Something You Can Do About Intrusive Thoughts

Image from Pxfuel

Some of my thoughts are almost as old as I am, but they still don’t know enough to knock before they come into my mind. I’d like them to make an appointment, see a receptionist, and fill out a six page registration form before we meet. For some, it’s been years since they took a vacation. Every day they’re on a job I don’t remember giving them. They always seem to bust in when I’m trying to do something else. Then, they don’t want to leave. If they were living on my couch, I could handle that; but they crowd me out of bed, interrupt conversations, and don’t give me a moment’s peace.

Some of these intrusive thoughts try to be helpful. Don’t forget your keys, says one as I go out the door. Nice, but it’ll nag me even if I already have keys in my hand. Others will interrupt a podcast when I’m trying to listen, to solve a problem I had an hour before. Why can’t it speak up when I have some way to write it down? The other day, someone was trying to tell me something really important while a couple of intrusive thoughts droned on and on. You ever have multiple conversations around you and find yourself listening to the wrong one? Did you ever answer a question someone asked, two tables over?

Some intrusive thoughts have brought a band, an orchestra, or even an entire opera company with them. I don’t mind having music in my head, but they’re worse than a top 40 station for playing the same things over and over. One tormented me with Smooth Operator constantly for three solid months.

Other thoughts are so horrible I wish I didn’t have to tell you about them. You might already have the same thoughts, or worse. Thoughts of suicide, homicide, gambling away all your money, screwing everything that walks, or generally getting fucked up on drugs. I’d just as soon banish such thoughts from my mind, but they don’t leave. Is there any medication, procedure, or magical incantation that makes them go away?

Yes, there is. I’ve developed a three-step method that works most of the time.

1. Get to know the thought

You might not think this step is necessary, or even desirable. It’s already telling you things you don’t want to know, so why would you sit down to tea and listen to it go on and on? I don’t mean you have to let it repeat the same damn thing over and over and live in your brain forever. I also don’t mean you should do what it says, necessarily. I mean, get to know the part of you with this thought as if it was a person. It’s not a person, of course, but it does have a personality and a personal point of view. Ask its name, and see if there’s a reason the thought is coming up now and if it’s trying to tell you something important.

    When I sit down to tea with my intrusive thoughts, I discover many of them don’t like to sit. They get fidgety when I ask whether they take milk and sugar. They disappear when I want to know who they are. That’s want I wanted anyway. I wanted them to go, but they would never have left if I acted like that’s what I wanted. Thoughts are like a mean dog you come across on your walks. Stand there and he’ll bark; run away and he’ll chase; but all you have to do is step towards him and say hi, and he’ll have his tail between his legs.

    Oh well, they’ll be back, and I’ll have another chance to get to know them.

    Most thoughts claim they’re trying to look out for me. The one about the keys doesn’t want me to be locked out without them. I’d just as soon that one stuck around. I don’t want to forget my keys, either. So, I asked it to stay, but to please look and see if I already have keys in my hand. Thoughts like to feel listened to, valued, and given a job to do, just like anyone else.

    The band playing Smooth Operator for three months could not convince me it was trying to help. It said, I thought you liked the song. I said, I do, just not constantly for three months. It was trying to warn me of the smooth operators I deal with every day, the people who try to manipulate me with their oily charm. Thanks, I said, I got it. Then it claimed it was giving me a cool beat to get my groove on. How am I supposed to chill, I asked, when you’re making me tear my hair out?

    The horrible intrusive thoughts had an even harder job convincing me they’re for my own good, but they all said they were there to solve my problems. Their thing was to save me from feeling powerless by suggesting something that appears to give me power. Violence promised justice, suicide promised to end suffering, gambling promised riches, drugs promised escape, sex promised affirmation and relief. They all promised freedom.

    I told them they reminded me of a guy who stopped when my car broke down on the highway. I hadn’t even raised the hood before he said I needed new spark plug wires. I didn’t. Intrusive thoughts think they have the solution before we even know the problem. I got annoyed at the guy on the highway and sent him away, just as I’d like to do with the thoughts; but he was only offering assistance, even if he was a big know-it-all. Sometimes thoughts have a hard time saying they’re here for you, without rushing in to try to fix things and making everything worse.

