We all experience intrusive thoughts, but it’s not the intrusive thoughts themselves that cause you distress, rather it’s how you respond to those thoughts that allow them to influence you and have power over you.
Thoughts aren’t facts – they aren’t ‘real’
Imagine yourself standing on a street and all around you, thoughts are floating lazily by. Some of the thoughts are your own, other thoughts are from outside sources you access such as newspapers, TV, magazines, etc. You notice that when you pay attention to a thought it gravitates nearer. The thoughts you ignore float on by.
The downward thought spiral
When you focus and examine a thought up closely, you notice how it connects to another similar thought, and you find yourself jumping from one thought to the next. When you give a thought attention, it becomes ‘real’ and part of your reality. The thing is – it’s just a thought, not a fact. Sometimes these are practical, day-to-day thoughts such as bills, chores, etc., or the thoughts can be themed by the past or a fantasy/daydream.
How fear interferes with your life
In the imagined scenario, you unexpectedly notice a thought hovering in front of you that scares you. This thought is called “Fear X.”
X could be fear of panic attacks, ill health, or something bizarre. You find it impossible not to look at the thought, and as you give it your full attention, this causes it to come closer and closer. When you examine the thought, you begin to react with fear as you do not like what you see. (Thoughts lead to emotions and emotions influence subsequent behaviour).
You further notice how that initial scary thought is connected to more worrying “what if” thoughts that you also examine in detail. Now you are engaging in a negative downward spiral…The more you try to escape from the thought by pushing it away, the more it seems to follow you around as if it were stuck to you. You try to focus on more pleasant thoughts, but you find yourself continuously coming back to the fearful thought.
Intrusive Thoughts…’sticky thoughts’
There is an expression of “thoughts sticking like glue.” The very act of reacting emotionally to the thought glues the thought all the more to you, and the more time you spend worrying and obsessing about the thought, the more that glue becomes hardened over time. The thought and all its associated connected thoughts are there in the morning when you wake and there at night when you are trying to get some sleep. The thought becomes stuck to your psyche because your emotional reaction means it’s going to stick around.
Notice thoughts without judgement
Thoughts are a form of energy, neither good nor bad. It is how we judge those thoughts that determine how much impact they have on our lives. Thoughts need firstly to be fed by attention, but what they really love is a good strong emotional reaction to make them stick!
Thoughts that stay with us are first attracted to us by the attention we pay them and then stuck firmly in place by the level of emotional reaction we have to them.
This is an important point. A thought-even negative intrusive thoughts-can only have an influence over you if you allow them to. The emotional reaction from us is a thought’s energy source. What’s interesting is that either a positive or a negative emotional reaction is fine for the thought. Energy and attention are what it is attracted to.
Negative thoughts get our attention more than positive thoughts
For example, if someone you know pays you a very positive compliment, you may find yourself unintentionally drawn to that thought anytime you have a spare moment. You probably find it improves your overall level of confidence and mood throughout the day. Sadly, we tend to focus less on the positive and more on the negative. We seem to forget those positive compliments all too easily and are drawn more frequently to what might upset us. Humans seem to be set on a ‘negative default’, we tend to look more for negatives, and this is because we are wired to detect threats – it’s a survival mechanism. Taking the opposite example, if someone you know insults you, I am sure that you find the emotional reaction to that thought much more intense and probably very long-lasting.
A wandering mind is a dangerous mind
If you are not engaged with an activity or task, your mind will tend to wander to any thoughts that you are having a strong emotional reaction to. In general, as they are the ones that you are probably reacting most strongly to, angry or fearful thoughts seem to surface quickly.
The most effective way to eliminate intrusive thoughts is not to suppress them. Thought suppression studies, (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987) have proven that the very act of trying to suppress a thought, only results in a higher frequency of unwanted intrusive thoughts occurring.
The pink zebra exercise on thought suppression
Think about this – if I say to you, whatever you do, don’t think about a pink zebra…this will immediately materialise in your mind. This reoccurrence of the thought has been termed the ‘rebound effect’. Simply put: the more you try suppressing a thought, the more the unwanted thought keeps popping up (rebounding).
SO HOW DO WE BEGIN TO TACKLE THIS PROBLEM OF INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS?
There needs to be a change of attitude. By a change in attitude, I mean a change or shift in the way you have been reacting to the intrusive thoughts. A change in your focus/approach will quickly disarm the emotional reaction you are having to the fearful thoughts. Once the emotional reaction has been significantly reduced, the anxious intrusive thoughts will dissipate. In the past, you have probably tried to rid yourself of the thoughts by attempting to struggle free of them.
The trick, however, is not to attempt to be free of them but to have a new reaction to them when they run through your mind. We can never fully control what goes through our minds, but we can control how we react to what goes on there. That is the key difference between someone who gets caught up in fearful thinking and someone who does not.
The thoughts that terrify us are not fuelled by some unknown force; they are our own.
We empower them and equally we dismiss them. When you have an uncomfortable thought you would rather not be thinking, your first reaction is usually to tense up internally and say to yourself, “Oh no, I don’t like that idea. I don’t want that thought right now.” The very act of trying to push these intrusive thoughts away and then understandably getting upset when that does not work causes the thoughts to become more stuck to your psyche.
