Intrusive Thoughts: Often Unwelcome, Never Uncommon
Have you ever stood on a bridge, with a 40 feet drop, and thought ‘what if I jumped?’. Maybe not. What about this though - you’re driving at 60 down a motorway and suddenly think, ‘I could just swerve this car right now’. No? Maybe it’s less severe than that. Maybe you’ve just been in a silent room and thought, hey, what if I suddenly shout ‘SHIT’ at the top of my voice.
Chances are, at one point of your life you will have had a similar experience; a dark or sinister or simply socially inappropriate voice that pops into your head. That unwelcome interruption has a name. It’s called an intrusive thought. Here’s the deal though: they’re common. Most people have them. However - and this is the deal breaker - for most people, when they pop into their head, they dismiss them quickly. There is no fear that they may actually shout ‘shit’ in a silent hall, mid lecture. I, however, find it harder. And that’s because I struggle with anxiety.
When I first started dealing with them, about 8 months ago now, I thought I was going insane. I didn’t want to tell anyone. I thought this was genuinely the brink of something really bad. Like, really bad. It took an episode where I was in the kitchen and had to run out, my forehead on fire, my hands shaking, certain I was going to stab myself. After the fear of that (which I can confirm was one of the scariest moments of my life) I decided enough was enough. So, I went to a counsellor.
Sat in a chair by a window, looking at the peach stained sky, I avoided eye contact with the counsellor. I looked at my feet, told her, and asked, ‘is it normal?’. Turns out, it is. After telling me a bit about it, she slipped across a sheet of paper about a study done by Bristol Uni students. This sheet was a survey of students a few years back, ranking intrusive thoughts from most to least common. It wasn’t even telling me that a few people deal with them, it was telling me that its a case of which one bothers people the most. There were so many examples. Some people worried about pushing people, some about bridge jumping and others about doing something odd during sex.
So that was the first problem solved. It’s normal. Phew. But, I asked her, again concerned, why do they feel so real to me? She answered me using an anecdote.
'One day you decide you need some new trainers, the next time you leave the house you’ll find that everywhere you look you see nice trainers. Those new trainers, they’re a bit like your anxiety. You expect something bad to happen, so when those intrusive thoughts pop into your head, as they do for most people, you see them so often and so intensely that you expect them to actually happen. Then your body responds with a panic attack. It’s in fight or flight mode. This creates a cycle because your physical panic fuels the mental panic. In turn, this only panics you more that it’s going to happen’.
Again, I was reassured. I understood it more. But one last question plagued me. ‘How do I know I won’t act on them?’ ‘Well’, she said, with what looked like a chuckle on her lips, ‘if you think you’ll win the lottery, doesn’t mean you will, does it?’.
That conversation was pivotal for me. It reassured me like nothing else could. However. it was not some sort of magical cure. There was no poof of smoke and voila, goodbye anxiety, au revoiur intrusive thoughts. I still had to find a way to self manage, so I figured out some tactics. Of course everything is hugely personaL - chances are they may not work for you. Also, it’s hard to entirely separate intrusive thoughts from anxiety or OCD for example. These, however, are just a few tactics that have helped me feel more in control and have very nearly get rid of the worst episodes.
A) REMEMBER - YOU AIN'T THE ONLY ONE. A good mate told me about a podcast with a man who was convinced he would stab his wife. At the end of his counselling, he was told to hold an actual knife to his wife’s neck. Just to show him he WOULD NOT do it. It is just a thought after all. Stuff like this essentially just reminds you it’s common. My flatmates who do Psychology also told me more about it, helping me understand the science of intrusive thoughts. Oh, plus, even Kanye is singing about it now. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUinAyZXZA8)
B) EXERCISE. I know this is a hard one. Trust me, I am no 7am smoothie and do a quick jog lady. Never have been but prepare yourself for a hard to believe cliché running has changed my life. My fit-as-a-flea flatmate (wow, a lot of shoutouts to them) told me about an app called ‘COUCH TO 5K’. It is BRILLIANT. It’s easy. It helps. I’m no athlete but I can run(ish) now. Nothing else helps with my anxiety or intrusive thoughts as much as this. It doesn’t have to be jogging - find what works for you. Play rounders. Have a lot of sex. Anything to get a bit of a sweat on.
C) SELF-CARE. If you’ve watched Queer Eye and/or are obsessed with Jonathon Van Ness you’ll know this is a pillar for healthy well being. Can you believe? This can be anything. Carve times out of the week just to do what you want. Do not plan anything in that time, just arrive to it and think hmm? What do I want to do? Cook. Listen to ambient music. Meet friends. Meditate (my boss and many people I know are huge advocates of this). Have a bath. Put on a face mask (guys that goes out to you too). Pet a dog. Buy a cat. Do what makes YOU happy.
D) KNOW YOURSELF. Know your triggers. For example, I know I especially struggle with travelling. I imagine all types of scenarios where I end up dead (fun, i know). Just prepare yourself for the event and, when you’re ready, face things straight on. Remember they won’t actually happen.
E) BUT…KNOW WHAT TO DO IF YOU DO STRUGGLE. A counsellor suggested imagining a colour and shape for the voice. It helps seperate it from yourself. This works for me but there are other options. Breathe. Sit with a friend. Go somewhere you feel safe. And perhaps most importantly - be open about it.
The reason I write this is because when I was struggling I didn’t even know they were a thing. I diagnosed myself with insanity. The real truth isn’t that I’m not a tad insane, it’s that that everyone has a touch of insanity in them. Regardless, there is ALWAYS more to talk about when it comes to mental health. Humans are complex things; may as well be upfront about it. And for the final time - it is important, it is a thing. After all, when life isn’t going your way or anxiety or any mental health issue is playing up, you can feel a little out of control. This spills into other areas of life, including your faith in your mind’s capability or your own actions. So, give yourself a break. Trust a bit more.
Even now writing this, I slightly hate it. What if people think i’m unsafe, insane, weird, or any number of things. But I know it’s worth it, because even if most people don’t understand, a few people will. As a good friend told me once, you’ve got to be happy with just helping one person sometimes. So, hello, that hypothetical one person, I hope this helped. Just know, you’re as normal as anyone can be. You are safe. You are in control. You’ve got this.
(A FINAL RECAP)
They’re SO common.
Severe intrusive thoughts are not the same as being suicidal/murderous.
You are in control. You will not act on them.
Find a coping strategy that works for you.
A few useful links: