Intrusive Images Caught Me In Their Grip and This is How I Responded

by | Jul 3, 2022 | Anxiety, Dying/Death, Health anxiety, Highly Sensitive Person, Intrusive Thoughts | 30 comments

June 29th, 2022

It’s 4:30am. My alarm is set for 5:00 but my body-psyche always knows when my son is going to fly early and I wake up well before my alarm goes off; it’s that built-in mom alarm that knows almost everything about our children. Everest has been training hard for his private pilot’s license these last few weeks, which requires a certain number of hours flying at night, doing maneuvers, and flying solo.

He’s on the last stretch of his training, and on this warm summer morning he’s scheduled to do a cross-country solo flight, which means that he lands at various airports around Colorado. I always feel nervous when he flies, but I feel particularly nervous because I know he’ll be flying on less than optimal sleep. Hair tousled and golden, he doesn’t look much different than he did as a toddler; his shining essence, his light, is the same. God, I love this human so much and it hurts every time I have to let him go.

I ask if I can make him some scrambled eggs and toast. He says yes. We have a finite numbers of days before he leaves for college – about a year – and I feel an urgency to take every opportunity I can to fill him up with nourishment of every kind.

We meet in the kitchen and talk about this and that as dawn breaks. I furtively check his eyes to see how awake he is, even though he tells me he’s fine. How do I let my 17-year-old son fly an airplane on less than five hours sleep? I let him because I trust him. I trust that he makes good decisions and that if he truly felt he wasn’t awake enough to fly, he wouldn’t. We hug goodbye and I push my dramatic mind out of the way, the one that always wants to tell me stories about goodbyes. You know the ones :).

He texts me when he arrives at the airport, responsible young man that he is. He knows I can track his phone but he likes to stay as connected to us as we do to him. And then there’s nothing left for me to do but try to go back to sleep. I climb into bed, exhausted, full of anxiety, wondering how long it will take me to wind back down into sleep.

And then the images start – those intrusive images that find you in the liminal spaces when defenses are down and fear of loss is high. I haven’t had these kinds of intrusive images while he’s flying in a long time so I’m taken by surprise. And, as you know if you struggle with intrusive thoughts or images, it’s hard not to take them at face value.

Am I having these intrusive images after not having had them for so long because it’s not anxiety at all but a premonition of harm? Is something catastrophic happening at this very moment? Is the plane too hot? Is he feeling faint? Nothing causes me to lay prostrate at fear’s feet more than fear around my children’s well-being.

But I desperately needed to sleep. And I knew there was nothing I could do in that moment. My son was thousands of feet above the earth in a plane by himself and I, his mother, was in a bed in our home. As the intrusive images gathered in power, I had to will myself to turn to my spiritual practices. There was no other way to surrender into sleep and to retrieve my center point.

How to turn anxiety into trust when the fear was so thick my throat was closing and my muscles were vibrating? No sooner had I asked the question then a lighthouse of a thought arrived to bring me back to safe shore: Maybe he’s not alone. It’s true there weren’t any other humans with him, but maybe he wasn’t entirely alone.

And so I called on the ancestors, allies, and protectors that I trust in my bones are with Everest when he flies. I called to my husband‘s deceased father, also an aviation enthusiast, who worked on planes in World War II and with whom Everest shares not only the love of the sky but also his honor, his integrity, his intrinsic spiritual awareness, and his blue eyes.

I called on the birds of prey to whom Everest has always been deeply connected: the eagles and owls with whom he shares his love of flight and his extraordinary vision.

And lastly, I called on Everest own soul, he’s calling and passion which showed up within his first year, and my deep trust in his ability to navigate both the skies and this life with clarity, skill, and precision. Gathering my worries and handing them over to these invisible places allowed my anxiety to settle and my body to drift into sleep.

Do I know for sure that Everest’s grandfather is with him when he flies?

Do I know with certainty that Everest’s totem animal, the owl, is watching over him?

Of course not. But it doesn’t matter. When I direct my mind to these places I am comforted and soothed. If I feed the anxiety and intrusive images I’m a wreck, I can’t sleep, and I’m no use to anyone. But when I remember the turn my fear and worry over to something bigger than myself, my body relaxes and I’m able to let go, not only into sleep but also into the unknown of my son’s life unfolding.

I don’t know of any other way to manage parenthood – or life – with sanity and centeredness than by relying on practices that offer footholds and lighthouses amidst the stormy seas of living with uncertainty and possibility of loss. I rely on my practices daily, especially when it comes to my children, but also when health anxiety or any other form of anxiety creeps in. As I’ve often written, the opposite of doubt and uncertainty is not certainty but trust, and it’s these practices that help us grow a reservoir of trust that we can then dip into during high-intensity moments.

Most of us grew up bereft of meaningful, personal practices that can catch us through life’s tenuousness, and so we cling to the false footholds of intrusive thoughts or compulsions to try to regain a sense of control. But those never, ever work. You probably know that by now. And you’re probably ready to learn a better way – one that connects you to your long lineage of ancestors and to the loving web of life that is always waiting to catch you, if only you knew how to ask in a way that is aligned with who you are.

