Intrustive thoughts

Understanding Intrusive Thoughts

Like so many of us, you’ve probably dedicated a significant amount of energy, trying to push away those unwelcome thoughts that seem to pop up out of nowhere. This journey, starting from the moment an unwanted thought first crossed your mind, has likely been filled with numerous attempts to push these thoughts away, ignore them, or try to get rid of them completely. You might have looked into different self-help techniques, sought advice from friends, or even talked to a counselor or therapist about them. Whether you’ve opened up about these thoughts to a professional or kept them to yourself out of fear of what they might mean or how others might react, know that you’re not alone. Your struggle is a deeply human experience that many of us share.

The Three Pillars of Intrusive Thoughts 

In the complex journey of dealing with intrusive thoughts, three main obstacles often stand in our way: the sticky mind, paradoxical effort, and entanglement. Let’s dive into each of these, starting with the sticky mind. Imagine your mind as a kind of biological Velcro, likely something you were born with. It’s essential to understand this concept. Next, we’ll explore the paradoxical effort, which plays a significant role in this struggle. Finally, we’ll discuss entanglement, or how we get caught up in these intrusive thoughts as if they truly matter. Throughout this exploration, we’ll see how these elements come together, making it challenging to move past intrusive thoughts. 


The Sticky Mind 

Throughout your life, you’ve probably noticed that unwanted intrusive thoughts seem to show up more frequently during times when your mind is particularly “sticky,” causing you to focus more on these thoughts. This “sticky” mind phenomenon means that instead of thoughts simply passing through, they linger and come back, each time grabbing more of your attention and feeling like they’re stuck in your consciousness. This stickiness is a natural part of how our minds work, influenced by our biology and often runs in families. It’s linked to how our brains are wired and our biochemistry. Stress can make our minds even stickier, whether it’s due to being tired, going through tough times, getting sick, or feeling emotional. Even worrying about how sticky our minds are or trying to monitor it can make things stickier. Despite how uncomfortable it can make us feel, this stickiness isn’t dangerous or important in itself. The good news is that it’s possible to train your brain to be less sticky. 


Anxiety and the sticky mind are closely connected, with anxiety making it easier for fear-based thoughts to stick around. When we’re on high alert for danger, our minds treat these intrusive thoughts as if they were real threats, like how flypaper catches flies. This stickiness can focus on specific themes or randomly pick thoughts from our mental clutter, much like a claw machine at the entrance of a supermarket grabbing prizes at random. Even though these thoughts might seem random and unimportant, they stick, showing just how unpredictable and significant the sticky mind can be when we’re feeling anxious. 


The Paradox of Trying Too Hard 

Have you ever noticed how the more you try to push away unwanted thoughts, the stronger they seem to cling? It’s a bit like trying to escape a Chinese finger trap; the harder you pull, the tighter it grips. This curious and somewhat frustrating reality is known as the paradoxical effort or the ironic effect. It reveals a truth that’s a little hard to swallow; sometimes, the more we try to control something, the more out of control it becomes. It’s a lesson in the unexpected, teaching us that sometimes, stepping back rather than doubling down is the key to freedom. 


This idea that “less is more” can be seen in various aspects of our lives, though it’s important to remember that effort and persistence are often necessary for success. Yet, there are moments when trying too hard can actually set us back. For example, the more you try to force yourself to sleep, ignore distractions, or relax, the more elusive these states become. This concept is clearly seen in situations where too much intervention or effort not only fails to resolve a problem but might even make it worse. Learning when to ease off can, paradoxically, lead to better results, teaching us a delicate dance between effort and surrender.

The principle of paradoxical effort also applies to learning and healing. Sometimes, a gentle, hands-off approach can be more beneficial than a forceful one. For instance, constantly checking on a healing wound can slow down the process, just as struggling in quicksand makes you sink deeper. Similarly, learning thrives under conditions of openness and relaxation, not pressure and anxiety. These examples show us that allowing things to unfold in their own time, without forcing them, can often lead to the most effective outcomes, embodying the “less is more” philosophy in dealing with intrusive thoughts and beyond. 


The Trap of Entanglement 

Entanglement with intrusive thoughts is like getting caught up in a heated debate over their shocking or bizarre content. You might find yourself trying to argue against, reassure, or rationalize these thoughts, or looking for ways to be less disturbed by them. This deep involvement, or entanglement, only serves to give these thoughts more strength and persistence. It’s like engaging with a stranger’s rude comment; the more you respond, the more power you give it. Ignoring such comments, much like disengaging from intrusive thoughts, can lessen their impact on you. 


To better understand entanglement, think of the content of intrusive thoughts as irrelevant noise, like recognizing a scam email. Just as you’d dismiss an email claiming you’ve inherited a fortune from a distant relative, recognizing the insignificance of intrusive thoughts can help you ignore them. Yet, because these thoughts often trigger strong emotional responses, dismissing them isn’t always easy. Remembering that thoughts and feelings aren’t facts can help diminish their perceived importance. 


