This Might be the Most Important Aspect of Healing from Intrusive Thoughts

by | Dec 11, 2022 | Break Free From Relationship Anxiety, Health anxiety, Highly Sensitive Person, Intrusive Thoughts | 53 comments

An intrusive or unwanted thought arrives…

… and the most common first response is to attach onto it as a singular, all-encompassing truth. Why would we respond in any other way when we’ve never been taught that just because you have a thought that doesn’t mean it’s true and that thoughts arrive as messengers, metaphors, and protectors?

There is another way to respond, but it requires practice. The other way is to call out the intrusive thought or panic attack – “this is an intrusive thought” or “these are symptoms of a panic attack” – and once you’ve reduced the intensity of that first moment, to set your sights on becoming intensely curious about what is embedded inside the thought or panic.

This is the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is the husk, the way a thought or panic first arrives, and the wheat is the golden, sustaining substance that lives inside.

How do we do this?

By stripping away the first-layer projection – the chaff – over and over again, which means saying…

…and being curious about the underlayers until the wheat starts to reveal itself.

Curiosity looks like:

  • Noticing the moments of YES and following them. This could mean reading an article that resonates as true, then committing to reading more of that person’s work or perspective.
  • Committing to at least one of the following practices that help you turn inward and listen to your inner guidance: daily journaling, meditation, prayer practice, expressive dance, song/chant. Intrusive thoughts and panic attacks, like dreams, are often portals to the spiritual realm, and when we commit to these practices we carve out time and a container for spirit to enter in meaningful ways.
  • Being willing to feel the grief, heartbreak, fear, and loneliness that live inside intrusive thoughts and panic attacks.

Discovering the wheat inside the chaff also requires discipline. You’re not going to get very far if you’re expecting someone else to figure this out for you, or if you’re spending a lot of time distracting and ruminating with Google, scrolling, and social media. Cutting out the chaff means cutting out the noise of the world, for it’s impossible to hear your inner guidance when you’re listening to everyone else’s voice.

This is not obvious or easy work. We have not been trained in the language of metaphor, in the subtle ways that the unconscious extracts its demands. As I’ve written many times, we are a literal, rational, scientific culture, which means we’re conditioned to take everything at face value.

We’ve forgotten how to listen to the subtle layers.

We’ve forgotten how to dwell in the mysteries.

We’ve forgotten how to become curious about process instead of single-mindedly focused on outcome, and that through the journeying into multivalent and multidimensional places of psyche, we find runes, inner riches, gold.

This is the true meaning of the hero’s journey.

And I don’t mean to glorify or it or imply that it’s always a fun walk in the park. It is not that. We could say that being dragged into the darker regions of psyche, the long-forgotten places that are crying out for our attention. is the opposite of fun. It can be scary. It can feel disorienting. Fear-mind will almost always enter and say, “This will never end.”

But it’s essential to remind yourself that the first-stage terror of it all does end, and it ends more quickly when we remember that the thoughts are not what they seem, and that our task is, over and over again, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

***

What is your latest intrusive thought or source of panic and, most importantly, how are you responding to it?

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53 Comments

  1. Hi Sheryl,

    This deeply resonated with me. The work is definitely in the process of curiosity, for sure. 6 months ago I relocated to AZ and panicked about the drought and water scarcity so I decided against it and left. It was protection – I was way outside of my comfort zone and the intrusive thought was fear about starting a new life, not the drought/water. Understanding and being curious about the subconscious was what I needed to get to the wheat. Thanks so much. I hope you’re well.

    Reply
    • That makes so much sense, Rob, and I’m glad you were able to get to the root need.

      Reply
      • Dear Sheryl, I am so grateful for your precious words. Ist is like being wholy understood for the first time, although I have been in therapy for la long time. Thank you so much. The work can start…

        Reply
  2. Though the details have changed and morphed and sometimes returned to old thoughts, the source of panic and theme has pretty much stuck to “what if I hurt a child?” though it doesn’t come in as “what if” and really the worry is more like “what if I want to?” Sometimes, though- and this has been swirling around a lot this week for some reason- the thoughts spill over into targeting others with harm thoughts (I hate even writing it down because it’s something I’ve championed against before my brain “broke”, but specifically sexual harm thoughts). Based on you work in metaphor, I’ve been able to finally identify that they target people I love most and/or people that are somehow connected to or tap into my very early childhood wounds. It seems very obvious that it’s a massive inner child wound, but I’m never quite sure where to start in working with it because there seems to be so much.