Remember: Breaking free from anxiety and intrusive thoughts isn’t about getting rid of anxiety and intrusive thoughts; that’s not possible or even desirable. It’s about creating a reservoir of well-being and a storehouse of practices that are readily available to catch you in a web of comfort and redirect you to your stillness and centerpoint so that you don’t have to fall down the rabbit hole every time anxiety shows up.

This is what I teach in Grace Through Uncertainty: A 30-day course to heal worry at the root and become more comfortable with change. I’ll be leading the course live for the fifth round, and it starts this Saturday, July 9th, 2022. I very much look forward to connecting with you there.

***
Below are the dates and times for the Grace Through Uncertainty group coaching calls. Only about 1/4 of participants are able to attend the live calls, but both calls will be recorded, so you will have access to the recordings if you are unable to attend. There is also a very active and closely moderated forum for course members where you will have an opportunity to connect with each other and receive guidance from me and my co-moderator as you work through the material.

Call 1: Tuesday July 12th at 4pm ET
Call 2: Tuesday July 26th at 12:15pm ET

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30 Comments

  1. Oh Sheryl, this is beyond beautiful—your love for your son so palpable, your vulnerability so tender. I cried. Thank you for modeling step by step what self responsibility with your anxiety looks like, what is possible for the next generation when parents parent themselves along with their children so they may know their own wings. I will hold this gift close and return to it again and again.

    To flight—of spirit, heart, soul, owl and Everest.

    Reply
    • Thank you, dear Fireheart. Your words always bring a smile to my soul ❤️🥰.

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      • Such bravery in this post, Sheryl, both from you and your son. And what a beautiful practice to call on ancestors to protect you and your family’s minds and hearts!

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  2. The pride in his expression is so beautiful, Sheryl. ❤️ Thank you for sharing this image and your story. My oldest starts preschool in a month, and while definitely not the same as college, I know the anxiety and grief is waiting for me in that transition. Grace Through Uncertainty was one of my favorite courses of yours – so grounding and exquisitely attuned to the needs of the highly sensitive mind/body/soul. I plan to review it this month on the precipice of this new stage of our family’s life. 🙏

    Reply
    • Walking alongside you as you both traverse this HUGE transition – and in many ways it’s just as big as college! And thank you for seeing the pride in his expression in that first photo. My heart soars every time I see it. Sending you so much love, Cindy ❤️❤️.

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  3. Hi Sheryl — Thanks for this post. It seems like in your case that intrusive thoughts were focused on things that might / could happen in the future. Is the process to address images / thoughts from the past — that have happened but keep coming back — any different, and if so, how?

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  4. I had to stop for a moment at the paragraph about calling on the ancestors—It resonated so deeply. What a beautiful example of letting go and falling into trust. I have a toddler (his favorite animal is also the owl), just lost my grandmother and I find myself using the centering practices you teach daily… I know I will need them for my little one due in August! It sure is humbling to be a human and a parent… thank you for your sharing your experiences with us ❤️ Wishing all the best for your amazing boys!

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    • I’m so glad that part landed for you, Arielle. Keep calling on your ancestors and animals and you will feel their protection, comfort, and guidance. It’s really quite powerful to know that we’re not alone.

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  5. As a alumni for this course I can say with certainty (pun unintended 🙂 that it is amazing. I think of it daily and it supported me through debilitating health anxiety over my children and driving anxiety. I speak Psalm 91 over my children daily as my spiritual practice that aligns with my Christian beliefs along with my strengthening spiritual imagery of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I so appreciated your wisdom in this area even with our own unique tapestries of belief! Thank you for your wisdom in this course, I’m grateful for it daily!

    Reply
    • This is a beautiful update to read, Cassie; thank you for sharing it here. 🙏🏽 The Psalms are such poetic, timeless sources of protection and wisdom, and I’m so glad speaking Psalm 91 has become a daily practice.

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  6. Wow, Sheryl, thank you so much. I cried, too. This feels grounding and centering and so, so human and beautiful. Thank you for being human and sharing yourself so openly. Your experience resonates with experiences of uncertainty I’ve been having recently. The first is that my partner and I are sick while abroad right now, and there have been so many new and special challenges to it and I was in the worst of it and a lot of fear yesterday; yoga and meditation (and cold medicine) helped bring me through. I also keep with me a phrase you taught me: “I trust in the rhythm and wisdom of my body” (from your self trust course). And this post reminded me to keep another friend with me: the rainbow cat that appeared in my dream when I was taking your Grace Through Uncertainty course. 🙂 I remember her sometimes when I’m feeling obsessive thoughts especially when crossing thresholds between rooms, and she is such a playful and joyful and gentle guide into what’s next, or rather, what’s here now.

    The other uncertainty is that my mom recently learned she has a growth that could be cancer. She has a specialist appointment tomorrow to learn more. Your reminders about staying in my practices and loving myself and parenting myself are helpful for this. I tend to over-empathize or at least over-function when my loved ones are sick, and having both my mom and my partner sick, I find myself leaving my body a bit and trying to… take on their lives for them so I can fix them? It’s hard to explain. (Especially since my mom is around the world from me right now.) But point being, it’s really helpful to have the reminder that my job is to love myself and be where I am and parent myself. And yes, I can help and love my loved ones, too, but I need to trust them to live their lives and let them own their process.