In our minds, an internal dialogue unfolds, revealing the tug-of-war between our fears (Worried Voice) and the voice of reason (Wise Mind). The Worried Voice, gripped by fear, poses a cascade of “what if’s,” pondering the worst outcomes and questioning its ability to cope. It’s met by False Comfort (the pacifier), which offers the well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice to simply magically push away these distressing thoughts. The Wise Mind steps in, advocating for a different approach—one that doesn’t involve fighting the Worried Voice or dismissing your fears, but rather acknowledging them without adding to the fire. 


The Worried Voice expresses a deep fear of losing control, a concern that its anxieties might manifest into actions. The Wise Mind, however, reassures those thoughts, no matter how vivid or intense, are not actions; they are merely thoughts, and all are welcome, emphasizing the importance of allowing them to exist without judgment or immediate reaction. This gentle acceptance offers a space where thoughts can come and go, allowing you to begin the conditioning process of focusing more on the thoughts you desire to think vs. battling to fight against the thoughts you do not desire experiencing. 


As the Worried Voice continues to express its fears—fearing the anxiety will never end, worrying about losing control—the Wise Mind remains calm, reminding us that time moves forward and what we’re experiencing is just a moment in the time of our life span. It encourages an attitude of observation and acceptance, highlighting that the intensity of our worries can diminish when we stop trying to control or fight against every thought. 


Rethinking Our Approach to Coping 

Exploring the well-trodden paths of coping strategies like self-reassurance, seeking others’ reassurance, engaging in logical debates, and striving for a “healthy living” lifestyle, we uncover a surprising truth. These popular methods, rather than easing our troubles, often end up complicating them further. These approaches, while well-intentioned, tend to deepen our entanglement with our paradoxical efforts against those persistent, unwelcome thoughts, failing to address the core issue: our minds’ tendency to stick to these thoughts like glue. 


The journey often begins with a quest for reassurance—be it a pep talk we give ourselves, scouring the internet for answers, or looking to friends and family for validation. Yet, this path frequently leads us into a vicious cycle, where each attempt at finding peace only brings momentary relief, soon replaced by a renewed sense of urgency for reassurance.  


Embracing “healthy living” with the aim of warding off these intrusive thoughts can, paradoxically, morph into an obsession with control, paving the way for a life marked by rigid routines, unnecessary self-imposed restrictions, and heightened anxiety. This loop of counterproductive coping mechanisms often leaves us feeling more trapped and hopeless—not because a life of contentment is out of reach, but because the strategies we’re leaning on simply don’t get to the heart of the matter; the sticky nature of our thoughts. 


The Quest for Reassurance and Its Ripple Effects 

It’s not uncommon to seek comfort from loved ones about fears of acting on intrusive thoughts. Imagine confiding in a family member about your worry of suddenly shouting inappropriate words in a church—a place that once offered you peace and a sense of community. Such concerns might prompt you to subtly change how you attend services, like sneaking in late or choosing seats at the back, hoping to go unnoticed. These adjustments, however, might raise eyebrows among your family, who know how much you value your church engagements. When you open up about your anxieties and question the possibility of those fears becoming reality, their varied responses—confused, scared, or comforting—can leave a mark on your emotional well-being. Any initial comfort you find in their words often fades into a sea of doubt, sparking an inner turmoil that only heightens your anxiety and uncertainty. Turning to others for reassurance now and then is part of being human. However, when we start to depend on it to quell every doubt, it becomes a cycle that’s hard to break. This need for constant reassurance can lead us to seek endless validation from those around us and even online, turning us into what you might call reassurance seekers. 


The Paradox of Trying to Control Intrusive Thoughts 

Trying to control or avoid intrusive thoughts through various methods often leads to more fixation on them, a classic example of paradoxical effort. This approach misses the point that intrusive thoughts are, by nature, meaningless and not a threat, thus not needing control. By attempting to manage these thoughts, we only highlight their perceived significance and danger, which are actually not real. The Serenity Prayer, used in recovery programs, captures the idea of accepting what we can’t change, including the initial arrival and emotional impact of intrusive thoughts. True change comes from how we respond to these thoughts, requiring the bravery to let them be without engaging in a struggle, even when certainty is elusive. 


This insight explains why some coping techniques, if used with the goal of eliminating discomfort, might worsen it. For example, certain breathing exercises intended to reduce anxiety or intrusive thoughts can backfire. However, practicing these breathing techniques without aiming to banish the thoughts can be truly helpful if the goal is calming the body biologically, thus breaking the negative feedback loop cycling between your body and mind. It’s the transition from using coping methods as a way to fight thoughts to a stance of acceptance, letting thoughts flow without judgment or constant vigilance, that differentiates between beneficial and detrimental coping strategies. 