    And I’ve realized recently how even back in 2018, before I realized I was having intrusive thoughts because they were all about death and vomiting and therefore not enough to get my attention, my inner child was TRYING to talk to me. I heard the song “Recover” by CHVRCHES for the first time, and way back then it made me have feelings about what happened with my dad, who I would not reconnect with for another three years. I was also listening a lot to U2’s album Songs of Experience (the same album that has “Landlady” on it), and there’s a song on there with a similar vibe called “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Every time it came on the playlist I would cry, and it still makes me cry now. The other day I decided to look up what it was about. cause the lyrics were really resonating with me (usually music registers for me more than lyrics). Turns out it’s basically about the song’s protagonist talking to their younger self and asking them for help. Bono cited younger self (innocence) challenging older self (experience) in the lyrics “I saw you on the stairs, you didn’t notice I was there, that’s cause you were talking at me and not to me. You were high above the storm, a hurricane being born, this freedom it might cost you your liberty.” He’s then quoted as saying “At the end of the song, experience breaks down and admits his deepest fears, having been called out on it by his younger, braver, bolder self.” There’s even lyrics in that section where, I guess experience, is saying “the end is not coming.” I’d guess the lyrics at the end “the end is here” is from the younger self.

    My take away from those experiences back in 2018 is that I already knew. I knew healing needed to be done, but it was never going to happen while my grandmother was alive (for many reasons, among them that I didn’t know the whole truth), so I resorted to intrusive thoughts. Now it’s about trying to separate from their content and try to do that healing. It’s one thing to understand the truth on an intellectual level and entirely something else to take it in on a body level when it seems to be in constant fight-or-flight because of them.

    Reply
    • It sounds like you have a very clear cognitive sense of what is embedded inside the thought, and that you understand the process: to separate from the content so that you can attend to your inner child, who has been crying out for attention in different ways. You’re right: it’s one thing to understand cognitively and quite another to attend to the feelings, especially when you get dysregulated quickly. This is where nervous system regulation is essential so that you have a more solid place inside from which to begin to unpack and layer into the deeper pain.

      Reply
      • Hi,
        this at the end resonated very much for me and I have to ask: What is nervous system regulation? How do I go about that? I have an intuitive sense of what you might have meant, but where do I start? I feel like this might be an important puzzle piece for me.

        Thank you.

        Reply
  3. I’ve been struggling with mine for a couple years now- having a baby. It provokes such anxiety in me that it affects my daily life. Scared ill mess up, scared ill be too tired, too anxious. I don’t live babies, what if I don’t love mine? Scared ill get post partum depression. I’m 36 so my clock is ticking. I’ve been praying, meditating, and started your ‘birthing a new mother’s course, but wonder if im just too far gone, as the preconception stage alone is unbearable. To make matters worse, I spoke to a therapist about it and she stated that “I better not have a child because it will be born to an ambivalent mother, ” and that freaked me out.

    Reply
    • I don’t agree with the therapist’s conclusion AT ALL; ambivalence is part of motherhood. Your thoughts and fears are totally normal for HSPs. I recommend looking for another therapist, one who is well-versed in the sensitive soul prone to anxiety (a personality type who, by the way, tend to make wonderful mothers).

      Reply
      • I want to affirm exactly what Sheryl said. Finding a therapist who understands HSP is a completely different experience. And I also wanted to note that ambivalence around parenthood is very common and normal. I see it all the time with my clients (I’m a doula) and I experienced it personally as well ❤️

        Reply
      • Sheryl, I would LOVE a podcast episode on this topic one day 🙂

        Reply
      • Hi sheryl, yes that session with that particular therapist was the first and last! I knew right away something wasn’t quite right. Thank you for all your wisdom and guidance and holding our hands through this messy life.

        Reply
    • Hi Steph, I hope you don’t mind me saying but your therapist sounds rather judgemental and lacking in nuance – you need only look at the doubtless many people who had unplanned/unexpected pregnancies and went on to be great mothers to know that ambivalence alone is not a reason not to have a child. I am a HSP and I tend (to my detriment) to explore every single angle of any big decision I need to make -for me, it’s a sign that I care and want the best possible outcome for everyone involved. Sending you lots of love ❤️

      Reply
      • Thank you for this thought provoking comment- specifically regarding the unplanned pregnancies that went on to be great mothers. Thank you for your support.

        Reply
    • For what it’s worth I’m an ambivalent and really really great mother. I wish more people would, as Sheryl has done, normalize parental
      ambivalence. Personally as an HSP and lifelong overthinker, I pretty much never feel a ‘hell yes’ about any decision I make so I hate the idea that experiencing real doubt or fear or reticence means no. If I had waited for that thunderclap certainty in regards to motherhood I would have missed out on the most transformative experience of my life. When I first found out I was pregnant I was in deep grief (and resentment) for all I would lose and I worried so much about what that meant. Learning about matrescence and maternal ambivalence changed so much for me. It’s so normal. And the messy middle where all things are true at once is where I live as a parent most days! Sending love and strength as you explore these possibilities.

      Reply
      • Beautifully and wisely articulated, Ali. Thank you.

        Reply
      • Thank you for such a heartfelt response, and highlighting what Sheryl facilitates through her programs and blogs. Your words being me solace, as I too, am never “hell yes!”and very risk averse.

        Reply
    • Steph, thank you for voicing your anxiety about motherhood as it’s something that I, too, really struggle with. I’m 26 and the intrusive thoughts and fears consume at least part of my day. It’s such a big decision and it seems like none of my friends feel the same weight and fears of it as I do. I’m lucky to have a HSP therapist who helps me, but even just seeing your words typed out gave me comfort that I’m not the only one who really struggles with the fears around motherhood. You hit the nail on the head with the fears: what if i’m too tired? Too anxious? Too depressed? Not able to be my best self? Trapped in exhaustion for years? So. Many. What ifs.

      Reply
      • EXACTLY. And just as you said, your words also bring me immense comfort and the feeling that I’m not crazy or all alone. A part of me softens into it all knowing that and takes away some of the shame. Thank you for responding.

        Reply
        • Steph, I want to echo what other have said. I suppose you could say I’m an ambivalent mother and I think it’s completely normal! There are seconds, minutes, days when I want someone to come and take them away from me. There is stress and fatigue and fear. But there is also the deepest love and joy I have ever felt which brings tears to my eyes as I type this. I wish you luck in your decision. 🙂

          Reply
  4. Thank you again Sheryl, I have just finished your book The Wisdom of Anxiety and find that these steps speak to my soul. In fact last night I found myself spiraling into panic after being called to help a friend in need and instead of a full blown attack I identified the true feeling and reason, fear of uncertainty. I allowed it to be felt and sure enough, the panic subsided. My inner child was never allowed to be fearful so it is now my mission to learn how to feel it, and teach my children to do so also. I couldn’t be more grateful for your guidance, thank you.

    Reply
    • Well done, Jackie! Thank you for sharing this very relatable example with us.

      Reply
  5. Hi Sheryl

    Im a bit confused by this article. For instance, I have Intrusive thoughts about sexual/gender orientation and health anxiety. What you’re saying is to bring awareness to when these thoughts come up, identify them as intrusive, then get curious and look for the deeper meaning within them?

    I thought the main action taken to combat intrusive/ocd thinking was to acknowledge it and then move on, not give it energy.

    If I go layer by layer saying “this isn’t about sexual orientation” but something deeper, I get more confused and end up spiraling out. My anxiety response ends up amplifying and then body follows suit.

    Can you please elaborate on this

    Thanks

    Reply
    • I know it can be a bit confusing. The deeper work is NOT about exploring the thought itself; we never want to give the original thought any attention or take it at face value. The deeper work is to recognize that the thought is a placeholder for deeper wells of grief, old wounds, fears, beliefs, trauma, etc that need attention.

      However, there are also times to recognize the thought as intrusive and move on – to bat the thought away like an annoying mosquito and change the channel in your mind. There are many ways to work with thoughts. Usually a combination of the on-the-spot tools and the deep dive work lead to a radical and lasting reduction or elimination of the thoughts.

      Reply
      • After fairly recently being introduced to your work, Sheryl, I have learnt so much, and I can honestly say it has changed my life. As someone who didn’t even know what a HPS was or knowing that there was gold to found in anxiety, to know having a foundation to work from and knowing that I’m not alone or broken as a person, my brain is just wired differently. You have brought so much peace to my life and I thank you.

        I still have a long way to go and I really wanted to reach out on this topic. I think for me, one of the most predominant thoughts that happen, usually occurs after reading something in the news and having an immense physical and emotional reaction to whatever I’ve read or heard. Most recently the hearing of someone having harmed themself or ended their life is like an anxiety trigger for me, my heart starts racing, panic sets in and then instantly I think “ what if I harm myself or end my life” “ am I capable of doing it, surely not, but maybe I am!” “ am I depressed or suicidal?” Every single irrational thought you could think of pops up and I feel horrible and sick to my stomach and can’t eat. I’m petrified of then being alone or going back onto social media again.

        Today, it happened again, and while driving in the car I noticed immediately the symptoms of a panic attack, acknowledged it and breathed through it. It was extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable, however, from engaging in your work it was the first time I was able to identify what was happening and allowed the space to feel it. My heart raced like I was having a heart attack, I felt like the words couldn’t come out of my mouth and I was stuck in that moment, dizzy and disoriented.

        I’m still feeling the remaining effects ( 4 hrs later) and I’m still struggling to not give the intrusive thoughts anymore engagement. The tears are falling as I type this. Feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment are all at the surface.

        Im not sure whether you can assist in my understanding why such news has such an effect?

        Thank you for all that you do and for helping so many of us!

        Reply
        • Stephiane

          I have this exact response and anxiety. I’m hopeful Sheryl will comment as I know she is always looking for her readers to feel safe and connected but I wanted to let you know that I personally experience exactly what you described and I am being reminded from others posts to not take the thought at face value and allow it to pass with compassion and space for what I am protecting to emerge. Thinking of you!

          Reply
    • Evan – one thing you mentioned, “bring awareness to the thought” – we already have awareness to the thought – in fact we have hyperawareness to it because it’s usually coming along with emotional distress (fear, anxiety, grief, shame, etc.). So you don’t really need to “bring” awareness to something that is already painfully there. The awareness, is that you don’t need to buy the content – the awareness that the thought is distracting you from paying attention to the feeling that is crying for attention. Instead of thinking about it in the moment (i.e. insert thought about sexuality – oh this is intrusive what does that mean, let me think about it for hours), you acknowledge it as intrusive, and ask for space to learn from the feeling it produces (instead of fighting the feeling or wishing it away). The “space” to learn may not come in that moment (in fact it probably won’t), but taking that pause, not giving into the thought as fact, and asking for the space is enough and in time the space will open up

      Reply
      • This is so clearly and wisely articulated. Steve. Thank you for taking the time to share this.

        Reply
        • Thanks Sheryl – thank you for all your work in this field!

          Evan – to add a little from my own experiences:

          I’ve had themes (aka thought content) move around, but I’ll use the sexual orientation theme for this example. Anytime I found myself analyzing – whether it was the content itself in the form of trying to test attraction or check for feelings or physical sensations, or in the form of trying to analyze what the thoughts MEANT, like did I miss something in my past, suppress some kind of desire, etc., it only led to more confusion, more anxiety, and depression. Further, if I tried to agree with the thoughts as if they were true, and force acceptance saying “ok, I’m gay, I just have to accept it” – that produced the same results (anxiety, fear, depression). Even saying in the moment, “ok, this is an intrusive thought, so maybe I’m not gay but what am I missing” was too much engagement IN THE MOMENT. Because I was searching for an answer to why these thoughts are present. I was trying to figure it all out in my head. I was trying to prove something one way or another. What helped immensely, was letting go over trying to figure out the perfect answer to those thoughts and feelings. Letting time provide the insight. When doing this, it takes an enormous amount of pressure off of yourself. You give yourself space and compassion. You allow yourself to choose to attend to the life that’s in front of you, and choose NOT to engage in compulsive thinking. The crazy thing that happens, is when that space opens up, the insights start to come in. For me it became insights into my fears on my “masculinity level”, which was primarily stereotypically based. I also found insight into fears of causing pain – that is an immense fear that I could ever do something to emotionally or physically damage someone.

