The Gift of Intrusive Thoughts

IMG_4058I like to start every article that I write about anxiety, worry, or intrusive thoughts by saying that I hold a different view than most people about the function of anxiety in that I see it as a gift. I know firsthand how miserable it is to suffer from anxiety, but I also know that when you turn toward the anxiety and view it as a messenger delivering vital information from your inner world that can help you heal and transform your life, you shift from hating the anxiety and trying to make it go away to being able to turn toward it and learn from it. Then, and only then, can the healing begin.

If you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts you’re in a hell-realm of mental agony. A thought arrives, you hook in, and you’re in for the nightmare ride of your lifetime: descending into the underworld of a type of panic that only an intrusive thought can inspire. Whether it’s a typical intrusive thought like, “What if I’m gay?” or “What if I have a terminal illness?” or the less-talked about (but no less common) intrusive thought like, “What if I don’t love my partner?” or “How do I know if we’re a match?”, the thoughts follow the same cycle. When you understand the cycle, you can break out of it more easily, start to put out the fire, and regain control over your mind.

The typical cycle goes like this: An intrusive thought enters: “What if I’m gay?” You feel the spike of panic: your upper stomach doing a flip-flop, the tightness in your throat, a cold shiver. You hook in immediately and try to find answers somewhere: you Google, you talk, you obsess. What differentiates the mental addiction of intrusive thoughts from the more commonly known types of obsessions is that the corresponding compulsion isn’t checking stoves and doorknobs but seeking reassurance. When you indulge in the addiction to seeking reassurance you’re sunk, and you spiral deeper into anxiety. It can then take hours, days, or even weeks to break out of the cycle.

The first and most essential piece of work to heal from intrusive thoughts is to learn to establish a new habit: when a thought enters your mind, you learn to disengage from it. Every time you indulge in the urge to find answers and reassurance, you feed the fire of the thought. You’ve given your ego-mind exactly what it wants: the belief that you can find an answer. There is no answer. Intrusive thoughts ultimately point to unanswerable questions. Sexuality exists on a spectrum. Love isn’t quantifiable. You don’t have a crystal ball that can predict your physical health. The loving inner parent – the part of you that can offer real reassurance and comfort – needs to step in at this point and say something like, “It doesn’t matter. There are no definite answers. I’m moving forward with my choice or my life anyway.”

This will agitate your ego like nothing else and you’ll have to sit in a pool of discomfort. Your ego will demand an answer and use every reason imaginable to convince you that you need to find certainty, when what you’re really needing is focused and loving attention. If you can’t give yourself attention at that moment, you can say something like, “I’ll deal with this later.” This gives your inner self some comfort that you will listen to what it’s trying to say but you can’t listen at that moment because you’re at work or at dinner.

When you have time, you then turn inward, reminding yourself that the thoughts are the symptom that something is needed. Intrusive thoughts point to needs. They’re the inner self’s attempt to get your attention. And with their focus on such alarming topics like health and love, they certainty do your get attention. Again, once they have your attention, the work is to unhook from the thought itself and turn your attention to asking what’s needed.

What is needed?

What’s needed is focused and loving attention to your inner world. Focused attention regulates the nervous system. Intrusive thoughts are the young, scared inner child hung out on the clothesline to dry. If you’re suffering from intrusive thoughts, I can pretty much guarantee that this isn’t the first time you’ve suffered from anxiety or worry. You’ve likely worried since childhood about everything from your parents dying to your health to social and test anxiety. And your overactive worry is a sign that you’re also likely a highly sensitive person, grown up from a highly sensitive child in a world that has no idea how to attend to the exquisite sensitivity of your nervous system. If someone had been able to help you learn how to channel your sensitivity into creativity and spirituality it wouldn’t have morphed into anxiety. Anxiety and intrusive thoughts are sensitivity gone awry. But nobody could attned because, as anxiety and sensitivity are hereditary, you were likely raised by one or two highly sensitive parents who had no idea how to attend to their own inner world in loving ways. If they couldn’t do it for themselves, they couldn’t do it for you, either.

When you turn inward, it’s helpful to direct your attention to general areas that may need your focus. These are the usually four areas:

1. Spiritual Needs

At the core, intrusive thoughts point to the need for certainty. They’re the mind’s attempt to find control in a world that is largely out of our control. The ego believes that if it can just answer this one question, it can relax and it will be able to determine the outcome of an uncertain situation. Sometimes the uncertain situation is a life stage like adolescence, and other times it’s a relationship or a job or just life itself. What everyone who battles with intrusive thoughts well-knows is that when you think you answer one question but you haven’t addressed the underlying need, another question pops up. It’s the whack-a-mole of the mind: whack the mole down the hole and it pops up somewhere else.

If the basic need that underlies all intrusive thoughts is the need for certainty and control, the deepest work includes finding healthy ways to learn how to accept uncertainty. This is no small task, and not something I can outline in a short blog post. In my worldview, the most effective way to develop more comfort with uncertainty is to develop a spiritual practice and healthy rituals that help you connect to the bigger picture and, thus, to sustainable and accessible resources like comfort, wisdom, and love. In this sense, what we commonly call an “OCD-ritual” is a misguided attempt to connect to a universal and primal human need for healthy practices and rituals – like prayer and meditation – that connect us to a higher and loving source and, ultimately, help us let go.

