January 28, 2021

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Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are stuck thoughts that cause great distress. They seem to come from out of nowhere, arrive with a whoosh, and cause a great deal of anxiety. The content of unwanted intrusive thoughts often focuses on sexual or violent or socially unacceptable images. People who experience unwanted intrusive thoughts are afraid that they might commit the acts they picture in their mind. They also fear that the thoughts mean something terrible about them. Some unwanted intrusive thoughts consist of repetitive doubts about relationships, decisions small and large, sexual orientation or identity, intrusions of thoughts about safety, religion, death or worries about questions that cannot be answered with certainty. Some are just weird thoughts that make no apparent sense. Unwanted Intrusive thoughts can be very explicit, and many people are ashamed and worried about them, and therefore keep them secret.

There are many myths about unwanted intrusive thoughts. One of the most distressing is that having such thoughts mean that you unconsciously want to do the things that come into your mind. This is simply not true, and, in fact, the opposite is true. It is the effort people use to fight the thought that makes it stick and fuels its return. People fight thoughts because the content seems alien, unacceptable, and at odds with who they are. So, people with violent unwanted intrusive thoughts are gentle people. People who have unwanted intrusive thoughts about suicide love life. And those who have thoughts of yelling blasphemies in church value their religious life.  A second myth is that every thought we have is worth examining. In truth, these thoughts are not messages, red flags, signals or warnings--despite how they feel.

The problem for people who have these thoughts--and one estimate is that more than 6 million people in the United States are troubled by them-- is that unwanted intrusive thoughts feel so threatening. That is because anxious thinking takes over, and the thought—as abhorrent as it might be—seems to have power it does not.  People tend to try desperately and urgently to get rid of the thoughts, which, paradoxically, fuels their intensity. The harder they try to suppress or distract or substitute thoughts, the stickier the thought becomes.

People who are bothered by intrusive thoughts need to learn a new relationship to their thoughts--that sometimes the content of thoughts are irrelevant and unimportant. That everyone has occasional weird, bizarre, socially improper and violent thoughts. Our brains sometimes create junk thoughts, and these thoughts are just part of the flotsam and jetsam of our stream of consciousness.  Junk thoughts are meaningless. If you don’t pay attention or get involved with them, they dissipate and get washed away in the flow of consciousness.

In reality, a thought—even a very scary thought—is not an impulse. The problem is not one of impulse control- it is over control. They are at opposite ends of the continuum.  However, sufferers get bluffed by their anxiety, and become desperate for reassurance. However, reassurance only works temporarily, and people can become reassurance junkies. The only way to effectively deal with intrusive obsessive thoughts is by reducing one’s sensitivity to them. Not by being reassured that it won’t happen or is not true.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are reinforced by getting entangled with them, worrying about them, struggling against them, trying to reason them away. They are also made stronger by trying to avoid them. Leave the thoughts alone, treat them as if they are not even interesting, and they will eventually fade into the background.

Here are steps for changing your attitude and overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

  • Label these thoughts as "intrusive thoughts."
  • Remind yourself that these thoughts are automatic and not up to you.
  • Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Do not try to push them away.
  • Float, and practice allowing time to pass.
  • Remember that less is more. Pause. Give yourself time. There is no urgency. 
  • Expect the thoughts to come back again
  • Continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought while allowing the anxiety to be present.

Try Not To:

  • Engage with the thoughts in any way.
  • Push the thoughts out of your mind.
  • Try to figure out what your thoughts "mean."
  • Check to see if this is “working” to get rid of the thoughts

This approach can be difficult to apply. But for anyone who keeps applying it for just a few weeks, there is an excellent chance that they will see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of the unwanted intrusive thoughts.

 

 

10 Signs You're an Overthinker

Although there's some evidence that suggests women are more likely to be overthinkers than men, the truth is, everyone overthinks sometimes.

Overthinking is a common issue I address in my therapy office. People often come to their appointments saying things like, "I can't relax. It's like my brain won't shut off," or "I can't stop thinking about how my life could have been better if I'd done things differently."

The link between overthinking and mental health problems is a chicken-or-egg type question. Overthinking is linked to psychological problems, like depression and anxiety. It's likely that overthinking causes mental health to decline and as your mental health declines, the more likely you are to overthink. It's a vicious downward spiral.

But, it's hard to recognize that spiral when you're caught in the middle of it. In fact, your brain might try to convince you that worrying and ruminating is somehow helpful.