          What I’ve experienced, is that there are a lot of buzz words or phrases out there such as “living with uncertainty” or “acceptance” as being “keys” to recovery. The truth though, is that overthinking on these concepts, or fixating on these concepts can be very confusing and can often lead to mis-interpretation and thus mis-guided attempts at healing. What living with uncertainty and acceptance means to me, is no longer having to prove myself to myself, and allowing myself space (by not engaging in compulsive behaviors) between the intrusive doubts to find natural insight that comes with time

          Reply
          • Brilliant, Steve. Really clear and spot-on. Thank you.

            Reply
            • You sound like a very wise person, Steve

              Reply
          • Wow this is so helpful and something I am having such a hard time mastering (or even amateur-ing). I have constant intrusive thoughts/ feelings around gender identity and I just cannot let it go because it feels so real but also so scary. It’s taken up so much of my life. I have “failed” at ERP and the concept of living with the uncertainty is something I just can’t metabolize. You explain so well the results of either analyzing or giving into the thoughts. It’s depression and anxiety either way. It has kept me from relationships and I’m so ready to heal. But it is such a hard road. Thanks for sharing your experience.

            Reply
          • Thanks so much for this explanation Steve. Sounds like you can really relate with some of my themes.

            For me personally, it’s difficult “to choose” not to engage in the compulsive thinking and needing the certainty… how does one “let go” of the need for it.. distraction?, having an internal convo?.. how exactly did that choice for you stick? And when did these insights come in for you?

            Thanks!

            Reply
  6. Thanks so much for this Sheryl. What came up for me was “ oh gosh, I’m not going inward enough’. I don’t meditate or journal everyday but at least once a week. I exercise daily, eat well mostly and do a nightly gratitude journal. I spend time with my cat and try to take time daily to just be. I also have weekly therapy. Do you think that’s enough? I realis I’m asking for reassurance here but I worry it’s not ‘enough’.

    Reply
    • There isn’t an external metric for “enough” inner work; it’s only what works for you. And you know it’s “enough” when you feel an increase in self-awareness/inner sturdiness/spaciousness and a decrease in intrusive thoughts.

      Reply
    • I know exactly what you mean about the feelings of realness and fear at the same time. It’s very intense, and also very demoralizing because it FEELS like you have zero choice in the matter, zero agency over your life. That’s where the depersonalization and derealization creep in, at least for me. These things are referred to as mental illness, but they are very much emotional illness that shake our self trust and confidence.

      From my perspective, no one “fails” at treatment. And while this may be a controversial statement, I do not believe ERP should be presented as the “gold standard”. There’s a lot of variety in how individuals heal, and focusing on one modality or another can actually be damaging, especially if the chosen treatment isn’t super effective for a specific individual. I’ve (albeit compulsively) listened to many many OCD and Anxiety stories, and the one consistency I have seen is that there is not a one size fits all to this stuff. And it’s very trial and error. I’ve made the mistake of taking what works for one person and tried forcing that “method” for myself and that’s only taken me into a deeper hole

      Reply
      • Steve, I completelya agree with everything you’ve said. Some therapists/writers can be very dogmatic about their chosen modality. The fact is, ERP is not for everyone, and ALSO it can be interpreted very widely in terms of what counts as an ‘exposure’ – for me, I expose myself to the good things in my life, including the painful transitions. I recognise the intrusive thoughts as distractions from those things. But yes – dogmatic OCD self-help books and psychologists make me really angry, and actually over the years, obsessing over my treatment and the validity of my own journey has itself been a major intrusive obsession!!

        Anyway, thanks for your input

        Reply
  7. Thank you so much for this

    Reply
    • I have a hard time with intrusive thoughts saying “you must leave, he is not right for you, he is too boring for you … Etc”. The clear statements make it more difficult to name them and dissect the thought. I’m really worried this RA will be present for so long that I have to leave my partner.
      But I’m trying my best to reconnect with my partner, not compare our relationship with others and doing daily meditation/yoga to connect with myself on a deeper level.