2. Physical Needs

When I work with someone struggling with intrusive thoughts we start from the ground up: the body. Highly sensitive people require a highly attuned physical attention. Because we don’t “roll with the punches” like other people do, you’ll be particularly sensitized to all stimulants: caffeine, sugar, alcohol (not technically a stimulant but it can have a similar effect), and sometimes gluten or grains. You’ll need to start to pay attention to your hormonal regulation (sometimes the anxious cycle is initiated by starting the Pill). And you’ll need to establish healthy and consistent routines around sleep and exercise. Your body is your grounding cord, and if you’re not attending to it in loving ways you’re more likely to disregulate and fall into an anxious spiral.

3. Emotional Needs

It’s likely that your emotional needs weren’t attended to in loving ways as a child. As such, intrusive thoughts can be cover-ups for wells of buried pain and fear that are still living inside of you. As out of control as you feel when you’re stuck in your head, the ego falls into the illusion that it control outcomes and others and, therefore, successfully avoid the murky and unpredictable realm of feelings. Alongside developing a healthy spiritual practice, learning to attend to yourself emotionally allows you to ride the waves of life with greater ease.

4. Intellectual Needs 

There is an aspect of intrusive thoughts that may need to be addressed from an intellectual angle. If you don’t know that sexuality exists on a spectrum, for example, it can provide a soothing balm of context to be able to say to yourself, “I’m mostly straight but it’s okay to feel turned on by women.” If we learned more about sexuality in high school, learning about what’s normal to feel, it’s much less likely that an intrusive thought would take hold in this area. Similarly, if you’re hooked on the intrusive thought, “What if I’m not in love?” and you don’t understand the stages of love and what’s healthy to experience, you won’t be able to bring in the accurate information and comfort that can alleviate at least one aspect of the anxiety.

In order to heal from intrusive thoughts – and by heal I mean addressing the root causes as opposed to taking a band-aid approach that only deals with symptoms – you must turn inward and be willing to learn how to attend to yourself on all levels. This is why intrusive thoughts, like all symptoms of anxiety, are a gift: they’re an invitation to turn inward and ask yourself, “What is needed?” Again, after you’ve addressed the basic intellectual component, if you put any energy into the thought itself you will quickly find yourself tumbling down the rabbit hole. But if you can resist the urge to indulge in the thought and instead ask yourself, “What is needed right now?”, you will start to create a new habit of self-love that will guide you on a path of healing that will ultimately change your life.

I’d like to say here that this is obviously not a quick-fix blog post. I could probably write a book on each of these four areas as they all require real time and dedication in order to change unhealthy habits and learn to meet yourself in loving ways. We’re talking about undoing deeply engrained habits that have developed over a lifetime, so to expect to feel better after a few days or weeks isn’t realistic. Like all paths of self-healing and spiritual growth, it’s the work of a lifetime. Intrusive thoughts are a mis-firing in your brain, and in order to create new neural pathways you will have to commit yourself daily, and even hourly, to breaking the negative habit.

But it’s worth it. You’re worth it. Your body and heart and mind and spirit are worth it. The blessing of intrusive thoughts is that they often become so unbearable that you must seek help and make changes. When you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel, you can only go up. And then it’s time to learn to know yourself and love yourself in the ways you needed to be loved a long, long time ago.

70 comments to The Gift of Intrusive Thoughts

  • Kiyomi

    Always so wonderful. This came at a perfect timing 🙂 Thank you, Sheryl <3 I have progressed greatly because of your help!

  • Anna

    Sheryl,

    I found your website when I started struggling with my relationship anxiety. I recently started medication, but after seeing a therapist – who I brought up your website and she loves it – and reading your blog postings, I am doing better.. Not 100% but reading this most recent blog post made me understand a little more what and how I become a more introspective person and overcome my anxiety.

    Thank you so much.

  • Jane

    Great post Sheryl! I can speak from experience that you CAN only go up from the bottom of the barrel. I thought a year ago that I could never be happy in a relationship due to my anxiety over them. What you said under #1 Spiritual Needs is so right on with what I’ve experienced in the last year or so. There are a lot of factors in my healing journey, but a lot of it has involved learning to accept the uncertainty, extend limitless compassion towards myself, and engage in a nighttime meditation ritual. Education was also a big factor – my idea of relationships before was realllly disconnected from the reality of a healthy and true love. Now that I get this, I don’t get as anxious when my partner and I have times of disconnection or if I feel annoyed with him. I just roll with these twists and turns easier, and recognize and appreciate the journey of the relationship. I can now tell when my heart is shut down, and sit with it, and attend to it, allowing it to shift into openness in it’s own time. I’ve learned SO much over the past year, and I am so grateful. Thank you for all of your writings and for sharing your insight with us. You have been a big help to me in the last year and a half!! 🙂

  • Chrissy

    I know how everyone feels because I feel it to and have since dating this guy for a year. I even had it with my ex and every crush I had. The struggles we go through. And now things are getting more serious and I’m dealing with his over barring family saying we should live close to them instead of three hours away. My I just don’t know what to do anymore and I eventually got fed up with him bringing up already resolved stuff because his mom has his opinions and he agrees with her. I feel as if I’m faring his mom and not him.

