I 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.