This is How to Take an Intrusive Thought and Spin It Into Gold

by | Jun 6, 2021 | Anxiety, Dying/Death, Highly Sensitive Person, HSP, Intrusive Thoughts | 27 comments

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, our son was recently away on a canoe trip for eleven days. Throughout his trip, my anxious mind sent me several worst case scenarios and I had to work with all of them. These days, “working with anxiety” means that I catch the catastrophic headline scenario quickly, gather it up, hold it close, and, like a Harry Potter witch, cast the spell that will reveal what lives at its core: raw vulnerability, uncertainty, and, most of all, the heartache of missing somebody I love. Once properly named (for a mind “demon” need to be called by its true name before it can be transformed), I either soften into grief and let tears prick my eyes or send the worry along the channels of trust. The entire process takes less than a minute.

I can do this quickly because the “spells” – or spiritual practices – that both allow me to name the intrusive thought or image as protector and messenger then drop into the heart and remind me to let go of the illusion of control and instead rest into the great arms of trust are firmly in place.

I’ll share an example:

One morning while our son was away, I woke up from a nightmare about him and I had to harness all of the tools that I teach every day not to take the dream literally. I reminded myself that this was my dream, not his, and when I explored it through the lens that it was showing me a place inside myself that needed attention, the charge and the temptation to take the dream at face value faded away. From there, I could soften into an early place of pain around social anxiety, which allowed me to individuate from my son in that moment so that I didn’t overlay my pain onto his experience. And from there, I could tap back into the bigger mind of knowing that, even if he was struggling socially, he was also okay, meaning he would find the resources to move through it.

In times past, I might have taken the dream at face value and spent the entire day ruminating. While I did feel the tendrils of worry prick my soul throughout the day – after all, the dream was quite poignant and it left a visceral feeling of worry in my gut – for the most part I was able to drop into the core of the dream, like the core of an intrusive thought, and bring a layer of healing to my young, socially scared self who was needing attention while also tapping into the bigger layer of trust.

The work is the same for all intrusive thoughts, whether they’re focused on health anxiety, relationship anxiety, money anxiety, parenting anxiety: to name the defense at the core so that you can gather the gold of both your heart softened by the grief and the deep-breath-inhale-and-exhale-place-of-peace that happens when we can transmute the habit of anxiety, which believes that if it worries or ruminates enough it can prevent bad things from happening, into trust. This is how to find the gold at the center of anxiety.

Grief and trust are manageable; anxiety is not.

Grief and trust are spacious; anxiety is tight.

Grief and trust are direct pathways to joy; feeding anxiety only leads to more anxiety.

Central to working with anxiety and intrusive thoughts effectively is having reliable, personal, and meaningful practices that help you let go of illusions of control and arrive at deeper trust.

Without guarantee, without certainty of my son’s well-being, I reached for my practices, and because these are practices that I, yes, practice daily, they reached back for me. As I teach in Grace Through Uncertainty, we commit to regular practices not only because they offer a daily, consistent, and accessible way to fill the inner well of Self, but also because in times of greater uncertainty, they will be one of the tethers that ground us, one of the limbs of the tree that attaches us to something greater that we might call trust or faith.

Without this relationship with the invisible realm, we’re like a leaf in the wind, floating where the breeze of time and change and transitions and the risk of loving takes us in any given moment. So while we can’t control outcomes – there’s nothing I could do to make sure that my son would be safe or happy for those eleven days (or ever) – I can control how I respond to this inescapable reality of life: that loving deeply, that exposing ourselves to risk in any way – whether though relationships or work or friendship – means opening ourselves to the possibility of loss and sometimes failure.

We must all find our own roadmaps back to Self and our own practices that connect us to something bigger than ourselves. For some people, that might mean a traditional religious devotional practice of following the prayers, rituals, readings, and customs of their lineage. For many others these days for whom religion isn’t a fit, a spiritual practice may come through creativity, connection to nature, working with dreams, meditation, through their own innovative prayer practice, or a hundred other ways.

As Rumi writes, “There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” by which I think he means that there are infinite ways to express devotion, to touch into the place where earth meets heaven, where the body meets the spirit, and in those intersections discover that we’re held in the place where it’s all okay.

Grace Through Uncertainty is a roadmap that will help you discover the personal, meaningful, and doable practices that will help you heal one of the root causes of anxiety: our need for certainty. When we learn how to let go of the fruitless ways that we try to control – ruminating, obsessing, compulsing, worrying, Googling  – and instead commit to practices that will help us rest in the true place of okay-ness, we find the anchors and ground that help us navigate this uncertain life with more ease. It’s through these practices that we learn how to spin an intrusive thought into gold.

The next round starts on Saturday June 19th, 2021, and I look forward to meeting you there.


  1. Hi Sheryl,
    I took your class Grace with Uncertainty through emails during Covid and have a session with you in a few weeks. I’d like to take the course live with you as well. I have a family commitment on the 19 th. How does the live work? What are the days, hours, and cost?

    • Hi Michelle: My assistant Kathryn will be sending out an email to everyone who took the self-paced version since the last live round and inviting you to enroll in the live version. Looking forward to connecting in a few weeks. 😊.