After all, won't you develop a better solution or prevent yourself from making the same mistake if you spend more time thinking? Not necessarily. 

In fact, the opposite is often true. Analysis paralysis is a real problem. The more you think, the worse you feel. And your feelings of misery, anxiety, or anger may cloud your judgment and prevent you from taking positive action.

Two Forms of Overthinking

Overthinking comes in two forms; ruminating about the past and worrying about the future.

It's different than problem-solving. Problem-solving involves thinking about a solution. Overthinking involves dwelling on the problem.

Overthinking is also different than self-reflection. Healthy self-reflection is about learning something about yourself or gaining a new perspective about a situation. It's purposeful.

Overthinking involves dwelling on how bad you feel and thinking about all the things you have no control over. It won't help you develop new insight.

 

 

The difference between problem-solving, self-reflection, and overthinking isn't about the amount of time you spend in deep thought. Time spent developing creative solutions or learning from your behavior is productive. But time spent overthinking, whether it's 10 minutes or 10 hours, won't enhance your life.

Signs You're an Overthinker

When you become more aware of your tendency to overthink things, you can take steps to change. But first, you have to recognize that overthinking does more harm than good.

Sometimes, people think that their overthinking somehow prevents bad things from happening. And they think if they don't worry enough or rehash the past enough then somehow, they'll encounter more problems. But, the research is pretty clear--overthinking is bad for you and it does nothing to prevent or solve problems.

Here are 10 signs that you're an overthinker:

  1. I relive embarrassing moments in my head repeatedly.
  2. I have trouble sleeping because it feels like my brain won't shut off.
  3. I ask myself a lot of "what if..." questions.
  4. I spend a lot of time thinking about the hidden meaning in things people say or events that happen.
  5. I rehash conversations I had with people in my mind and think about all the things I wished I had or hadn't said.
  6. I constantly relive my mistakes.
  7. When someone says or acts in a way I don't like, I keep replaying it in my mind.
  8. Sometimes I'm not aware of what's going on around me because I'm dwelling on things that happened in the past or worrying about things that might happen in the future.
  9. I spend a lot of time worrying about things I have no control over.
  10. I can't get my mind off my worries.
 
 

How To Stop Overthinking

Putting an end to rehashing, second-guessing, and catastrophic predictions is easier said than done. But with consistent practice, you can limit your negative thinking patterns. Here are six ways to stop overthinking everything:

1. Notice When You’re Thinking Too Much

Awareness is the first step in putting an end to overthinking. Start paying attention to the way you think. When you notice you’re re-playing events in your mind over and over, or worrying about things you can’t control, acknowledge that your thoughts aren’t productive.

2. Challenge Your Thoughts

It’s easy to get carried away with negative thoughts. So before you conclude that calling in sick is going to get you fired, or that forgetting one deadline is going to cause you to become homeless, acknowledge that your thoughts may be exaggeratedly negative. Learn to recognize and replace thinking errors, before they work you up into a complete frenzy.

3. Keep The Focus On Active Problem-Solving

Dwelling on your problems isn’t helpful--but looking for solutions is. Ask yourself what steps you can take to learn from a mistake or to avoid a future problem. Instead of asking why did this happen? Ask yourself what can I do about it?

4. Schedule Time For Reflection

Stewing on your problems for long periods of time isn’t productive, but brief reflection can be helpful. Thinking about how you could do things differently or recognizing potential pitfalls to your plan, for example, can help you do better in the future.

Incorporate 20 minutes of “thinking time” into your daily schedule. During that time, let yourself worry, ruminate, or mull over whatever you want. Then, when your time is up, move onto something more productive. When you notice yourself overthinking things outside of your scheduled time, remind yourself that you’ll think about that later.

5. Practice Mindfulness

It’s impossible to rehash yesterday or worry about tomorrow when you’re living in the present. Commit to becoming more aware of the here and now. Just like any other skill, mindfulness takes practice, but over time, it can decrease overthinking.

6. Change The Channel

Telling yourself to stop thinking about something can backfire. The more you try to avoid the thought from entering your brain, the more likely it is to keep popping up.

Busying yourself with an activity is the best way to change the channel. Exercise, engage in conversation on a completely different subject, or get working on a project that will distract your mind from the barrage of negative thoughts.

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Last modified on Saturday, 07 November 2020 16:32

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