  • Alyce

    I just can’t tell you how resonant your posts are! It’s as though all my spiritual work is coming together, the same practice, compassion and messages coming through multiple channels — and you articulate them in unison! Thank you so much! You are a gift.

  • Celeste

    Thank you for this helpful article. I am struggling with wanting “certainty” regarding my daughters drug addiction. Of course, this does not exist. I appreciate your suggestions on how to address this issue.

  • Thanks so much for this post.

    Can I ask something… I’m a male now entering a potential relationship, and as soon as the person expressed their reciprocated interest in me, disaster struck and I felt like my feelings went away immediately. What followed of course was the darkness of doubt, fear, inability to focus on everyday things. I thank God I found this website and I already signed up for the E-course and have started Lesson 1.

    I just have one question – should I share my anxiety problem with my potential new partner, or do I try to deal with it and lean on others beside her? I’m afraid if I try to explain what I’m going through to her, she may just assume I don’t really feel anything and decide on her own to call it quits.

    Others close to me have been giving me the “doubt means don’t” advice, but I’ve chosen to ignore them.

    It’s just I feel almost guilty when interacting with her, because sometimes I feel totally empty of emotion and affection and I feel as though I’m pretending and being dishonest with her. Is this normal?

    Please help me? Should I share with her, or not yet?

    Thanks for listening.

    • Clara

      Thank you for raising this, Amir. Your experience is very familiar to many of us here. I thought I would offer what I can in response.

      I guess there is no definitive answer to your question about whether to involve your potential partner in your struggles – it will depend on the kind of person your partner is, and the state of your relationship at the present time. I, and I know many people who follow Sheryl’s blog, do let our partners know about what we are grappling with – to a point.

      Sharing can be a way of creating greater intimacy and understanding if it is done in the spirit of genuinely taking responsibility for what is ours in a relationship. But it can also be a subtle way of trying to control our partners and avoid doing the work we need to do.

      For me, I always ask myself whether it is for me or for my partner that I am wanting to share this.

      I hope this helps, and wish you and your new partner all the very best.

  • Kitty

    Thank you for taking the time to write such detailed interesting post sheryl. This one I will defenetly be storing in my personal mailbox. I love all your posts but I know certain ones ill defo come back and read again and again. Perhaps even before meditation so I can focus on one particular topic in silence alone. Thanks for reminding us, there is so much in the world that we have no control over, instead of gripping on so tight trying to control anything possible, to slowly learn to accept uncertainty is a gift. Are intrusive thoughts similar to intrusive feelings? Some times I feel drained when socialising, I’m not nessesarily thinking much other than ‘when can I go home’. But sometimes even talking to a friend on the phone for to long can make me feel exhausted and I get the need to withdraw and recharge.
    Thanks again x

  • Sharan

    I love the clarity that comes from your thinking Sheryl – It is simply beautiful and I follow your words with ease and warmth. Much harder for me to “do” in practice but by articulating it so well it gives me hope and faith to keep going and to work with these thoughts.

  • Patricia

    This is just absolutely wonderful! I’m a long time anxiety sufferer (my formal diagnosis is GAD with OCD tendencies) and have had a recent flare as a result of my up coming wedding. Your e-course has been a wonderful help! My anxiety originated almost 10 years ago with intrusive thoughts about illness and I began compulsively Googeling possible diseases I might have. You really hit the nail on the head about the compulsion of needing reassurance. No matter how many time’s you Google what you think might be wrong with you (illnesses, precised problems in your relationship, natural disasters) there is no quelling the anxious and intrusive thoughts. My therapist told me that some times you just have to “sit with” the anxiety, acknowledge it’s presence, take it for what it is and then allow yourself to move on from it. I’ve also learned that the internet is probably the last place anyone should turn when they are experience anxiety. Google is great for finding out where the closest sushi restaurant is, but it’s horrible for answer the question “what does this tingle in my hand mean.”

  • gina

    I love this one! These articles always make me so happy when I get them in my inbox, thank you (:

  • Rachel

    I thank God I found your work – thank you.

  • Jen

    once again,your thoughtful,well-written articles comfort me and encourage my ongoing growth,one day at a time and even hourly,as you say.Attunement to my body is still so new and yet,the key to feeling grounded.Once I’ve started having experiences of truly feeling grounded,I’ve wanted more and more.Anxiety might be a gift,but the greater gift for me is the groundedness and peace that is the end result of attending the anxiety with “what is needed”

    Thanks,

    Jen

  • Light At The End

    One of the biggest gifts in my life, was arriving at your virtual doorstep, entering in, and being fed the best advice I have ever been given. For SO long, I was lost, thinking that I was odd, different, WAY more sensitive than others. I get such strength, knowledge and SO much understanding from your courses, blogs and messages. Although for a long time, I willed my anxiety away…I am now convinced that it was there as a messanger, a way to make a change. It was there to STOP me projecting on others, to focus on my irritation, to shine a mirror on me and just ask myself ‘WHY. I can never thank you enough – and will always be here too xx

    • Thank you for your comment. You are all a gift to me as well. It’s through listening closely to my clients and course members – who trust me enough to share their innermost worlds with me – that I’m able to make more sense of the kaleidoscopic landscape of the inner world and write it back for you.

