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Managing Intrusive Thoughts

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Your thoughts affect your perceptions and, therefore, your interpretation of reality. They can be both positive and negative, true or false. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t sometimes have a negative voice inside their head. They are part of life, and these thoughts can prompt you to make smart choices and shifts to grow into a better version of yourself.

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that seem to be stuck in your mind. They can cause distress since the nature of the thought might be upsetting. They may recur frequently, which is disturbing. Intrusive thoughts may be violent or traumatic.

If you turn small things into big things that bother you for days, weeks, or even longer, you're having intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can make you feel sad and anxious. They take the joy out of life and they can take a toll on your physical health.

You can recognize an intrusive thought immediately by how it makes you feel. Sometimes it creates worry or anxiety, and it can trigger a fearful physiological fight-or-flight response. This can manifest in an increased heart rate and blood pressure, or in a surge of adrenaline. You may experience shallow breathing or breathlessness and muscle tension. These responses can make it more difficult for you to control your thoughts effectively.

Types of Negative Intrusive Thoughts

  • The Inner Critic is your abuser who is often a conglomerate of other people’s words. They are thoughts you have created based on your own or other peoples’ expectations. The inner critic gets its juice from low self-esteem, lack of self-acceptance, and lack of self-love, and stems from things you tell yourself as a result of painful experiences such as betrayal or rejection. Your interpretation of these experiences can create self-doubt and self-blame.

  • The Worrier lives in the future—in a world of “what ifs'', and is motivated by fear, which is often irrational and has no basis. Occasionally, the worrier-self is motivated by fear that what happened in the past will happen again.

  • The Reactor appears when someone is triggered by anger, frustration, or pain. These triggers stem from unhealed wounds of the past. An experience that resembles a past wound may set off a reaction. This stimulus can be words or feelings or even sounds and smells. The reactor has poor impulse control and is run by past programming.

  • The Sleep Depriver can arise from a combination of squatters including the inner planner, the re-hasher, and the ruminator, along with the inner critic and the worrier. Self-doubt, low self-esteem, insecurity, and generalized anxiety can trigger intrusive thoughts that lead to sleep deprivation.

Intrusive thoughts are like smoke from a chimney; it’s the heat of something that is burning inside us. That internal fire is made up of our unresolved problems.

The first step to control the focus of our thoughts, feelings, and anguish is to clarify them. How do we clarify them? By making a hierarchy of problems. A scale of concerns that goes from low to high. Start by writing down everything that concerns you. Visualize the chaos inside you, like a brainstorm. Next, make a hierarchy, starting with what you consider small problems and ending with the most paralyzing ones. Once you have a visual order, reflect on each point. Try to think rationally and come up with solutions to each problem.

Ask yourself, how would I like to be thinking right now? This serves as a reminder that you are accountable. Do I want to be stressed and frustrated or at ease? Do I want to be worried about this or that, or feel in control? Then ask yourself, if I were in that state of mind, what thoughts would I be having? What would it feel like to be in control of my thinking?

Roleplay this in your mind, and you’ll get a “state change.” Like tapping an icon, your brain goes where you direct it. When you decide, at that moment, to focus on something positive, you are using your mind and directing your attention as if you are driving that machine we call the brain.

Next, envision yourself as the person who is in control of your thoughts. If you’re trying to banish insecurity and anxiety, envision a version of you who feels supremely confident. Imagine what your day would look like. For instance, if you were stuck in traffic, how would you respond to the delay? What if you were drawn into a confrontation or conflict at work, how would you feel and respond? After the day is done, how do you disconnect? Imagine going through a day like this in a control person, and record how you react to outside stimuli. You will never have complete control over the external stimuli in your day, but you have control over how you react.

Journaling helps with intrusive thoughts. We have thousands of thoughts scrambling around our busy brains every day. We’re assaulted with facts, news, rumors, and other information. Journaling is a highly recommended stress management tool. It allows you to explore the experiences that make you anxious, and helps you calm and clear your mind of intrusive thoughts and release negative feelings. Journaling is much like talking to a trusted friend who listens without judgment. It can serve as a way for you to communicate anything you want to write about—your hopes, dreams, worries, and disappointments. Journal when it feels right for you whether that’s daily, every other day, or weekly. The timing is up to you, however, try to aim for writing consistently.

One of the most studied aspects of journal writing pertains to its healing effects. It promotes problem-solving. When you’re stressed and have a problem, keeping a journal can help you identify what’s causing that stress or anxiety. Once you’ve identified your stressors, you can work on a plan to resolve the problems and reduce your stress.

Journaling can be a bad mood booster. Writing down your feelings, whether they’re positive or negative, can improve your mood and give you a sense of peace and happiness.

Many of us have pain or shame that we haven’t shared with others. Rather than ignoring these emotions, which are harmful to our health, we can disclose them with journaling and in this way confront our traumas. Journaling about traumatic events helps you explore and release the emotions involved. If you’re writing to overcome trauma, don’t feel obligated to write about a specific traumatic event—journal about what feels right at the moment.

For people experiencing anxiety, journaling can be a way to help clear and calm the mind. Through writing, a person can release pent-up feelings, escape from daily stressors, and let go of negative thoughts.

People with mental illness can use a journal to explore their experiences with their condition and write about their struggles in dealing with their symptoms. Journaling can also help measure your progress as you undergo treatment. You can track any day-to-day symptoms you may be experiencing so that you can recognize triggers and learn ways to help clear and calm the mind.

As you write about bad things you think might happen, think critically, and try to challenge your thoughts. For each fear or concern, try to write ways in which you could think about it differently. Create a new story for yourself, even a new set of possibilities. Write down your strengths. While you may not enjoy the current circumstances you face, you might find that you have the strength to handle whatever comes your way. You may even find new strengths you didn't realize you had!

Come up with at least one thing you can do that would improve your life right now and prepare you for what you fear. Write this down to remember it.

As you journal the good, the bad, and the ugly, you’ll find a reduction in the number of intrusive thoughts you experience. This helps calm and clear your mind of intrusive thoughts that won’t leave you alone. It releases negative feelings and thoughts. Journaling is a tool that allows you to explore the experiences that make you anxious.

From setting goals to dreaming of the future, journaling allows you to write about the areas of your life where you would like to see growth or change. By keeping a journal, you can mark your successes and failures, and you’ll be able to identify the factors that contributed to those results.

Writing can encourage you to focus on people, things, and events that have given you joy or that you appreciate.

Start by journaling for 5 to 15 minutes. Write about whatever is on your mind or is bothering you. Try to keep going until you feel you have written what needs to be said. Describe the events that are currently causing trouble for you. Keep in mind that sometimes it isn’t what is happening that causes stress, but the concerns you have about what could happen. You can list those concerns in chronological order; start with one stressor, then explore what you think will happen next, and what you fear will happen after that, and so forth. Once you have those thoughts in order, you can begin to look for solutions to relieve some of those stressors.

After writing, read what you have written and take a moment to reflect on it. Once you come up with a different perspective, you want to use journaling to take action. If you have any action items or steps you would like to take, write them down. As you are writing, plan for the worst and hope for the best.

You can allow your mind to be occupied by unwanted, undesirable, and destructive tenants, or you can choose desirable tenants like peace, gratitude, compassion, love, and joy. Your mind can become your best friend, your biggest supporter, and something you can count on to be there and encourage you. You can be in control of your thoughts. The choice is yours!

Managing Intrusive Thoughts
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