  2. “Send your worries along the channels of trust” <3 thank you for this and for this article. I found out last week that I’m pregnant. Ever since, I’ve been unable to stop ruminating in fear over some unhealthy choices that I made prior to finding out and it has been killing me. Counting the days until your anxiety course starts up in September.

    • That’s very common, Lauren. I’ll look forward to connecting on the 9-month course.

  3. I look forward to connecting with you there.

  4. I did this course last year, and boy did it change my life. I couldn’t recommend it enough!

    • That was such a special group last summer. Thank you for sharing your experience here!

  5. I recently realized I have been thirsting for a spiritual practice for my non-religious self… wondering if such a thing exists for an atheist. Your email hit home and offered me hope, and I signed up. I’m looking forward to learning.

    • I’m so glad you’ll be there. 💕

    • Hi Jennifer 😊 I don’t know if you would be interested in it but many Buddhist teachings/philosophies are very non-secular, in fact I have heard Buddhism being jokingly described as the ideal religion for Atheists 😁 I myself am a lapsed Catholic but I love books/podcasts by Pema Chodron, Tara Brach and also the Ten Percent Happier podcast which largely focuses on Buddhist meditation.

  6. Hi Sheryl, I have read your website and your book. I have had anxiety since childhood: separation anxiety, intrusive thoughts about sexuality around 18, health anxiety and now I am 35, I have had rocd for 3 years and I have been with my partner for 13 years. The more I look for the cause of the anxiety the more I ruminate and feel bad. I’ve lost the connection with my partner and I’m afraid to spend time with him (go to restaurants, talk, go on holiday). His presence is enough to make me feel anxious. I’m lost because I don’t want to lose my relationship and I don’t understand why my anxiety has been projected onto him. He is a good, loving person. Is it normal that I don’t want to spend time with him anymore, that it makes me anxious and depressed? I’m thinking that if I’m feeling anxiety ans depression with him, something is wrong. Please can you give me your opinion ? Marine

      • Thank you for your feedback. I have a sensitive anxiety profile as you describe i think ? I think I also have difficulty mourning my teenage dreams: romantic love, an artistic life, waiting for the other person to make us fully happy… sometimes I have difficulty accepting an “ordinary” life. Is this something you see often?

          • Oh really!? I just have one last question I’m sorry, how do I know if these are anxiety related doubts or legitimate doubts? Thank you…

              • Thank you for the article. I’m confused because throughout the relationship I’ve always “fantasized” about other men, wanting something new. I was afraid to be engaged to my partner in case I missed someone else, or I thought that maybe I needed to be alone to evolve. I also had less and less desire for my partner … Is all this normal for you Sheryl?

  7. Thank you for this post. It really resonates with me and I look forward to taking the Grace Through Uncertainty Course. How do the live sessions work? Are they weekly? And at what time?

  8. I adore this course! Stunning wisdom throughout. I did it last year when I was in very early pregnancy, and anxious, and it was a real soul anchor. I think all I managed to do at the time was read the emails but that alone was so helpful and grounding.
    Highly recommend this beautiful course ❤️

  9. Hi Sheryl – does this course touch on anxiety as a whole? The origins? The false programming we grew up with? I took your relationship anxiety course seven years ago and it helped. Sadly, the relationship ended on their terms. The neural pathways learned from that course were helpful, though I am trying to learn to build new neural pathways away from that relationship. Will this course help? I am desperate for help and “accountability” and action steps to take daily to help change and create new neural pathways for loving myself, coping with anxiety, etc,. Thank you! I am sure I am not the only person with this long-winded question! HA.

  10. Sheryl, I am really struggling. Last night I asked for a sign that it my boyfriend and I aren’t meant to be then to show me a monkey. Sure enough, my boyfriend was next to me watching a video that said the word monkey. I instantly felt sick to my stomach and my chest tightened. I then asked for a sign that we are meant to be, water, sure enough I looked over at my boyfriend’s phone and he was looking at a picture of a lake, then just to make sure I asked for a sign of fire if we were meant to be and I looked back at the TV (that I had not been paying attention to) and sure enough there was a scene with a huge fire. These signs made me feel better but today at lunch my boyfriend showed me a video with a monkey in it and again I instantly felt sick to my stomach. How do I know which sign to trust? Should I trust signs at all??? I’m so confused and anxious.

  11. Thank you Sheryl. Your book has taught me so musch. Would you like to explain what you mean by ”anxiety is not manageable”?

  12. Thank you for your wisdom Sheryl. (relationship anxiety)
    I have been dealing with a very different form of intrusive thought.
    I’ve always depended on prayer as a way to help me through the intrusive thought. However, I have noticed myself not want to pray. A thought comes up of “you don’t truly want this, so why are you praying for it”, which tunes into “God doesn’t want this, that’s why you’re not able to pray for it.”
    How could I lean into the anxiety and fear of these thoughts? My faith feels wounded by this.

  13. Hi Sheryl,

    I know I’m a bit late for signing up for the Grace Through Uncertainty Course. I have taken the Break-Free from RA and Open Your Heart. My question is how do you you sit with the feeling of “Uncertainty?” I’ve actually been free from anxiety for almost 2 years and it has popped up again. My intrusive though is “I love you but I need to leave.” I know it got triggered from my parents because of their marriage. I know it’s anxiety, just wondering how to sit through that and not project onto my partner.


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