As long as you struggle with the thought, your mind, like a bold child, will keep returning to it. This is not to say your mind is maliciously working against you. It is better to compare the mind to a radar scanner that picks up on thoughts within us that have high levels of emotional reaction connected to them.
So to take an example:
Say you have fear “X” going on in your mind. That fear can be virtually anything your mind can conceive. You know the thoughts are not a realistic fear, and you want them to stop interrupting your life.
Next time the fearful thought comes to mind, do not push it away. This is important.
Tell yourself that that is fine and that the thought can continue to play in your mind if it wishes, but you are not going to give it much notice and you are certainly not going to qualify it by reacting with fear. You know in your heart that the thought is very unlikely to happen. You have a deeper sense of trust and will not be tossed around emotionally all day by a thought. Say to yourself:
I am having a thought that…. this reminds you it is just a thought.
“Well that thought/fear is a possibility, but it is very remote and I am not going to worry about that right now. Today I am trusting that all is well.”
Make the negative thought seem silly or absurd to lessen its impact
What is of key important is not to get upset by the thoughts and feelings as they arise. To avoid any fearful emotional reaction to the fear/thought give the fear some cartoon characteristics.
Imagine, for example, it is Donald Duck telling you that “Something awful is going to happen. Aren’t you scared?” Give the character a squeaky voice and make it a totally ridiculous scene. How can you take an anxious duck with big feet seriously?
This use of cartoon imagery reprograms the initial emotional reaction you might have had to the thought and eliminates any authority the thought may have over you. You are reducing the thought’s threat. When that is done, move your attention back to whatever you were doing. Remember, you are not trying to push the thought away or drown it out with some outside stimulus.
This takes practice in the beginning, but what will happen is that you will find yourself checking how you think/feel less and less during the day, and as it does not have a strong fearful emotion connected to it, your mind will not be drawn to troublesome intrusive thoughts.
To put it another way, the thought becomes unstuck and fades away because the emotional reaction has been neutralized. In fact, that is the first step to moving away from anxious thoughts—neutrality. It is as if your mental energy was spinning in a negative cycle while you were caught in the anxious intrusive thoughts. Now, you are learning to stop the negative cycle, and move into neutral.
From this new position of neutrality, you will experience a much greater sense of clarity away from the confusion of an overanxious mind. Moving into this mindset of neutrality is your first step. Thoughts generally lead us in one direction or another -a positive cycle (peace/sense of control and order) or a negative cycle (anxiety/ fear/ disorder). The next step is to adopt a relaxed peaceful state of mind and move your energy into a positive cycle of thinking.
Optimists dismiss negative thoughts more easily than pessimists can
You might have wondered why it is that some people seem more susceptible to worries and unwanted intrusive thoughts than others. You now know the answer to that. The difference is that the people who seem carefree are the ones who are not reacting with a strong fearful emotion to an anxious thought. These people see the same array of thoughts as an anxious person, but they do not make a fearful thought a part of their lives. They dismiss the thought or laugh it off and have a sense of trust that things will work out fine. They see no point in reacting with fear to these thoughts, and that ensures the thought has no power or authority over them.
You may feel that you are by nature an anxious person and that you will always react with fear to these thoughts because you have done so for years. That is not the case. Continuous or obsessive anxious thinking is a behavioural habit, and just like any habit, it can be unlearned. I have outlined the quickest and most effective way to do this by using a unique shift in attitude. You can undo years of anxious thinking and reduce your level of general anxiety very quickly. All it takes is practice.
I mentioned at the beginning of this section that to fully eliminate the anxious intrusive thoughts a two-pronged approach is most effective. I will now explain the second part of this approach, which is the use of a visualization tool.
Visualization Tool for Ending Anxious Thinking and Intrusive thoughts
Anxiety causes an imbalance in your life whereby all of the mental worries create a top-heavy sensation. All of your focus is moved from the centre of your body to the head. Schools of meditation often like to demonstrate an example of this top-heavy imbalance by showing how easily the body can lose its sense of centre.
A student is asked to come to the front of the group and stand with his legs apart. The teacher then asks the student to focus on a personal worry or concern. Once the student is fixated on the worry, the teacher quietly moves to the side of the student and tells him he is going to attempt to push him over. The teacher pushes on the student’s shoulder and is able to topple the student with relative ease.
The same student is then asked to forget the worry and focus his attention on a grounding visualization. The teacher once again attempts to topple the student but finds much more resistance than previously. The student is grounded firmly in place. The class is given this demonstration to display how important it is to feel grounded and centred in the present and not continuously caught in mental activity. When caught in mental anxieties, a person can feel disconnected from life as they go through life on autopilot.
BEATING ANXIOUS THINKING
I am going to teach you a single visualization that is separated into three parts. The purpose of the visualization is to enable you to quickly clear mental stress, tension, and anxious thinking. The visualization can be used when feeling stressed and is particularly useful when your mind is racing with fearful, anxious thinking. There are numerous such visualizations found in different self-help courses, but I have combined three of the most effective ones and adapted them so that the resultant single visualization can be used literally anywhere.