Beyond Temporary Fixes: Seeking Lasting Peace with Intrusive Thoughts 

Advice from magazines, our loved ones, and even therapists often champion various techniques as the key to managing anxiety, suggesting that with diligent practice, these strategies can keep distressing thoughts at bay. Yet, this focus on controlling thoughts often leads to frustration. The relief provided is usually fleeting, and the strategies often fall short in the long run. This isn’t because of any lack of effort on our part, but rather because the approach itself misses the mark. These methods don’t pave the way for a fundamental shift in how we view our thoughts; they offer a temporary fix rather than addressing the need for a deeper, more sustainable change. 


The true goal goes beyond just coping with intrusive thoughts; it’s about learning to live with them without distress. The aim is to recalibrate our internal alarm systems that mistakenly interpret these thoughts as dangers. By transforming our relationship with these thoughts into one of non-reaction, we work towards a state where they lose their power to provoke anxiety or concern. This shift leads to a more profound and enduring recovery, where intrusive thoughts no longer disrupt our peace of mind, allowing us to find a peaceful perspective. Below are a few of the more popular methods the mental health field blanketly promotes, but they can often backfire as they can be more gasoline on the fire instead of water: 


Pushing Harder to Relax: The more you try to force relaxation, the more elusive it becomes. This struggle often makes things worse, a classic case of trying too hard. 


Just Stop Worrying: Being told to stop worrying only highlights worry’s impact, leading to worry about worrying, more anxiety, and making intrusive thoughts stickier. 


Offering Empty Comfort: Saying “Everything will be okay” might seem reassuring, but your inner skeptic quickly challenges this, fueling more doubt and anxiety. 


Debating with Logic: Trying to reason out the likelihood of your fears coming true only digs you deeper, as the weight of the fear overshadows its actual likelihood. 


Seeking Distraction: Attempting to focus on something else often backfires, as the effort to avoid certain thoughts makes them even more persistent. 


Forcing Positivity: Trying to suppress your natural thoughts by forcing positive ones suggests there’s something wrong with your genuine feelings, making them stick around longer. 


Maintaining a Positive Front: Believing that just thinking positively can change your reality only entangles you more and can increase negative thinking through trying too hard. 


Making Lifestyle Changes: While stress reduction can ease some symptoms, it doesn’t tackle the deeper issues of getting caught up in thoughts or the irony of trying to control them, limiting its overall impact. 


Employing Avoidance: Dodging triggers, like ending relationships or switching jobs, only gives more power to intrusive thoughts, suggesting they’re significant and that avoidance is the answer. 


Using the Rubber Band Snap: Once a popular method for stopping thoughts, snapping a rubber band on your wrist makes intrusive thoughts more frequent and suggests they need to be avoided, leading to deeper entanglement. 


Practicing Meditation and Yoga: These practices can help reduce the grip of intrusive thoughts, but aiming to eliminate thoughts through meditation or yoga misses the essence and diminishes their effectiveness. 


Accepting Uncertainty: A Kinder Approach to Intrusive Thoughts 

When it comes to handling those unwelcome intrusive thoughts, we find ourselves at a crossroads between two distinct paths: the active battle, filled with desperation and frustration, which only tightens the thoughts’ grip on us, and a gentler, passive acceptance that sees these thoughts for what they truly are: harmless and fleeting. This second path, though less traveled, invites us to lean into discomfort and uncertainty rather than fleeing from it. By meeting our thoughts with openness rather than resistance, we strip them of their power, much like realizing the dragon we feared is nothing more than a harmless creature made of fluff. 


Through our journey of understanding why certain strategies fall short in freeing us from intrusive thoughts, it becomes evident that a fresh approach is needed. This new direction requires us to recognize the nature of intrusive thoughts, to see through the brain’s automatic alarm bells triggered by these thoughts, sensations, and memories, and to debunk the myths fueling our cycles of anxiety. Moving forward means learning to quiet the internal dialogue that magnifies our distress, adopting a new perspective towards these thoughts that reduce their importance. Our aim shifts from merely managing anxiety to fundamentally changing how we relate to the content of our thoughts, aspiring to a life no longer overshadowed by the fear of these mental intruders.

Final Thoughts 

In wrapping up, the path to overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts isn’t about waging war against them. Instead, it’s about transforming our relationship with these thoughts through a blend of understanding, acceptance, and perspective shift. This approach, rooted in minimizing the significance we assign to these thoughts and reducing our internal commentary, equips us to lessen the distress they cause. By adopting a new mindset and retraining our brain’s reaction to these intrusions, we pave the way towards a serene and resilient state of being, where intrusive thoughts no longer have the power to disturb our peace. 



Leave a Comment