      Thank you for your work Sheryl! I

      Reply
      • Intrusive thoughts can arrive as a “what if” or as a clear statement. It’s the same thing, and the method for working with them is the same. 🙏🏽

        Reply
  8. What about once you’ve explored the root causes and yet the instrusive thoughts are almost like a hangover from the anxiety? I’m 90% healed but I still get intrusive thoughts that the anxiety will never go away. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    Reply
    • 90% healed is wonderful! Yes, fear of the anxiety is a common source of anxiety, but once you trust that your tools are effective, the anxiety around the anxiety never going away will diminish. Remember: the goal isn’t to eradicate anxiety; that’s not possible. It’s to trust that you can handle the anxiety and, when appropriate, go deeper into its roots when it arises.

      Reply
      • fear of the anxiety is actually one of my biggest anxieties! I can go for a long time feeling great, with no intrusive thoughts, but then they reappear and I think ‘oh no! back to square one!!’ I have to remind myself that this is not the case, and that it doesn’t negate the work I’ve done. The fact is, over the last three years, since a breakdown in 2019, I have grown and developed almost beyond recognition. But the occasional flare up can still be scary!!

        Reply
  9. Thanks for this – wonderful as ever.

    My primary intrusive thoughts at the moment involve the war in Ukraine – the awful news coming from there, and the fear it could spread further. My compulsions involve the urge to check the news constantly, and to seek reassurance from friends who have knowledge of current affairs.

    In terms of tackling the compulsions, I am trying to refrain from doing these things. On the positive side, I am trying to access me creativity, concentrate on my job, and enjoy the marriage that for so long was itself the subject of intrusive thoughts!

    In a nutshell: (1) Don’t google. (2) Do something meaningful and productive.

    Reply
    • An understandable intrusive thoughts, and excellent use of your tools.

      Reply
  10. My most recent intrusive thoughts are health-related. After noticing a physical difference, I typically go into the head space of worrying if it could be a terminal illiness. However, last weekend I was able to stop or turn away from that impulse to perseverate. I didn’t immediately accept the thought as true and thus avoided having the rush of adrenaline. I was able to hold the concern lightly – remembering Sheryl’s directive that what you water will grow, asking myself Sheryl’s question of what this worry was helping me to avoid feeling, and using an OCD technique of thinking, if a gun were to my head and I had to give the right answer, is this symptom actually a sign of the illness I am worried about.

    So I identified what I was actually feeling and consciously decided I wanted to be present in the moment, rather than retreat into my thoughts. It felt like a minor victory (as someone who has had health anxiety for years). I’m still noticing the physical differences this week, but trying to continue to hold them lightly and use the same approach.

    Reply
    • That’s not a minor victory at all, Cassie. It’s HUGE! Celebrate it, and keep going along these lines. Thank you for sharing the trigger and your process here.

      Reply
  11. I’m just so grateful for this community of sensitive souls. Reading this blog and the comments brought the deep reassurance that I am not alone and there are wonderful, thoughtful people out there who experience the world in much the same way as I do. Relationship anxiety, motherhood anxiety/ambivalence, sexual identity anxiety, anxiety about climate change and not doing “enough” – I often have intrusive thoughts on all these subjects. Reading this piece reconnects me with my understanding that I can move forward with gentleness and balance and don’t need to live my life according to the extreme and fearful thoughts in my head. Thank you, Sheryl and community!

    Reply
  12. I was wondering if you could shed some light on separation anxiety and how it relates to intrusive thoughts.

    I find myself in the throes of anxiety ever time I spend time away from my boyfriend. When together, my mind doesn’t try to over-analyze, and I feel calm and no longer a prisoner of my anxiety, but when apart, I immediately attach importance to intrusive thoughts and feel overwhelmed with anxiety, whether it be future anxiety, relationship anxiety, or sexual orientation anxiety.

    Why does the mind work like this? Can I also find peace in moments when I am not with him?

    Thank you for your work Sheryl! It has been a blessing <3.

    Reply

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