This visualization process, when practised frequently, is very effective for eliminating deep-seated mental anxieties or intrusive thoughts. To gain maximum benefit, the exercise must be carried out for longer than 10 minutes at a time, as anything shorter will not bring noticeable results. There is no right or wrong way to carry out the visualization. Be intuitive with it and do not feel you are unable to carry it out if you feel you are not very good at seeing mental imagery. As long as your attention is on the exercise, you will gain benefits.
It is best to do this exercise in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, and then when you are more practised you will be able to get the same positive results in a busier environment such as the workplace. You should notice a calming effect on your state of mind along with a sensation of mental release and relaxation.
Okay, let’s begin.
ALLEVIATING ANXIOUS THINKING
Either sitting or standing, close your eyes and move your attention to your breath. To become aware of your breathing, place one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach. Take a breath and let your stomach swell forward as you breathe in and fall back gently as you breathe out. Take the same depth of breath each time and try to get a steady rhythm going. Your hand on your chest should have little or no movement. Again, try to take the same depth of breath each time you breathe in. This is called Diaphragmatic Breathing.
When you feel comfortable with this technique, try to slow your breathing rate down by instituting a short pause after you have breathed out and before you breathe in again. Initially, it may feel as though you are not getting enough air in, but with regular practice, this slower rate will soon start to feel comfortable.
It is often helpful to develop a cycle where you count to three when you breathe in, pause, and then count to three when you breathe out (or 2, or 4—whatever is comfortable for you). This will also help you focus on your breathing without any other thoughts coming into your mind. If you are aware of other thoughts entering your mind, just let them go and bring your attention back to counting and breathing. Continue doing this for a few minutes. (If you practice this, you will begin to strengthen the Diaphragmatic Muscle, and it will start to work normally—leaving you with a nice relaxed feeling all the time.)
VISUALIZATION TO COUNTER ANXIOUS THINKING
Now move your attention to your feet. Try to really feel your feet. See if you can feel each toe. Picture the base of your feet and visualize roots growing slowly out through your soles and down into the earth. The roots are growing with a quickening pace and are reaching deep into the soil of the earth. You are now rooted firmly to the earth and feel stable like a large oak or redwood tree. Stay with this feeling of grounded safety and security for a few moments.
Once you have created a strong feeling or impression of being grounded like a tree, I want you to visualize a cloud of bright light forming way above you. A bolt of lightning from the luminous cloud hits the crown of your head, and that ignites a band of bright white light descending slowly from your head all the way down your body, over your legs, and out past your toes. As the band of light passes over you, feel it clearing your mental state. It is illuminating your mind and clears any rubbish that you may have been thinking about. Repeat this image four or five times until you feel a sense of clearing and release from any anxious thinking.
In finishing, see yourself standing under a large, luminescent waterfall. The water is radiant and bubbling with vitality and life. As you stand under the waterfall, you can feel the water run over every inch of your body, soothing you and instilling within you a sense of deep calm. Try to taste the water. Open your mouth and let it run into your mouth, refreshing you. Hear it as it bounces off the ground around you. The water is life itself and it is washing away stress and worry from your mind and body.
AFTER A MOMENT, OPEN YOUR EYES
Try to use all your senses when carrying out the visualization. To make the pictures in your mind as real as possible, use your senses of touch, taste, and hearing. Feel the water trickle down your body; hear the sound it makes as it splashes over you.
The more realistic the imagined scenarios, the more benefit you will gain. Many people report very beneficial and soothing results from using these simple visualizations frequently. The mind is much like a muscle in that, in order to relax, it needs to regularly release what it is holding onto.
By visualizing the different situations, you are allowing your mind to release. It is like sending a message to your brain that when you close your eyes and begin this process it is time for letting go of anything that it has been mentally holding onto, including anxious thinking. To begin with, in order to train your mind on how to let go of stress, it is important to practice this daily. With practice, you can learn to release all stress within minutes of starting the exercise. I recommend your daily practice take place before going to bed, as that will enable you to sleep more soundly.
Many people do not do these visualizations in the bedroom but in some other room before going to bed. That way, when they enter the bedroom and close the door, they are leaving the mental stress and anxious thinking behind them.
Visualization as a tool for dealing with mental stress is very effective. If such visualization is carried out properly, you can reach a deep feeling of inner calm. From experience, however, I do not find visualization work to be sufficient to end a panic or anxiety attack (that is left to the One Move technique which I teach as part of the Panic Away program), but it is a very powerful support tool for ridding yourself of general anxiety sensations.
That concludes the two-pronged approach to dealing with anxious thinking and thoughts.
With practice, you find you go days without having anxious thinking interrupt your life, and importantly, this significantly reduces the level of general anxiety you feel.
Intrusive thoughts will always appear. You have approximately 80 000 thoughts per day and 80% of these are nonsense thoughts.
Learn to dismiss thoughts and only pay attention to the helpful, productive thoughts – this will have a massive positive impact on your anxiety and mental health.