Intrusive thoughts occur across the entire spectrum of anxiety disorders. In fact, considering the wide variety of conditions contained therein, intrusive thoughts are arguably the most common symptom, ranging from the innocuous to the blasphemous, the annoying to the disturbing.
But what can be most distressing about the thoughts is not their content but their sheer persistence, from the moment you wake in the morning until you fall asleep at night. And even sleep may not provide respite, as anxiety can cause recurring nightmares.
In 2005 I developed Depersonalization disorder, an anxiety spectrum condition that causes the sufferer to feel as if they are not real, or living in a dream. It also generates particularly intrusive thoughts about the nature of reality and existence. I suffered with the condition for two years and it put my studies, my career, my very life on hold. I know all too well how disturbing and even crippling intrusive thoughts can be.
My reflections ranged from wondering about the inherent strangeness of normal things (like my dog or a coffee cup) to considering the vastness and indifference of the universe. I had thoughts about hurting myself and others and, as is most common with Depersonalization, wildly abstract ruminations on the nature of being and reality.
While the content varied, what the thoughts all had in common were their intensity and how frightening they were. I could never get used to them, never build up a tolerance. Every one hit me like a ton of bricks, hundreds of times a day, often causing outright panic attacks.
My doctor was unfamiliar with Depersonalization disorder and online forums seemed to be filled with contradictory information. So I threw myself into researching the nature of these obsessive thoughts. One of the theories I learned about was Ironic Process, the idea that if you actively try not to think of something, you are bound to think of it repeatedly.
This is not a new phenomenon. Edgar Allan Poe called it ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ (from his short story of the same name), the desire to do something we feel we should not. Dostoyevsky mentions it in his ‘Winter Notes on Summer Impressions’:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
In the 20th Century many studies were done on thought repression, and social psychologists adopted Dostoyevsky’s words for what became known as ‘White Bear’ phenomenon. This is now a well-known psychological occurrence and thankfully, can be treated using various methods including CBT and talk / exposure therapy.
But even when I discovered that there was a way for me to recover from Depersonalization disorder, what worried me terribly was that I’d somehow never be the same. That the thoughts I’d had were so debasing and frightening that they would haunt me forever, skewing and tainting my normal thoughts even after recovery. Or that a good person would never have such thoughts, therefore I must be a bad person. I asked myself, “Will I ever really be able to ‘unthink’ these thoughts? What if these thoughts have changed me forever?”
I later discovered that this is a near-universal worry for people suffering from intrusive thoughts. They’re scared that they have ‘opened a door’ to these thoughts and can’t close it and must live with them forever. It’s often compounded by the fact that the anxiety condition may have been caused by drug use (weed and LSD are common triggers for depersonalization disorder). The sufferer may be convinced that they have ‘fried’ their brain or brought this on themselves.
The good news is that this is never the case, and there are three reasons why.
The thoughts aren’t the problem – the problem is anxiety.
When your body is under tremendous stress, it goes into fight or flight mode. This causes obvious, tangible effects like raised heartbeat, sweating, insomnia. There are less obvious effects on the brain too: for example, your cortisol levels are raised and the amygdala goes into overdrive. In this state the mind cannot focus properly and constantly shoots off on tangents, causing your thoughts to race.
When you have a persistent anxiety-based condition like Depersonalization or PTSD this can become your resting mental state. So even when you’re sitting and trying to relax, your mind is jumping around to seemingly random thoughts, many of them frightening. But they’re all still caused by anxiety.
None of these thoughts has any more value than the other.
No matter how innocuous or frightening any of these thoughts are, they’re still just thoughts. For example, that scary thought you had about the vastness of the universe? It has no more intrinsic value than thinking, ‘I’d like cornflakes for breakfast’.
And the brain treats all thoughts in the same manner. That is to say that the thought about cornflakes seems unimportant not because of its content, but because you immediately move on to other thoughts. That thought about the vast universe, or hurting yourself, or whatever – only seems important because you’re focusing on it.
As Poe says in ‘The Imp of the Perverse’, “It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious.”
He’s describing an ‘earworm’ – a song that you can’t get out of your head. But more importantly, what he’s also saying is that the song being an earworm doesn’t make it good or bad – it’s still just a song. In the same way, a thought being stuck in your head doesn’t make it good or bad, it’s still just a thought.
The more you acknowledge it, the more real it is
Again, Poe refers to this towards the end of his short story, when the protagonist finds himself consumed with guilt:
“I would perpetually catch myself … repeating the phrase, “I am safe.” One day, whilst sauntering along the streets, I arrested myself in the act of murmuring, half aloud, these customary syllables….“I am safe- I am safe- yet if I be not fool enough to make open confession!” No sooner had I spoken these words, than I felt an icy chill creep to my heart.”
Obviously there’s drama added for flavour, but this passage contains a great lesson for dealing with intrusive thoughts. When you speak them aloud, when you research and discuss them, you‘re giving them a credence and power that they don’t deserve.
