Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts
(Sally M. Winston, PsyD/Martin N. Seif PHD)
Chapter 1 Notes: Recovering from Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
Recovering from unwanted intrusive thoughts is multifaceted. It begins with knowing what thoughts mean and what they don’t. It involves an understanding of how particular thoughts become stuck and keep repeating. It encompasses an explanation of why your harmless intrusive thoughts feel so disturbing and dangerous. And it means learning to substitute your present (unhelpful) ways of coping with an approach that will train your brain, body and emotions to react differently. Your goal, of course, is to eliminate the fear, frustrations, guilt and misery that unwanted intrusive thoughts can bring.
The context of many unwanted, intrusive thoughts is aggressive, sexual, taboo, anxiety provoking, or self-derogatory. An unwanted intrusive thought sometimes feels like an impulse to perform an unwanted action. Other times, it feels like an impulse to perform an unwanted action. Other times, it feels impossibly stuck in your head
In the case of unwanted intrusive thoughts, there are three voices that are particularly relevant. Their messages and interactions work to maintain the problem. So, we introduce voices that we call, “Worried Voice.” “False Comfort,” and “Wise Mind.”
“Worried Voice” is the voice of frightening imaginings. Worried Voice is the voice of “What if?” Worried Voice articulates fears and doubts and misguided conclusions that predict tragedies and awful outcomes. This voice can seem irrational, ridiculous, even perverse or downright crazy, Sometimes Worried Voice issues strange or urgent warnings. It interrupts, annoys, scares, and talks back. Worried Voice raises anxiety. Worried Voice is often the first voice to react to an intrusive thought or new sensation.
“False Comfort” invariably follows the “What if?” of Worried Voice. False Comfort is disturbed by these questions and tries to remove the discomfort. We call this voice “False Comfort” because it never achieves its goal. It often gives brief relief and the illusion of rationality. But it does not ultimately silence the Worried Voice.
“False Comfort” almost always triggers yet another what-if or doubt from Worried Voice. False Comfort is actually so disturbed and frightened by Worried Voice that it continuously tries to argue, control, avoid, suppress, reassure, reason with, neutralize or work around whatever Worried Voice comes up with. False Comfort tries hard but ultimately fails to lower anxiety.
“Wise Mind” is calm, unimpressed, and unaffected. It knows that False Comfort is actually spurring Worried Voice on, keeping the process going without realizing it. In contrast, Wise mind is disentangled, free of effort, and accepting of uncertainty. It is curious and sometimes even amused by things that upset the others. Wise Mind demonstrates mindful compassionate awareness Mindfulness is a state of open and active attention to the present, moment by moment.
A mindful attitude is made possible because there is a part of you that can stand back and look at your experiences, in real time with perspective.
Observing and letting go of your commentary will go a long way toward gaining some relief from your intrusive thoughts.
The thoughts you most do not want to have are the ones that will get stuck. People who believe that all vulnerable people and living things should be protected are people who fight common intrusive thoughts that sometimes involve actions like abusing people, and dropping babies.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: When I was 18, I was a busser at a restaurant in Ohio, and I remember an instance of when I picked up a plate that a family was finished with. The plate had a knife on it, and as I picked it up, there was a baby in a highchair, and I had these insane intrusive thoughts that I was going to slip and the plate would fall causing the knife to impale the child. It was a thought that I never could shake, so I entirely stopped bussing because I was so scared of hurting a kid in an accident. I remember telling my mom about it and her saying it was a stupid thought and it wasn’t going to happen. But I struggled with it so badly that sometimes I would go cry in the bathroom out of being overwhelmed about it. It was an intrusive thought the same as the ones the text is describing. I am too scared to hold babies because I am scared I will drop them.
If you are someone with strong religious beliefs, you sometimes come up with blasphemous thoughts and worry thoughts about not being faithful. These are thoughts you fight, and stick.
Unwanted intrusive thoughts get stuck because you inadvertently fuel them by trying to push them away.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: When I was in high school I had a partner who became pregnant, we were both very young and I remember the conversation we had about getting an abortion. It was a horrible experience, and I didn’t even go with my partner for the termination because I had a test that day and if I skipped it my parents would know and I would have been caught. So, I was a coward and made my partner go by themselves with a friend of mine who had already graduated. I struggled for a long time imagining the dead baby crying for me and that God was going to damn me to hell because I had failed my partner and child. I wasn't emotionally mature enough at the time to have a rational realistic view around abortion. My mom was as conservative and pro-life as they come so I would have been stuck with a kid with a partner I didn’t end up staying with. I still sometimes have regrets about that and that God is waiting to punish me because of it, or that the child is in hell. I wasn't raised with a real world understanding of teenage pregnancy, just an abusive religious one. Keeping that buried in my chest twisted my soul and the intrusive thoughts manifested into anger. I still carry so much shame because of it. I worry that I will go to hell when I die.
Any situation that is uncertain and has high stakes is a perfect place for stickiness of the mind to increase. Traumatic events can be major triggers of unwanted intrusive thoughts. We are most afraid of things that would be terrible if they did happen, regardless of how unlikely or even virtually impossible they may be.
Personal Experience: I am unable to use the internet in any social aspects, because of my BPD/BP and the trauma I have endured from people making videos and dissecting the worst parts of me/my failures. If I am online and I see any type of article about someone being “cancelled”, the intrusive thoughts in my head mixed with the graphic imagery caused by my BPD cause me to spiral into a state of manic paranoia, anger, and depression with suicidal ideations. I am not a bad person, I have had a lot of external struggles in my life, but I have intrusive thoughts that the entirety of my soul has been determined by people who disliked me and in a lot of ways it makes me feel like the goal they had was for me to kill myself. Which I tried to do, so in a lot of ways it feels as though they hold power over me in a dynamic that makes them feel good while damning my worth. It relates back to my religious abuse as well. It is the thing I struggle with the most in regard to unwanted intrusive thoughts. I feel like people are out to get me and I will never live a happy life or be able to show the world who I truly am in my heart. I have been trying with my continued therapy and treatment, but when I see things online about other people I can't shake the intrusive thoughts I carry with me daily. I want to be a good person and be a father and be someone people can look to and see external struggles but know I am ultimately a good person. I will continue to work to get past those intrusive thoughts. I have had many failures in my life, but there is much more to me than what people write online. I am a person who loves and feels things very deeply and I wish I had been in treatment sooner in my life and had the education I do now, and I am regretful and ashamed of my failures, but my journey is personal and, in the end, those close to me in my day-to-day life deserve the best version of myself. I won’t give up, but I hope I can control these unwanted intrusive thoughts mixed with my BPD/BP. I have become a better person than I was in my life because of these struggles, and in a lot of ways it has helped me mature into the person I should have been. It is still hard to live with daily though, but I love my life and my home, and continuing therapy, medication and treatment has been life changing for me and those I am close with.
Intrusive thoughts, however weird or scary, are universal and unimportant. Unwanted intrusive thoughts get stuck because you inadvertently fuel them by trying to banish them. They fluctuate in intensity and frequency based on the fuel they receive-triggering events in the real world or the stickiness of your mind due to fatigue, mood or anxiety- and ironically by the amount of effort you expend to try to counteract, avoid, or suppress them. Most importantly they are not impulses and not out of your control.