  • Denise

    Thank-you! I often read your blogs, many have helped. This one makes me feel understood-I don’t feel like such a EMO. I am very sensitive and so are my parents. I see how I avoid my feelings by doing what they have done. Your comment on how OCD for intrusive thoughts and the need for reassurance was the ritual made me feel like hearing someone finally really knows my anxious mind and can give me an explanation as to why. I have been doing this for so long-its really one of my first memories. At say 3 I was worrying I may forget things that happened; so going over and over in my head everything I could remember as far back as I could before the age of three. And then obsessing on things looking for reassurance. One of them was -Who do I love more? Mom or Dad? Now it’s -Do I really love my husband? I see most of this as a distraction to living my life and it gets me stuck in ruts where I don’t do anything until I figure it all out. Often I am scared I will not heal quickly enough to have a loving relationship with my husband and myself in time to have children. Whom I want to have to share love with- not to fill me up. I don’t even want to entertain the idea further until I am more emotionally stable with my anxiety. I will quell the fear by telling myself, I can always adopt. I am saving this article and printing it out to put on my wall to read and reread. Thank you again for it, you are an angel sent to help us understand and heal our anxiety.

  • This is wonderful, as always. But so insightful about a topic that is so misunderstood. The OCD with reassurance as the compulsion. I am so relieved to not be the only one! My intrusive thought is usually about fearing intrusive thoughts and being stuck in fear. So I am calm and then I search for the fear-is it here? Will it come and ruin this moment-OH there it is. Thanks you for this article that I will re-read again and again.

  • Sue

    Sheryl,
    I’ve been working with a music therapist to work through anxiety, which of course, reared its ugly head yet again when I started perimenopause.
    I can relate the anxiety to traumatic experiences from my childhood and that has changed the way I handle and view anxiety. But, your blog post has helped me a lot today.
    Indeed, “what do I need at this time?”. An easy question for me to remember when I freeze in anxiety.
    Thank you so much for blogging. All of your blog posts help me.
    God bless you,
    Sue

    • It’s essential to create a habit of asking, “What do I need?” Needs were often pushed aside for many babies and kids and we learned early in life that our needs don’t matter. When you pay attention to needs, you’re tuning in and loving yourself at the core.

  • Eve

    Thank you Sheryl for always being there when I need advice. I always feel happy receiving your emails. Do you have a book written on Intrusive Thoughts or any books you could recommend me to read as it is a daily struggle to push aside these thoughts and be positive.

  • Clara

    Sheryl, thank you for the clarity, brilliance and wisdom of this post. It is truly inspired I think. Despite all the work I have done with you and others over the years, I still lose touch with the truth about my intrusive thoughts, and benefit so greatly from reminders – such as your weekly posts. I feel a swell of gratitude that I live in an age and in circumstances that enable me to connect with the wisdom of truth sayers from across the oceans. This wisdom has supported my growth in so many ways. I could never found my way out of the woods alone. I also honour what you say about the importance of putting insight into action. That is the growing edge for me at the moment.

    • “I also honour what you say about the importance of putting insight into action. That is the growing edge for me at the moment.” I think it’s always a work-in-progress, Clara, for everyone.

  • Erika

    Sheryl,

    This article is SO helpful, after reading through it, I was able to identify that my intrusive thoughts are more than likely symptoms of me needing to pay attention to my emotional and spiritual sides and deal with some old emotions from the past. I most definitely partake in the OCD reassurance rituals both online and from family, so it was nice to hear a name for the awful feelings of compulsion I experience in the name of trying to “answer” what I feel, why I’m thinking what I am, etc.

    I struggle with very intense feelings of guilt that go along with my intrusive thoughts, sometimes from the thoughts themselves and sometimes just from having a thought at all, or worrying about when the next thought will hit. Does anyone have any suggestions about how to deal with the guilt from intrusive thoughts/feelings (or Sheryl, any thoughts??) about how to calm the anxiety from the guilt, ground myself, etc.? Reminding myself that what I’m feeling is a cause of my anxiety usually helps me but not always. Or is this hope for reassurance just part of the OCD ritual you described in the article above?? Ah, the cycle spins on! Has anyone had a similar experience?? Thanks in advance.

    • Ben

      Hi Erika,

      What helps me get through the guilt is to read responses like yours, because they make me feel not so alone. To know that others have the crippling doubts and intrusive thoughts that I do, and to hear the passionate pleas to get rid of them, assures me of something: that the reason you feel guilt at all is because you are — or truly are trying to be — a good person. I believe, like Sheryl said, that overly sensitive people are much more likely to have these thoughts, because they are the ones who care the most about hurting people. Caring leads to obsession.

      And yes, the search for this kind of reassurance and anxiety over the guilt itself IS a vicious cycle. But YOU get to choose where to end it. Like someone above said, sit with your fears for a minute, and just breathe. Realize that the guilt itself is the enemy. Realize that it’s okay to feel guilt for fears you cannot control, and the cycle will end there. From there, it’s all about getting stronger with baby steps.

      You are not alone. You’re going to be okay. You’re a good person.

  • sarah

    As I was reading this I was reminded of a car issue I had last week. Driving for work, I heard this really strange, unhealthy clinking sound coming from under my car. It’s so easy for me to dismiss things like this, (which is potentially dangerous) living in denial or in hopes of it fixing itself (and just like that can’t happen with a car, it can’t really happen in our brains, either; something needs to change for healing to occur). So, I forced myself to pull over to check things out, and after not seeing anything, kept going. But I still heard the noise, so I canceled my last client to take my car in. I’m so glad I did – it was a quick, cheap fix, only because I caught it early. He said if I hadn’t brought it in something could’ve broken and it could’ve cost me $300-$400.