To use the example of an earworm again, if you had a song stuck in your head and wanted to get rid of it, what would you do? One approach would be to pick the song apart, discuss it with others, analyse it carefully for that specific sequence of notes or lyrics that makes it so catchy. Then maybe you can find the solution to your problem.
But of course, that would only make matters worse. It’s attempting to ‘logic’ your way out of a problem that doesn’t need logic to be solved. I learned this the hard way during my time with Depersonalization disorder, all the while wondering why my constant research was only making the intrusive thoughts worse and worse.
The other option to get rid of the earworm is to simply accept that it’s there for now – and go about your life and listen to some different songs. That will allow the brain to relax, focus on other things as normal and allow the earworm to be ‘overwritten’ in due course, as is normal and healthy. Your brain wants to let the intrusive thoughts go, you just have to allow it to do so.
Trying to repress persistent intrusive thoughts can be frightening and upsetting. But it’s vitally important to remember that you’re not alone – it’s an extremely common symptom and some of our greatest minds have struggled with it. And as counterintuitive as it seems, analysing and researching the thoughts usually only makes things worse.
Instead, developing a routine of allowing the thoughts to dissipate naturally, as they are meant to do, is a huge step towards recovery. Through your own habits you can help stop both the intrusive thoughts and the underlying anxiety, neither of which – thankfully! – can cause any permanent damage.
So if you are experiencing intrusive thoughts, don’t panic. Just remember that there are ways and means of recovering – and the simplest of them starts with you.
[irp posts=”2131″ name=”Depersonalization: A Silent Epidemic (by Shaun O’Connor)”]
About the Author: Shaun O Connor
Shaun O Connor is a filmmaker and photographer from Co. Kerry, Ireland. He is the author of The Depersonalization Manual, a book which details his recovery from chronic depersonalization disorder and provides a complete guide to recovery for sufferers of the condition. First published as an ebook in 2008, it has since expanded to become a complete download package with an audio version and extensive supplementary materials. It has sold over 9,000 copies worldwide. Shaun is also a multi award-winning TV and film director whose work has screened at festivals around the world. Follow Shaun on Twitter.
Ok so I need help with my intrusive thoughts. It just comes as a stream of consciousness and won’t end if I get it that day. Luckily it got a lot better. But I would have these thoughts for an hour STRAIGHT saying “you’ll die if you go there, haha you lost, you’re going to fall in this hole, e.t.c. “I can tell apart what’s me from this secondary, disruptive, intrusive stream of thought. Im starting school againbut I’m really scared that I will snap in the middle of class. When it starts it feels like entering of depersonalisation then the thoughts come and it’s even scarier. HELP (it’s nearly everyday) and I also like to meditate but if I don’t do it I get this illness that day
Shaun, I saw your post about how to get rid of earworms. I’m currently stuck listening to songs on repeat in my head over and over. All because I got a song stuck in my head a few weeks ago and focused on it and now that’s all my brain wants to do is play music. (Not just the song that was stuck, but different songs now continuously) I don’t know how I’m keeping it there but I’m very worried. I read up there in your article that the way to get rid of it is to let it play and go on about my day and listen to other music and what not but it’s very hard to ignore this being there. Any suggestions would be helpful. My brain repeats the songs on the radio over and over or whatever I last heard on the tv. I’m worried I’ll be stuck this way. It has my anxiety up and I don’t know how to clear my mind. I read a lot of post on different websites about people with this problem and it never going away and I’m worried that will be me. My dr said nothing medical/mental is going on that I should be woRried about. Can you email me please. Thank you
Thank you so much for this. As an anxiety (+depression) sufferer this gives me a bit of peace. I often freak out thinking I’ve ruined my life because of the recurrent anxious/depressive thoughts that cause my depersonalization. I’m saving this and reading it over when I feel hopeless. Much love!
Your tips to overcoming depersonalization gives me a twinkle of hope since they are also people out there on the same boat as me! I am afraid this disorder (that I have right now and it is severe) will lead to a more serious mental issue. I am ashamed to say, I am only a 13 year old girl who obtained this mental disorder by experiencing severe depression from school. There are times that I felt a bit normal again but those intrusive thoughts still remain in my head. I often curse to myself that it is always my fault that I have caused this big problem that I am scared will last for years or even my entire life! But I feel positive when I never give up on improving my mental state. Also, one more thing, should I tell my parents? I am really afraid that this will cause a big issue in my family and will waste my parents’ time. This disorder, for me, lasted for 7 months already and I am dying to terminate it and recover myself into what I always was before. It is also great that you recovered from this annoying disorder! I would love to hear your reply on my comment.
Thank you for articulating something that has been making me feel so alone and scared. I am no longer feeling depersonalized or derealized (at least not to the degree I was a few months ago) but the thoughts have remained. Is this normal? To me, it almost feels like DPDR was so traumatic for me that I’m now recovering from the trauma it caused, like PTSD. I question the world, I examine people and think “the human form is so weird..” I wonder how and why all these buildings and highways and corporations got here… it’s a lot, and it makes me afraid that this is some harbinger to a more serious mental illness. Would very much appreciate your thoughts! Thanks in advance.