    Thanks as always, and with love. 💞

    Reply
    • Jamie: First off, sending you a big hug as you navigate this situation with your mom. What I’m hearing loud and clear is your loving inner parent showing up in spades in so many ways, and I love that you’re calling on the phrases and images to support you. I remember when rainbow cat showed up and I’m so glad you’re still in relationship with her!

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      • Thank you very much for all this, Sheryl!!! 💗 What a cool perspective to have you say my inner parent is showing up — I appreciate that reflection! It helps me celebrate my growth and where I already am right now. 🙂

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    • I am delighted by the image of a rainbow cat! So beautiful and silly (in the best way). Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Wonderful words, thank you. Such beautiful pictures too.

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    • Thank you, Rachel. It was fun to share these photos on the blog. I’ve shared some on Instagram but I know many of my blog readers aren’t on that platform. 💕

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  8. Sheryl, I have an unusual question. I know my partner feels connected to me, but I keep asking myself what draws me to her? For the first few dates I was relaxed and then suddenly my anxious attachment became activated for some reason. My therapist said I may have originally been drawn to familiarity as my partner is similar to my mother in a good way. What does connection feel like? I know 9/10 I see my partner and just know this is the woman I choose to love, is this that connection? Apologies it isn’t related to this thread. I’m saving for the course but don’t know if I go for relationship anxiety, or open your heart.
    Thank you so much I hope to hear from you soon

    Reply
    • Margaret: I have several blog posts on connection. If you type “connection” into the search bar of this site they should show up. As far as which course to take when you’re ready, I highly recommend starting with Break Free From Relationship Anxiety.

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      • Thank you for your response Sheryl. I have looked at the connection posts, sometimes I think I feel connected when we’re making plans. But then how do I know if it is really connection and just something that is? Is it possible that my partner can be connected to me but I don’t know if I am with her? Can connection feel one sided, even if you don’t actually feel anxious?

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  9. Shery another question but brief. After a few dates I began feeling really anxious/nervous around my partner, I still do a little bit but primarily when I intend to be physically intimate (she is not physically intimate at all by nature and does not initiate anything) is this a red flag? Surely this anxiety is the meaning that she is not right for me? I am worried that taking the course will mean I will find out I am with the wrong partner. When I am calm I have thoughts of you don’t love her, but at the same time I know that is the girl I love and the girl that loves me. What is going on? Thank you so much for all you do, I promise this will be the last question 🙄
    Thank you so much

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  10. Hi Sheryl,
    I have been taking your course since April (on & off) & just this past week seriously committed to inner dialogue journaling, labeling the thoughts, as well as re-reading your Wisdom Of Anxiety book and noting the practices encouraged to do so in the book. My resistance (or at least hoping that is the case) is super high, now more than ever I am getting the “break up with him” thoughts. They don’t give me much anxiety anymore, but they do make me feel flat, and numb and indifferent. I had small moments of clarity but they are SUPER TINY moments that get clouded so quickly. Is this fear coming in to stop me from love? Why is it so hard when it had been so easy for 12 years with my husband? Could I have fallen out of love and just simply using RA as an excuse to stay? I no longer have access to the forum, so I am writing here in hopes to receive some positive reinforcement. Thank you.

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  11. Hi Sheryl,
    I’m so looking forward to doing your course. I am wondering if I should apply the same practises when I get intrusive thoughts about my cat suffering or getting hit by a car or lost. I also can get intrusive images of animals suffering and I just
    Don’t know what to do!

    Reply
    • Yes, you can absolutely apply the same practices to any form of worry or intrusive images.

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  12. If you are having intrusive images about your partner what can this mean? What can that mean is off kilter in me?

    I’m also about to purchase the break free from RA course but I’m curious to what exactly the activities are that help? I believe I’ve read it’s yoga and meditation but is this something that would help me feel closer to myself and partner? I’m extremely curious! Many thanks. Josh

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    • Hi Josh. I’ve done the course, and it’s really full of all sorts of deep wisdom and practices. I’d say that 100 percent yes- the work will bring you closer to yourself and your partner. It will most importantly give you more perspective on the roots of anxiety and how to work with anxious thoughts or feelings that come up about your partner- which are usually actually about your partner at the core. Hope that helps!

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      • Correction: anxious thoughts are usually NOT about your partner at the core. In relationship anxiety course you learn to see anxiety as a messenger pointing you back to yourself.

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  13. Hi Sheryl. Just chiming in here to say how grateful I am for you and your work. What an incredible synergy that the ancestors sent you a son who was born to fly, and that would be such a teaching and healing on your own path. I’ve been doing more ancestral connection work myself lately, and it’s truly so powerful. I wonder if you’ve come across the work of Daniel Foor before- I feel it would resonate.

    Reply
    • The ancestral work really is so powerful. I haven’t heard of Daniel Foor but I’ll look him up right now!

      Reply

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