    So, I was thinking how this is just so similar to intrusive thoughts. They need attention before they potentially (likely) turn into something much worse. Getting to them at the onset can prevent much future work. Thanks for this reminder as I learn more and more to decipher psyche’s messages.

    • Great analogy, Sarah. Car is the symbol of the Self in dreams, so if something is breaking down in our cars during our nighttime adventures it’s time to pay attention :). Good to care for our daytime cars as well!

  • Kim

    So, so perfect. I’m so glad that we have you Sheryl to point out the fact that being as HSP is not a hindrance but a blessing. I’m a little sad that I’m learning all of these things about myself a later in life than I would have hoped but it helps make sense of so many things that have occurred in my life – I can point to exact situations and say ‘now I know why I reacted/felt that way when that happened’. It’s no fault of my parents, they did the best they could. I’m SO grateful to have this knowledge however for when I raise children. Even if they are the most sensitive individual ever I will nurture their creative abilities and teach them what a gift it is to be who they are 🙂

    • Nothing makes me happier than to read these words: “I’m SO grateful to have this knowledge however for when I raise children. Even if they are the most sensitive individual ever I will nurture their creative abilities and teach them what a gift it is to be who they are.”

  • Rhodora

    I live in the Philippines where culture is different from the West. Still I find your thoughts useful. Provides me illumination of why I have anxiety attacks. Indeed your a gift to worrid women.

  • Gena

    This was amazingly insightful. Thank you so much. I’ll be reading it and absorbing it again and again.

  • Bea

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you so much for these amazing posts that always, always come at the right time for me. I am currently going through some of the worst anxiety of my entire life, and I can’t eat, have not slept properly in a very long time, and am not able to go for long without the physical effects of anxiety which have left me feeling so exhausted I’m almost unable to move. My partner and I got married three months ago, and I struggled with engagement anxiety that was greatly relieved by doing your ecourse. We just returned from our honeymoon which was really wonderful and I hardly felt anxious once during the whole 4 week trip. Since we got back I have spiralled into some of the worst anxiety I have ever felt. The pain feels like it is endless, and I can’t shake the fact that I have been ‘ignoring’ some greater truth about our relationship, that we are not well matched, that I am supposed to be either alone, or with someone else and that I’m obviously just afraid to leave him even though that is what I should be doing.

    I felt so much better when I read both this post, and also the recent ‘what if I’m only with my partner because….’ post. I get great relief from separating myself from these intrusive thoughts, it is only then when I can find some peace. This post in particular completely sums me up, in every possible way. I even read some of it to my partner and he agreed it sounded very connected with my journey and who I am.

    The thing I am struggling with so much at the moment is that my partner and I are very different in a lot of ways. Although I (think) I know this is ok, learning more about myself and my sensitivity and therefore my needs compounds these differences. Partly the issue is that I have spent my life seeking reassurance and validation that I didn’t get as a child/teenager, and so of course I am always seeking this from my partner. I have not learned to give this to myself, hence the anxiety. I guess if I could give this stuff to myself, then I wouldn’t feel so awful all the time.

    My partner is kind and loving, he wants me to be happy and he does everything he can to try and support me to become happy. One of his greatest traits is his complete lack of judgment towards others, and so he does truly accept me as I am no matter what, without all the things I want to ‘add’ to myself to ‘fix myself’ like having a more successful career, being more perfect in all sorts of external ways etc. I know he loves who I am. But things get murky for me when I start to think about what my ‘needs’ are in a relationship and whether he meets those needs. The combination of the fact that we are different, and the fact that I haven’t yet learned to give myself what I need complicate this area enormously for me. Sometimes I feel like he doesn’t ‘get’ my sensitivity, and responds to me too abruptly or wants to solve the practical problem at hand for me when I just want someone to listen to me with empathy for how I’m feeling. I also feel a disconnect when I think about the spiritual things – neither of us are religious, but I feel a connection with something bigger, or at least with the universe and the earth around me and I like things like meditation and yoga to connect with that feeling. He isn’t so much that way inclined, although I must admit since we’ve been together he says he has learned from me that spirituality can mean things like a sense of awe and wonder in your experience of the world and people around you, and he says he feels that. He says he also defines spirituality as a sense of being happy inside and moving forwards in your life in a positive way, and trying to always deal with the people around you in a positive way. If I do look at the bigger picture, I can translate this into him saying he believes spirituality is peace within. Which isn’t as much of a disconnect. But, when I say I want him to start a meditation practice as i am trying to start a regular one, he says he doesn’t think its for him. As soon as I get that response from him, the anxiety spiral starts again. We must be too different, he doesn’t understand me and my needs, I should break up with him, its all been a huge mistake, I’ve obviously only stayed with him up until this point because I’m scared to leave and scared to be alone, but thats what I’m supposed to do, be alone….. and it keeps going until I’m so insanely filled with terror, sadness and grief that I can’t breathe, and all I can do is cry and cry and cry about the fact that I’m going to lose him.

