into their mind, but they quickly pass and move on to the next thought. However for others their unwanted intrusive thought sticks in their mind, and that is why for them they are not able to let such thoughts go so easily.
The other thing to note, is that intrusive thoughts are very resistant to direct efforts to get rid of them. So whether that it trying to argue it out logically in your head, trying to think about something else, seeking reassurance from others or beating yourself up over such thoughts. These efforts do not work, and sometimes have the opposite effect of making intrusive thoughts stick even more and the associated emotions grow stronger. You could liken it to feeding a monster- i.e. it only makes the monster grow.
How to reduce unwanted intrusive thoughts?
The way to reduce the impact these thoughts have on you and their control over your feelings and behaviour may seem counter-intuitive but it is to stop fighting these thoughts. The advice is to not fall into the trap of trying to argue with the thoughts, act on them or seek reassurance as you may have in the past. Neither should you try to actively block the thoughts or work out if this time they mean something.
Instead learn to do the following:
❖ Learn how to identify when you are having an intrusive thought and label it as such in your mind. Quite literally, call it out “oh this is me having an intrusive thought”.
❖ Remind yourself these thoughts happen automatically, you don’t have control over them.
❖ Allow the thought in, accept it as just a thought and do not try to push it away. Also tell yourself it is just a thought and thoughts are not facts.
❖ It helps to think of thoughts like buses, another will be along any moment. Which you will find happens… You may feel anxiety in this moment but it too will pass.
❖ Accept that the thought will likely come back again, but that’s ok because so will others
If you continue to struggle with unwanted intrusive thoughts, it can be helpful to contact your GP who may be able to advise you. Or it can also be helpful to talk to a counsellor or psychotherapist, who will help you to explore your feelings of anxiety and its impact on your life, which can aid in learning why your mind is focusing on intrusive thoughts and how to deal with these thoughts.
Dr Longe is a psychotherapist working with City Therapy and her approach to therapy is integrative and humanistic. This in effect means that she merges the styles from many different schools of psychotherapy into one that best suits the needs of each individual. Olivia works with many different issues that clients bring, such as feelings of anxiety, panic and/or stress, depression, bereavement, relationship problems and personal development.