Omg I am with you man. DP DR was more traumatic to me than the panic attacks and agoraphobia. I can handle panic attacks all day. The effects, thoughts, confusion, reflection that dp dr leaves is messed up. I got mine to go (thank god) but recovering and understanding that I’m back has been hard. Idk where to start.
This article could not have come at a better time. I’m literally in bed bunking work, it becomes so much for me I can’t handle being around people, it happens so often I feel like I want to run away, I feel work is killing me. Also have anxiety and PTSD. Since I discovered this page today I am most definitely going to see a psyciatrist and use this website’s helpful tips. This website is giving me hope, just need to learn the strategies although I feel there are so many it’s overwhelming and that in itself triggers alot.
Has any medication worked for you? I’ve never wanted to even consider medication. I might change my mind as I can feel I’m hitting a wall.
Here’s to soldiering on! Knowing we are not alone!
Thanks for this amazing article and and website.
Thanks for your comment — I’m glad you found the article helpful and I hope you’ve been feeling better. Regarding your question on medication, I coincidentally answered this in a previous comment (see above), where you will also find a link to a relevant article on my website.
I agree with what Shaun says. Existential intrusive thoughts are the bane of life with DP. But I found solace in accepting them and even being curious about them from time to time.
Once, I was assured of my safety and sanity, I inched closed towards them instead of running away. That actually decreased the fear even more.
Thanks for your comment!
Yes — it’s frustratingly counter-intuitive, but the sooner you accept that the thoughts are there, however scary that may seem, the sooner they will start to dissipate and eventually, stop altogether.
Are there any meds that you know of that help?
To the best of my knowledge there is no specific medication that can cure DP. Thought since it is an anxiety-based condition, people have reported that can be alleviated to some degree with SSRIs.
However, as with all medication treatment for anxiety spectrum conditions, it’s best to think of it as a support rather than a cure; a foundation from which to address the thought habits and behaviours that have allowed the DP to persist in the first place.
I have written a more in-depth article on my website:
Hello Shaun, I am so please to read that not only have you recovered from a Depersonalization disorder, but that you have gone forward to write a book to help other sufferers.
I believe that what we “resist” persists. So when we believe something is blighting our life or afflicting us, the natural reaction is to either deny it or try to get rid of it.
But what if we learn a few words, that we keep in mind as a coping strategy ? What if when the intrusive thought comes, we relax, welcome it like an old friend and say “So what ?”
Giving it no importance, no credence, no emotional investment. What happens to it’s power then ?
Thoughts only ever have the power we give to them.
That’s so important I want to repeat it “Thoughts only have the power we give to them”
So, if those thoughts are not healthy and happy, lets decide not to feed them !
I truly hope you go from strength to strength and health to healthier. Kind Regards Jacquie Athersmith
Thanks for your comment.
Yes I couldn’t agree more — the more we try to actively resist the intrusive thoughts, the more power we inadvertently give them.
As for learning a few words as a coping strategy, I think that’s a good idea, in the same way that going and taking part in an engaging activity can help because it breaks the conditioning that leads you to focus on the intrusive thoughts.
As you say Jacquie, decide not to feed the thoughts — and go feed the good ones!
Sadly, giving a thought no mind is not as easy as it sounds. I think depression could be involved with intrusive thoughts, as the mind goes to, “what’s the use?”, “No one cares”, “Everything is meaningless”, “I’m not important”, and other thoughts that get trapped into the mind and repeated over and over again. Just “letting go” doesn’t work in this case. It’s like saying “Get over it”. It’s almost an insult to the depressed person, actually feeding the thought that says, “I’m worthless”, or “I’m weak”, because the person CAN’T get over it, or let it go. You have to be very careful with your words, because the saying we learned as kids is one more lie taught to us in our youth. Words can do more harm than sticks and stones. Maybe not physically, but physical injuries heal a lot faster and a lot easier than emotional and mental injuries/illnesses.
I’ve tried not feeding the depressive thoughts. It only made my struggle harder. I’m not saying you should feed bad thoughts. I’m saying “just don’t feed them” is a lot easier said than done.
Jacquie, I like your comment! You gave me a new quote to put on my dry-erase board. I think “thoughts only have the power you give them” is powerful! Thanks for the inspiration.
Thanks for writing this article. It offers a lot of inspiration and hope as does many of the comments. I have experienced episodes of DPDR since I was a child. The actually episodes of DPDR have become milder but the anxiety around the feelings of fear and isolation associated with the existential questioning is harder to overcome. This article has given real hope and the quote from Jaquie about the how we give thoughts power really stuck with me.
I am now trying to accept my thought and feelings and recognise that can’t harm me. I hope overtime the power they have will reduce and one day dissipate all together.
In addition I find it therapeutic to talk about my symptoms, thoughts and feelings. Are there any communities you can recommend that you found helpful.