    After I complete step one, a large percentage of the intrusive thoughts leave before we’re even done. Then, there’s a good number I decide to keep because they offer a valuable service. The horrible ones seem a little less horrible, and more misguided. I still don’t want them, but I understand where they’re coming from. It was only the earworms with their music that remained both maddening and inexplicable.

    Luckily, there’s a step two.

    2. Invite Other Thoughts

    When getting to know the thought better doesn’t help, then it’s time to invite other thoughts to join you. If the thought to not forget my keys comes up, I have a second thought that tells me to check my pocket to feel whether I’ve got them. The second thought counteracts the first and both can go away happy.

      In the case of Smooth Operator, I invited other music into my brain. At first, Smooth Operator wouldgo away only as long as I listened to the other music. Even mental musicians have respect for one another. But no sooner would the second band go on break, but Smooth Operator would return. In that event, I went through step one again. I brewed the tea and asked it what it was doing, but it had nothing new to say.

      When the most unwanted intrusive thoughts pop up, they already come with a second thought, as a reaction to the first. Generally, the first thought is trying to get me to do something impulsive and stupid, and the second thought is trying to restrain me by telling me I’m impulsive and stupid for having the first thought. I can’t be held responsible for having an intrusive thought, only for what I do with it; but I appreciate the second thought for making me think twice.

      If I don’t already have a second thought arriving with the first, then I need to invite one. I ask myself what possibly could go wrong with violence, suicide, gambling, promiscuity, drugs, or whatever it’s suggesting. I give the second thought at least as much time as the first one takes, just so we can have a fair and balanced debate.

      Essentially, I perform step two on the first thought by performing step one on the second. In other words, I get to know where the thought that I’m impulsive and stupid for having the first thought is coming from. Just what does it have against attempting suicide, homicide, gambling away all my money, screwing everything that walks, or getting fucked up beyond belief? I ask for specifics. What’s the downside of doing something impulsive and stupid? And I hope the first thought is listening.

      If the horrible intrusive thought gets defeated in the debate and tries to slink away in embarrassment, then I ask it to stay. Yes, you heard me right. I ask the thought of violence, suicide, gambling, promiscuous sex, or drugs to hang around and talk with the second thought about coming up with a sensible solution to the underlying problem together. I need the first thought to represent the interest of solving the problem because the second thought is only interested in my not doing something stupid. The first thought is motivated by urgency. The second thought by not wanting to make things worse. They each want to solve the problem their own way. I ask them to come up with a method they both like.

      3. Dismiss the Thought

      If I still have an intrusive thought after steps one and two, then I practice tuning it out. Often people try to do step three before steps one and two. They try to ignore the thought before getting to know it, taking what good it has to offer, or developing alternatives. It rarely works then. Step three must come after steps one and two.

      When you perform step three properly, you aren’t ignoring the thought. You listened to what it had to say and took it very seriously. It’s like a public hearing about a zoning change. Citizens will voice their concerns at the hearing and tell the zoning board what to do. The zoning board gives citizens the mike and a sufficient length of time to make their case. They allow for ample discussion. When time is up, the mike is shut off, and the zoning board makes its decision. It never ignored the public. It invited it to participate in a fair and reasonable procedure, and then it made an informed choice.  

      Sometimes an intrusive thought will go on and on even though it’s had its say, like a crank at a zoning board meeting who won’t give up the mike. That’s when you practice gently tuning it out. Don’t yell at it to leave or call the security guard. It’s just a thought. Let it fade into the background.

      As you’re reading this article, there is probably some sound in your room that you haven’t been paying attention to. It could be street noise, the air conditioner, or someone talking nearby. If you haven’t paid attention to it, it’s because you already knew what it was and had no cause for concern. Some part of your brain allowed you to focus on reading this article rather than listening to the air conditioner hum. Now ask that part of your brain to focus on something other than the intrusive thought. It’s helpful to have something else to focus on, the more compelling, the better; but, even if you don’t, then you get a chance to practice.