    So what I’m saying is that although I get such relief from these wonderful posts and I find temporary peace in accepting uncertainty and trying to disengage with my intrusive thoughts, perhaps I don’t know the difference between a disappointing response from my partner and an indication of my needs not being met in a relationship. When I hear people say things like ‘he just gets me’ and ‘non-negotiable needs being met’ that spikes my anxiety hugely because perhaps in a way I don’t know what that means, and I start to think my partner must not get me, and maybe my needs aren’t being met. I have never felt seen or understood my whole life, except for perhaps by my sister and by only two close female friends. The biggest issue was with my mum who would reject me and withdraw her love completely when I did or said things she didn’t like. She did it to me just recently so its still going on. Part of me thinks (knows) that I will never feel my needs are being met until I can meet them myself, and I will never feel understood until I can accept and love myself. When I think about that, my anxiety reduces because I think, maybe its ok that my partner and I are different, and maybe its ok that he doesn’t always give me the response that I want. I know he loves me and I feel safe and happy with him when I’m not anxious. But this feeling doesn’t last. Can anyone offer any help or insight for me?

    • Patricia

      Hi Bea,

      I just wanted to drop you a quick note to let you know that I totally understand how you feel and have been through the same thing myself. It sounds like you’re really struggling at the moment and your anxiety is spiraling out of control a little bit. Just remember, like all things, this anxiety WILL pass. As a long time anxiety sufferer, I know exactly how you feel and it’s difficult, but stay strong. If you aren’t already, you might consider talking with a therapist about your anxiety. My therapist and I have identified my “tendencies to obsess” and he challenges me to acknowledge when I’m doing that, allow myself to sit with the emotions, and then move on. Which, trust me, is much easier said than done. I used to obsess about my health and the health of my loved ones. Now I obsess about my fiance and whether or not things “feel right.” When I’m in those moments, I make a conscience effort to label the feelings as anxiety, feel the anxiety and sit with it, and then put it back on it’s shelf and move on. My compulsion is seeking re-assurance from the cold, unforgiving internet. When I feel anxiety creep up, I put down the tablet/laptop/smart phone, let the feelings sit there for a minute or two and then pick up the knitting needles/book/walking shoes and physically move on from the anxiety.

      Growing up my family life was not the best. My mother is severely bipolar so I would control or conceal my emotions in an effort to control and neutralize her bipolar episodes. As a result, when others show strong emotions (anger, sadness, fear) or even subtle changes in emotion (a slight annoyance, even being tired or quite) I automatically go into “control and neutralize mode” and try to fix the problem and make everyone happy.

      Anyway, that’s a bit about me and probably more than you wanted to hear. But just know you’re not alone, you’re a strong person and you’ll be ok. Best of luck to you!

  • Bea

    One correction to this post, my first paragraph says I can’t shake the ‘fact’ that I’ve been ignoring some greater truth about our relationship, I meant I can’t shake the ‘thought’ but this just shows how stuck I am in my thoughts right now….

  • Lisa

    Amen Sheryl! You have totally crystallized what that anxious spiral is all about from origination of thought to indulging it until it takes on a robust and vital life of its own. I think the greatest gem I got from this is that seeking reassurance is the addiction…and that is such a subtle thing to realize when the worry seems completely legitimate. The idea that the reassurance needs to come from within in the form of ME attending to a buried need is so helpful…really need that reminder. Thank you!

  • Michelle

    “What is needed? What do I need” I find this has been presenting itself more and more these days. Sometimes when I am really overwhelmed or stuck in anxiety or anxious thoughts I find it so frustrating that I can’t seem to take basic care of myself. That a lot of the time I just don’t know what I need. This door has been opened now though and I am so grateful for what I have learned and the support I have received through your work. I read my high school journal just yesterday morning and I dropped my jaw at the torture going on in my head. I knew it was always there but it was just so apparent when I read it and I kind of forgot. Even around my relationship then (and I am still with the same parter) – the projections, the fears, the doubt and then in the same paragraph describing how great he is and that I shouldn’t be feeling the way I do but then not knowing what to do with it all, not knowing what to trust. I am finally accepting that okay the anxiety, the thoughts, some obsessions, are a messenger and this process is a gift. I have not just sat in the pool of discomfort and pain but have felt like I am drownding in it. Reaching for external things (like reassurance!) are not carrying me along anymore and I have to turn inward. I attended a spirituality workshop this weekend and exploring and attending to this need has been such a blessing for me through this journey (when I am not anxious and disconnected of course). And other then finding certainty I still get stuck trying to come up with the RIGHT answer or solution. Thanks a bunch 🙂

  • CaroleRae

    Your article “The Gift of Intrusive Thoughts” was my answer straight from God. Now that I am in my ‘golden years’ I have been having anxiety, worries and regrets. Sometimes, I have a bad feeling that follows me for days. I wondered if this feeling, along with the negative thoughts, are meant for me to grow spiritually. I then concluded that it’s ok to feel bad from time to time… in the same way a physical ailment hurts, then heals with proper care and time.
    I talked with God about my thoughts to make sure my instincts were correct… then I saw your article. Thank you for being His messenger for me.

  • Erika

    Sheryl,

    Would you ever consider doing a blog post about other “ocd rituals” related to relationship anxiety and their origin? While I’ve just started the e-course (I’m on lesson 2 and am very excited about learning more about myself) and know I have a lot more inner work to do, I’ve been wondering if some possible “ocd tendencies” have been keeping me from going deeper and really sitting with my feelings and giving them room to breathe. I have always struggled with uncertainty, but it seems to have gotten severly out of control.

