Working with Obsessive, Intrusive Thoughts and Fears

I am well-versed in obsessive fears. My anxiety finds something to cling to and then it obsesses. It goes over the fear again and again until I feel sick and immobile.

What is an obsessive, intrusive thought?

It’s any unwanted thought that pops into our head and scares us half to death. These thoughts are usually nowhere near plausible and don’t have an ounce of truth to them, like the intrusive thought, “what if I become a pedophile?” when you’re the gentlest person, and the likelihood of that happening is very, very, very low.

The irony is that actual pedophiles and mass murderers probably never have panic attacks about being violent, yet those of us who are incredibly sweet and sensitive and kind are freaking out about it.

Intrusive thoughts can be violent, “what if I throw this baby off the balcony?” or they can be nonviolent, “what if I go crazy and develop psychosis?” “What if my panic attacks never end?” “What if the depersonalization never goes away?”

When I was in the midst of panic, the adrenaline was constantly coursing through my body at such high levels that my intrusive thoughts were out of control. I was TERRIFIED of losing control and hurting someone. One night, a friend of mine came over and I was so scared that I was going to take a knife and stab her that I had to go upstairs and panic. I was terrified that I would hurt my boyfriend in my sleep, so I made him remove everything from the bedroom that could be used as a tool.

Did I WANT to hurt people? Absolutely not. That’s why the thought was so, so, so scary, thinking about what if I DID.

Obsessive, intrusive thoughts are usually so shameful that we’re scared to share them with other people.

So, yes, we have these thoughts. Now, what do we do?

-First, we recognize that intrusive thoughts are normal, especially with an anxiety disorder. Having the thought itself is not bad. What is harmful is how we react to the thought. If we have the thought and immediately believe it and start freaking out, then the thought has complete control over us and we’ve gotten caught in its loop.

Sheryl Paul, a wonderful therapist who writes a lot about intrusive thoughts, says, “Every time you indulge in the urge to find answers and reassurance, you feed the fire of the thought. You’ve given your ego-mind exactly what it wants: the belief that you can find an answer. There is no answer. Intrusive thoughts ultimately point to unanswerable questions.”

Guess what? We don’t have to believe every thought that pops into our head. Every thought that pops into our head is not necessarily true.

So we see the thought and we say, oh hey intrusive thought. I see you but I don’t believe you. I’m not going to seek reassurance or try to find answers, I’m just going to refocus my attention now.

-Second, we realize that just because we have an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean we’re going to lose control. In fact, we’re often too in control.

Dr. Martin Seif, who specializes in intrusive thoughts, says “The content of your thought does not count. It is irrelevant. Your thoughts have no effect on what you will do. A thought—even a very scary thought—is not an impulse. You will not act on your unwanted intrusive thoughts. Your problem is not one of impulse control. You have an anxiety disorder. They are as far apart as chalk and cheese.”

You have an anxiety disorder. Not an impulse control disorder. Trust your basic goodness. Trust the core of who you are.

-Then, ask yourself what feeling lies beneath the thought. Often, we use intrusive thoughts as a way to obsess about something in order to not have to deal with a deeper feeling.

When I was in the midst of panic, I used those obsessive story lines about hurting others to avoid having to feel the uncertainty of my anxiety and the uncertainty of life. Instead of sitting with the feeling of not knowing if I was going to get better or if I could control bad things from happening, I obsessed about possibly hurting others- a complete loss of control.

Paul also writes, “Once you remove the addiction by naming the thought and exposing it as a lie, you will be left with what the thought is covering up: a sense of inadequacy, insecurity, sadness, groundlessness of our human experience. Breathe into those feelings, and remind yourself that being human – with all of its vulnerability – isn’t something that you can get over. It can’t be fixed. The best we can do is be with ourselves with love and compassion. And in the loving, we find freedom.”

Working with intrusive thoughts is hard. My latest intrusive thought has centered around, “what if my body isn’t good enough? What if I become anorexic?” There’s literally no truth to either of those thoughts, so instead of freaking out about them, I’m noticing them and then redirecting my attention to something else. When it pops up again, I do the same thing. Then, I turn inward and ask what is needed. Am I loving myself enough? Am I judging myself too harshly? Is my perfectionism taking over?

Here are several articles I find very helpful concerning how to work with intrusive thoughts. If you’re dealing with them, please, please read these articles.

“Intrusive Thoughts” by Martin Seif

“The Gift of Intrusive Thoughts” by Sheryl Paul

“Intrusive thoughts” by Sheryl Paul

“The Architecture of Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts” by Sheryl Paul

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