      Step three is what finally helped me get rid of Smooth Operator. I realized that having that song stuck in my head didn’t stop me from enjoying any other music. I could still hear what people had to say. The only reason Smooth Operator bothered me was because it bothered me, because I couldn’t make it stop. Every time I got aggravated by it, I was only encouraging it to play on. I decided to not try to make it stop. It wasn’t doing any harm, anyway. As a result, it went away; but because I wasn’t paying attention, I don’t know the exact moment it left.

      You don’t have to say anything to an intrusive thought when you dismiss it, just go about your business. But, if you must say something, say, thank you, we’ve been through that, and I decided to ___, but I appreciate that you’re trying to help. It helps to feel a little silly when you talk to intrusive thoughts because that’ll distract you even more from them.

      Another thing you could do is keep a tally of how many times a day you let go of the intrusive thought. It’ll be a lot, at first; but whenever you’re tallying, you’re already focusing on something else. After a few days, I bet you’ll be able to see a reduction in the number of times you need to deliberately dismiss the thought.

      Having that data will prove to you the efficacy of my three step method. You’ll be interrupted by intrusive thoughts with less frequency. But there’s another benefit which is harder to capture in data. The duration of time you spend with each incidence of having an intrusive thought will diminish. In fact, we usually see a reduction in duration long before a reduction in incidence.

      I was just about to end this article, but a thought came up that perhaps I missed something. Maybe there should be a fourth step, or even a fifth. Come to think of it, there should be. Sometimes even an unwanted, intrusive thought can be right. So, here they are. The fourth and fifth steps.

      4. Talk to Someone

      If the first three steps don’t help you enough, or help you fast enough, then you’re going to need help from someone else. This doesn’t need to be a licensed psychotherapist if you have someone with the patience, knowledge, wisdom, and maturity to set aside their own concerns and devote some time to you. This should be a person you can trust to confess horrible thoughts. What should they do? They should go over the first three steps with you, to see if there’s something you missed.

      If you’re having trouble with step one, then ask the person what they think the intrusive thought is trying to say. What’s behind it? If you need a therapist to help you with this, look for someone who offers psychoanalysis, or Person-Focused, Schema, Narrative, Existential, or Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy. These are all therapies of depth that focus on underlying issues.

      If you’re having trouble with step two, then ask the person to help you develop alternatives to the unwanted intrusive thought. If you need a therapist to help you with this, look for someone who offers Cognitive Behavioral (CBT), Dialectic Behavioral (DBT), Solution Focused, Acceptance and Commitment (ACT), Reality, or Brief Therapy. These are all action oriented approaches to treatment, focused on giving you the tools you need to counter unwanted intrusive thoughts.

      If you’re having trouble with step three, then ask the person to help you learn to tune intrusive thoughts out. If you need a therapist to help you with this, look for someone who offers mindfulness therapy. You could also find a yoga or meditation instructor. These are all things that can train your mind to focus only on what you want to focus on.

      Ideally, if you’re looking for a therapist, you’ll find an eclectic one who can help you with any of the three steps as the need arises.

      5. Medication

      If you’ve tried the first four steps and are still plagued by intrusive thoughts, then you’re left to consider medication. No medication will shut down or silence an intrusive thought, but the kind you get from your doctor will tone down the urgency or increase your confidence in dealing with them.

      You could also use alcohol or street drugs to deal with your intrusive thoughts. Most of these chemicals offer you a quick exit into a drug-hazed oblivion or make it impossible to have any thought, including the intrusive ones. I can understand desperate people wanting to use them, but they’re blunt instruments that can destroy much more than they save. My hope, by telling you about the five steps, was to give you an alternative; but the choice is yours.

      Step five is another step that both doctors and people with intrusive thoughts often take before steps one through four. When they take step five too early, their bodies are subjected to unnecessary chemicals, and they never get to learn steps one through four. Therefore, I think step five should be taken only when the first four don’t work. However, if you do take medication, I hope you continue to take the other steps as intrusive thoughts come up, if only to practice for when you can’t get your meds.

      Those are my five steps of what to do when an intrusive thought comes to visit. I just had the thought I missed something again, so I read my article over a few times and a second thought came in to declare this was all I had to say. The first thought kept at it. Finally, I said, thank you, we’ve been through that, and I decided to publish it anyway. I appreciate you’re trying to help.

      We’ll see how well that works.

      Published by Keith R Wilson

      I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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