The thoughts I am referring to here are intrusive thoughts. These are the sort of thoughts that creep sneakily into your head just at the wrong time. These are the thoughts that keep you awake at night, the thoughts that start to pick away at your confidence just before you make that big presentation, the thoughts that stop you from speaking up for yourself. Thoughts about things you don't want to think about. Sometimes the thoughts are so strong they are 'voices' in your head - your own voice whispering you are going to fail, make a fool of yourself, do something awful. Intrusive thoughts can be extremely disturbing and distressing. Like everything, their effect on us can vary hugely from being a nuisance to being life changing.
Examples of self sabotaging and intrusive thoughts include:
Repeated thoughts that you said something inappropriate for example during a meeting at work
Mental images of harming yourself or someone else
Thoughts that everyone is laughing at you
Constant worry that you have a bad illness
Thoughts about inappropriate sexual acts
We all have these 'voices' and it doesn't mean we are 'abnormal'. It is what we do with the thoughts that matters.
Intrusive thoughts tend to prey on things that are really important to you. They are "simply the most inappropriate thing your mind can imagine" (Hannah Reese). They can be very distressing and cause great anxiety and fear. Sometimes they feel very real. However, just because you have the thought, it doesn't mean you will carry out the action or that unconsciously you want to do whatever the thought suggests. The thought is a a product of our anxiety (pretty ironic as it leads more anxiety) and a creation of our brain's sometimes unhelpful way of processing what's going on.
Left to their own devices, intrusive thoughts can become crippling. They can be associated with obsession and compulsions, eating disorders, self harm and can stop us from leading our lives the way we want to. We reinforce them by worrying about them, giving them a voice and allowing them to influence our actions. It doesn't have to be that way though.
If your intrusive thoughts are very severe or you are seriously worried you will harm yourself or someone else, seek help either through your GP or a helpline such as the Samaritans (116 123).
If you are aware they are affecting you in a less severe way, here are some ideas about how to manage them.
Recognise and label an intrusive thought for what it is - tell yourself it isn't real, it's just a thought not an action. Acknowledge the thought then allow yourself move away from it.
Give your intrusive voice a name so you can challenge it. So when you have an intrusive thought think 'hang on a minute, that's Bob talking - I'm not going to engage in this conversation' (you might prefer a less polite dialogue).
Have a set phrase to identify, combat and dismiss your intrusive thoughts. When you have the thought, think oh that's just 'brain junk' (or whatever phrase you have chosen). Once you have recognised them for what they are they are easier to dismiss.
Tell them off! Literally tell them where to go. You are in charge, not them.
Some people have creative vents - drawing, music, dance which help move away from the intrusive thoughts.
Don't try to analyse the thoughts, to dwell on them but don't block them out. Allow them in but don't let them linger. A bit like an uninvited guest, politely (or not) usher them out of your mind.
Trying not to think about them actually makes it more likely they will persist. If I tell you now you must not think about doughnut, I bet that's what pops into your head straight away. Am I right? Can you banish the image now? Don't ignore your intrusive thoughts, just don't let them take over. By acknowledging their existence, you take away their power.
If intrusive thoughts are bothering you, it really helps to talk about them. Remember, they are entirely normal. It helps to bring out into the open that these are thoughts, they are not realities. You don't need to be ashamed or embarrassed about these thoughts and the thoughts are not a 'sign' or any indication that this is something you will, or even want to do. Talking to a friend or counsellor can really help banish the thoughts for good.
Now, are you still thinking about the doughnut?
If you would like to talk to a professional counsellor about thoughts that are holding you back, why not get in touch?
Reese, H, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/am-i-normal/201110/intrusive-thoughts-normal-or-not