    Also, I thought of an interesting analogy for intrusive thoughts the other day (or just anxiety in general): they are exactly like a bad case of poison ivy! Think about it – you get poison ivy on your arm, leg wherever (I had it all over my body once, THAT was horrendous). In most cases, you probably don’t know which bush or plant you contracted it from and you could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out which leaf was the culprit. Either way it’s there and it’s itchy, bothersome, painful even (mine was) and you don’t know how long it plans to stay. When you’re not scratching insistently at it (aka. when you’re not ruminating on your intrusive thoughts or trying to figure out exactly whay they mean or where they come from), you may experience a couple minutes of blissful unawareness. Then you feel the itch again (the thought) and you’re back to scratching again, prolonging the healing cycle and spreading the poison (intrusive thoughts). Sure, topical itch cream (medication) works, but only if you have the resolve to leave the poison alone and don’t scratch. It turns out, my poison ivy got so bad, because of problems with my immune system and it ended up being a sign that I needed to start taking better care of myself -more sleep, better eating, working too much, etc. So, we need to stop “itching” and agitating our intrusive thoughts while working on figuring out what’s really going on inside! Hopefully I didn’t confuse anyone!

    This website has already saved me from myself – a month ago I was ready to run away from the best relationship I’ve ever had and couldn’t figure out a legitimate reason as to why I’d want to do it – besides FEAR in multiple forms, intrusive thoughts mostly. I now have the determination to get through my anxiety and am starting to gather the tools I need to do just that.

  • Ben

    Sheryl, thank you so much for your insight. I recently lost the person who meant the most to me because of my intrusive thoughts and the way I handled them. The best advice she gave me was to never forget that the voice feeding my fears was my enemy. Thank you for pointing out that while the voice of fear is the wrong one, I cannot simply ignore it, because it’s there for a reason. That doesn’t mean that the doubt SHOULD be there, just that I need to be a detective and understand what’s making me feel that way. Thank you. I have enjoyed reading your posts, and will continue while I go down the long road to making my mind healthy and being a better man.

  • Courtney

    Wow you hit how I feel and have felt perfectly! I knew others suffered from anxiety but not in the exact same way as me! Thank you. I needed this. I have enjoyed reading about your articles on highly sensitive people as well, as I just found out that was a thing and that I am one. 🙂
    Much love!

  • Marissa

    Thank you for this rich and layered post. My husband I have been trying to conceive for well over a year without success, and I struggle with staving off the “if it’s not happening now, it may not ever happen” thoughts, which render me gut-wrenched and feeling utterly powerless, which I am not! I discovered your work when I was experiencing a tremendous amount of anxiety leading up to my wedding two summers ago. The intermittent anxiety that I am currently experiencing is connected to a very tangible fear of an unknown result or outcome, and it feels excruciating at times; it takes a incredible amount of work to not attach to the fear narrative that manifests all of the possible responses to the ‘what ifs”. Mostly, “what if we can’t have a baby?” I don’t want to go down that road, especially since the doctors have told us that this is not at all a consideration in their minds! We just apparently cannot controls when we get to bring new life into the world together, which is frustrating! I take solace in the fact that I have 100% certainty about my marriage, and therefore navigating this scary place of being fertility-challenged with my husband gives me some relief, because I am not alone. This post came at a great time to remind me that I need not ignore my fears, because the anxiety that is surrounding them is very, very real, yet perhaps even more difficult than the fears associated with cultivating deep intimacy and trust in my relationship with my husband, who is the most awesome human being that I have ever known 🙂

  • Searching

    As usual Sheryl, this is just beautiful and resonates so much with me. I shared my experiences of anxiety with my Father a few weeks ago and he shared some of his with me. I had NO idea he has suffered in similar ways in the past- this stuff really is passed down. However I hope to be able to attend to any future children I have armed with this knowledge, thank you so much as always,

    Searching

  • katy

    hi sheryl
    i was just thinking this morning about how i wanted to go back onto the forum and share my experience of healing on a profound level having found your work in the midst of engagement anxiety and developing a daily mindfulness practice. In connecting with my inner world i have had the opportunity to shed layers upon layers of unshed grief and i am so grateful to you for my happiness and healing !
    this post speaks to me on every level.

    thankyou 🙂

    • Thank you, Katy. Yes, please do share your update on the forum as I know it’s the kind of post that offers a lifeline to those wading through the trenches of relationship anxiety.

  • ML

    Hi Sheryl,
    Thank you for this post. I was wondering if you feel that turning to these posts for reassurance is a bit like feeding and fuelling the intrusive thoughts?
    Secondly,what if you can-t figure out what needs need to be addressed. I’ve done a lot of meditation but still fall into the trap of climbing up, and believing the tangled web of thoughts.
    Thank you

  • KD

    Me thinks this is another one of those bookmarked posts that I come back to again and again. Clear, loving reminders here. Thank you!

