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.
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.
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