If you struggle with anxiety, you’re probably no stranger to intrusive thoughts- the surprising, scary thoughts and images that seem to pop out of nowhere and cause you to dwell on them over and over. I’ve personally dealt with intrusive thoughts ever since my panic attacks began years ago, and sometimes I’ve been able to bat them away quickly while other times it’s been much more challenging not to get lost in the storyline.
When I went on my two-week honeymoon across Europe last month, I noticed that my anxiety was almost nonexistent. I also began to notice that the intrusive thoughts would still happen every now and then, but they wouldn’t stick around and therefore, weren’t an issue at all.
So what was different?
On my honeymoon, we were so busy constantly seeing new sights and experiencing new and amazing things. So when an intrusive thought came in, I’d have the thought, get momentarily scared, and then I was almost forced to move onto something else because there was so much going on around me. Hours later, I’d realize that the thought hadn’t turned into an obsession. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it again since hours before.
The thoughts aren’t the problem. Most everyone has them from time to time, it’s just a natural part of how our brains work. The difference is that those of us with highly sensitive, anxious brains become so sensitized to our thoughts that we cause them to stick around by continuing to think about them, analyze them, obsess over them, seek reassurance, etc.
Of course I’d read about how to overcome intrusive thoughts and it was always the same thing: Don’t pay them any attention. Move on. Don’t engage in any reassurance seeking behaviors. Let them be there and naturally fall away.
But it wasn’t until my honeymoon that I really grasped the concept and truly noticed how it worked. The problem is- it’s much easier to move on from scary thoughts when you’re traveling in beautiful, exciting countries. It’s much more difficult when you’re at home with your thoughts.
So when I returned from the trip, I started implementing this same technique. I’d have an intrusive thought, get scared (remember, this initial fear is automatic), and then I’d say to myself, “This is an intrusive thought. It’s safe to let this fall to the side and I don’t have to engage with it. What can I focus my attention on now?” And then I’d find something else to engage in.
This has done wonders for my anxiety since I’ve been home. I’ve just been watching the thoughts fall away. It’s almost as if I saw, for the first time, how the anxious mind works and that these thoughts are truly JUNK. We don’t need to give them our attention. It’s okay and safe to move on.
I know you’re probably thinking, “but how do I know that they’re junk and not true?” If you want a 100% guarantee, you can’t have one. That’s where trust comes in, which I know is really, really hard. But we don’t need a 100% guarantee. We have a pretty good idea of what’s true and what’s fear, and that’s okay. That’s enough.
Also, what helped me a lot was reading up on intrusive thoughts and what the typical/common thought categories were (violence, sexual, losing control, religious, etc.), and realizing that I could then find the pattern in my own thoughts. Knowing that other people with anxiety have literally the same exact pattern of intrusive thoughts was comforting. And not just people with anxiety, but that most everyone has these thoughts from time to time, most people just don’t care about them as much as we do.
So, try it today. See if you can notice the thought, label it as an automatic junk thought, and then refocus your attention elsewhere, feeling safe in the knowing that it’s okay to let it pass. Move on. If it comes back, do the same thing over.
It takes practice, but the more we can train our minds to choose love over fear, the easier it will get. You are powerful and beautiful and wonderful and loving and that is truly all that matters.