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Intrusive Thoughts: When Having a Great Imagination Seems Like a Curse

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At any given time I can bring to mind a fatal accident. Something violent and tragic is upon me, and it’s going to happen any second.

Riding in the car — a vehicle will suddenly crash into the back of us and send us careening off the freeway. Walking the dog — a larger animal will come out of nowhere and eviscerate my pet. Blowing out the candles on my birthday cake — a gas line will explode. Sitting in front of an open window — someone will reach inside and hit me over the head.

I don’t know what came first, my anxiety or my vivid imagination. Certain unthinkable things have happened that seem to substantiate my anxiety. It has gotten worse since I put my life back together after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the same year my brother suffered the onset of schizophrenia. The following year my parents divorced, and my brother relapsed into active psychosis.

“That’s it,” my anxiety told me. “Anything can happen.”

Sometimes my anxious thoughts are intrusive, and they keep me awake at night.

Film, probably my favorite thing in the world, has made it worse. Movies allowed me to fill in the blanks for certain disasters I wasn’t even capable of imagining. What about that scene in “Fight Club” when another jet collides with the narrator’s plane and he watches it fall to pieces, passengers fly out, and flames engulf everything that’s left.

A lot of thrillers nowadays have utilized the surprise-car-collision technique. They shoot from either the driver- or passenger-side window. We watch the characters inside the vehicle pass a few intersections, a few buildings, then boom. All you see is the grill of another fast-moving vehicle as it collides with the car.

What about the opening disaster scene in “Alive”? It’s so harrowing to see a group of people, many of them family, have a completely normal day and then watch tragedy befall them, complete with the dislodged airplane seats and crushed legs.

Whether it’s a fear of falling, getting attacked by a shark, the world being taken over by poisonous spiders, whatever it is, there’s a movie depicting it. And if you’re like me, you can call up that image in life-size terror just about any time. But why does a great imagination have to be a punishment? It doesn’t.

Engaging in intrusive thoughts only makes them stronger. But trying to ignore the thoughts and get back to whatever I was doing feels impossible, especially if what I was doing before was sleeping.

Labeling intrusive thoughts, knowing they are harmless, and not putting any stock into them is helpful, but when your imagination is being used against you, maybe you have to fight fire with fire. So when I feel fixed on something tragic, something morbid that I cannot anticipate or even change, I do my best to take my imagination back and get away from the ideas that are plaguing me.

“Not today, anxiety. I need my imagination for other things.”

I breathe slowly, counting to five as I inhale and again as I exhale. I find something to imagine that is beautiful and soothing. It can be something real, like the meadow by the reservoir where I like to sunbathe and picnic. It can be a happy memory, like my wedding day, standing at the foot of the large, old staircase in my dear friend’s beautiful home, my relatives smiling and crying at the same time. It can be a wish. I might imagine my dream house or my dream vacation. It can even be something magical. Ever imagine about what you’d do if you could fly? Why not?

It’s not enough to picture the scene, you have to feel it. Concentrate on your other senses. How does it smell? Is there jasmine and vanilla in the air? Does it smell like your grandmother’s strawberry cake? If you reach out your hand what do you feel on your fingertips? What can you hear?

Being able to visualize and actually feel a scene is something you’re blessed with when you have an active imagination. It’s something many people would love to utilize, but we’re being robbed of our gift when imagination is conjuring up unwanted things that spark fear and panic.

Ignoring intrusive thoughts has never worked for me, but focusing on how I want to feel and unlocking calming imagery is a way to take my imagination back from anxiety. What soothing imagery would you unlock?

Intrusive Thoughts: When Having a Great Imagination Seems Like a Curse


Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review. She is also the cohost of the podcast Excuse Me, I Have Concerns where she discusses personal boundaries, personality and other psychology topics.


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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Intrusive Thoughts: When Having a Great Imagination Seems Like a Curse. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/intrusive-thoughts-when-having-a-great-imagination-seems-like-a-curse/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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