  • gwen

    This post is amazing, I have had a few sessions of counselling and this pretty much sums it all up in one post, but like you say it obviously takes alot more work than that. I recently went too my doctor, as I was and am 100pc sure I have pure OCD. I wanted a label to feel better about who i am, I almost thought if i got a diagnosis I would have recognition and I would feel better, unfortunately he hadnt even ever heard of pure O and I left his office feeling worse than before I went, but it really was a moment of realisation for me that everything i feel is just needing the control and certainty that is unattainable in this lifetime, everything i fear is lack of control and loss of love. you are so right that it is emotional intelligence that is not learned as a child so its hard to process it as an adult, i just try to remind myself when i feel overwhelmed and anxious about things that its fear trying to protect me because that is the only way i know how, I think by going down the fear path im protection myself but really its taking away from me. I have found new ways to relate to that anxiety and i feel so much better just calling it out for what it is, and not feeling like i have too entertain it, or find solutions or answers which is what i was really stuck on, that is exactly what the anxiety wants you to think that you can find that answer then u will be okay and safe, i have realised that there is no real safety and its a hard pill to swallow when you have two most beautiful children and a loving husband and you know you can’t control the world around them, even though you wish you could, but its a small price to pay for knowing love and for not having to be lonely. we are all very lucky.

  • Angela

    Dear Beautiful Sheryl,
    Beautifully written.. I agree with every word you said. I have come along way since I found you the best day of my life.
    Words are so powerful to our mind.. If there negative intrusive thoughts and give it the attention that it wants then we r in trouble. If there positive thoughts we for some reason don’t allow ourselves to believe we deserve to feel happy.. It’s harder to love ourselves because we believe it’s not normal it’s crazy but true. Do I make sense Sheryl?

  • M

    Sheryl, I keep coming back to this blog which has sent my head spinning! I was accepting the fact that I had anxiety but then to see it discussed as OCD…well that’s a whole new kettle of fish! (I understand OCD is a form of anxiety, I just consider it to be a little more extreme than ‘simple’ anxiety…) There are so many layers to this fear, one of which is fear of the fear itself and its potential longevity – so to have it referred to as a obsessive compulsive disorder just sends the mind out of control. I guess its just flared up a part of the issue which I thought I had under wraps. Perhaps not!

    • I don’t actually see it as “OCD”- as that indicates a disorder – but I sometimes use that term as it’s commonly understood. Obsessive thoughts are a sign of the sensitive soul gone awry. In other words, if you’re prone to what we call “OCD” it means that you’re a highly sensitive, caring, beautiful person. There’s nothing “disordered” about you.

  • Lara

    Dear Sheryl. Yesterday I found your articles and it was such a relief. I am in a wonderful relationship with a caring, intelligent, thoughtful and open minded man since the beginning of this year. And while I know I am prone to anxiety (GAD/Panic Disorder since I was about 9) the feelings that started to rise even at the beginning of the relationship planted doubts in me that could easily have worn down the beautiful thing we have. I am now stronger in my believe that the anxiety issues I carry won’t be taken away by “the one” as I started to figure out earlier. In my fearless moments, I experience an almost dizzy joy only thinking about him (he’s currently away on vacation). I still have some anxiety about whether I will always be able to choose nourishing the garden of love (like I really, really want to) but I think that the core connection we apparantly have (otherwise I wouldn’t have found my way to your words and insights of relief) is a reliable starting spot. Probably it is still some fear of loss, as I couldn’t sleep for two nights before he left, imagining him with other women, and numbing myself in the process. I am very sad that there are so few people doing good work like you do over here in Germany or Europe in general and I really hope the stigma attached to those issues will soon be lost.
    With gratitude and respect,
    Lara.

  • Madison

    Do you have any articles on dealing with your significant other’s past? As a grown women, I feel as though I shouldn’t obsess over my boyfriend having a romantic past, as I do as well. Despite this, I find myself worrying that if I think of his past too much that we’ll grow apart, and intrusive thoughts like “what if I just can’t be with someone with a past like his?” As the past is vital to the present, I know in the longrun it is good he has one, as it makes him who he is. Nevertheless, I still find myself feeling sick to the stomach whenever an ex of his pops into my head; a gross, threatening feeling I ache to rid myself of.
    If you don’t have any blog posts that relate to this, I’d love to hear your viewers’ thoughts on my dilemma. Thank you!

  • MMwisl

    This post just helped me so much! Thank you!!!!
    I am so relieved and it helps me so much that there are others too.

  • Rachel

    I’ve been following your posts for about a year now. This one (amongst many others) really spoke out to me. I also love the section about spirituality and uncertainty. Thank you Sheryl Gd bless.

  • Doing better 🙂 thank you
    Got past the intrusive thoughts but one thing still gets me is that when I’m around my partner , I feel normal, comfortable like I can be myself but I don’t feel very joyful or very warm and full of love or sweetness I just feel normal like I’m myself and relaxed nothing too special but I also don’t feel like I don’t want him around or I shouldn’t be there or out of place , we do have good days together , they are very nice and we have fun / laugh together … Is this normal for relationships , like a fase , am I still hung up on Hollywood love? , because I do sometimes realize that I’m longing for the 100% bubbly feelings

    • And sometimes I feel bad saying I love you back to him because I just feel normal saying it and I don’t feel that explosion of emotions / feelings or the bubbles of joy coming from my heart when I say it , and it starts to make me feel more disconnected . Is this’ all normal ??? Because I know I do still want to be with him and want him in my life even tho I’m not always 100% as too why , I know I just do want it to work
      I’m just curious if this is a normal part of the relationship cycle