What to Do with Intrusive Thoughts?
If you had a devastating illness and were given one year to live, what would you do? No question there would be grief and plenty of important decisions to make. If it didn’t debilitate you completely, what would you do with your time? Where would you focus your attention and energy? Would you be willing to spend more time with your loved ones despite the pain that shows up? Would you be doing activities that you’ve enjoyed in life or would you stay home lamenting what life would’ve been if you didn’t have this affliction?
As a mortal being we are guaranteed physical, mental and emotional pain. The prospect of getting away from pain is a fantasy, and we all know it. Yet, when we are in the middle of adversity, we can easily forget. Our nature is to seek comfort, and the human mind is adept at providing infinite solutions to dissuade the pain.
This can happen when you struggle with intrusive thoughts. Your tendency may be to control them. You may try to ignore them. Sometimes you may try to replace, fight or push the thoughts away. After incessantly trying, you may resign yourself to being a victim to what your thoughts say and succumb to compulsions to alleviate your emotional and mental pain.
You may have at some point even wished or prayed to trade your OCD for a physical debilitating illness. No question OCD is torturing, and it can get in the way of living the kind of life you want. Just like you would want to spend your precious time doing what matters with those you care most about, if you had a fatal disease, would you consider a similar stance with the pain that OCD brings into your life?
Your OCD mind may advise you to wait for those internal private events (i.e., thoughts, emotions, and sensations) to abate so you can enjoy life. The advice would make sense if you were dealing with external situations, “Wait until you’ve gotten a job to purchase a car!” “Wait till you’ve earned enough money to put a down payment on a new house!”
The truth is that you cannot treat internal private experiences as if they were external ones. “But why can’t that invasive thought just vanish?” you may ask. If you aren’t willing to have it, you will. In order to not think about it you have to think about it, don’t you?*
Will you acknowledge the thoughts and carry on with life instead of trying to control them? This is not easy of course, but you can start with the following practice exercise.
The Sticky Note
On a 3 x 3 sticky note, write down three of the intrusive thoughts you wish you didn’t have. This may be difficult. However, the alternative is to have them front and center and let them get in the way of your life because you keep pushing them away.
After writing your thoughts, read them and consider how long they have been showing up in your mind? How old are these stories? Are they not old news? Sometimes new thoughts will show up, and soon enough they’ll become old and the cycle will continue.
Would you be willing to place the sticky note containing your intrusive thoughts in one of your pants or shirt pockets, purse, backpack or wallet? Would you be willing to carry the note with you everywhere you go?
Then, when the intrusive thought shows up, can you acknowledge it, and remember how long this thought has been reoccurring? “Yes, this is the same old story.” Then decide to “own” the thought each time it pops up and genuinely thank your mind. “Yeah, I’ve got that thought in my pocket. Thanks Mind!” Pull out the note and read it, then place it back.
Own your thoughts! Carry them in your pocket. Don’t wait until they are gone. Start focusing on what and who matters most despite the emotional pain.
Your best life is waiting for you!
*Steven C. Hayes, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2005.
Hagen, A. (2020). What to Do with Intrusive Thoughts?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-to-do-with-intrusive-thoughts/