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Published on May 25, 2020

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts from Eating You Alive

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts from Eating You Alive

The human brain is an amazing organ. What we most associate the brain with doing is thinking. It assimilates a tremendous amount of information, and processes it in a multitude of ways, such as cognitive thinking, memory recall, and decision-making.

The brain processes so much information that it is not uncommon for us to experience random thoughts, or intrusive thoughts, unrelated to any of our values. Most people experience intrusive thoughts without any significant consequences. But for a few people, intrusive thoughts are more severe and can make it difficult to function normally day to day.

Here we’re going to examine the nature of intrusive thoughts, and then discuss how to stop intrusive thoughts when they are causing problems.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Generally speaking, intrusive thoughts are thoughts that pop into your mind seemingly out of nowhere. They are usually strange thoughts that you normally wouldn’t think of. For example, you might think, “What if I have a stroke or a heart attack?”

You might think harm may come to someone you know, maybe even a loved one. You certainly don’t want someone you love to get hurt, but nonetheless the random thought crosses your mind.

The absurd nature of intrusive thoughts can cause people some distress. However, in general, they are a normal part of having an active brain. We are so used to thinking about something all the time that during quiet periods the random, intrusive thoughts will arise from the vast database we call our brain.

These may appear as you’re falling asleep or when you are waking up. They may distract you during an important meeting or presentation. Or they may even find their way into moments of meditation.

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There is another class of intrusive thoughts called “unwanted intrusive thoughts.” These are more intense and can trigger anxiety, panic, guilt, or disgust. Their content is usually about violence, sex, or socially unacceptable behaviors[1]. They can be quite disturbing. Some examples are:

  • Pushing someone in front of a moving vehicle
  • Stabbing someone
  • Torturing a person or animal
  • Randomly touching a stranger

What makes unwanted intrusive thoughts disturbing is that people are afraid that they might commit the acts pictured in their mind, or that they indicate that something is wrong with them.

For the most part, intrusive thoughts are nothing to worry about. However, if you are having difficulty getting them out of your mind, and they interfere with normal functioning in your life, then you may want to seek professional help. This still doesn’t mean you want to commit the acts, but rather you may just need some help in learning how to manage the intrusive thoughts.

A Common Myth About Intrusive Thoughts

One common myth about intrusive thoughts is that we subconsciously want to commit the acts pictured in our mind. This is rarely the case. It is not uncommon for kind, loving people to have intrusive thoughts about harming others. They realize they are just random thoughts that are inconsistent with their intentions, and they just ignore them.

Another common myth is that all intrusive thoughts should be examined. Remember, they are just random thoughts, not actions. The only power they have to harm us is the power that we give them.

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

As mentioned above, in most cases, intrusive thoughts are just harmless random thoughts that pop into our mind unexpectedly. In other cases, they may be indicative of other mental or emotional disorders[2]. They can cause people great distress and hinder their ability to function if left unchecked.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when the intrusive thoughts become repetitive, and the person doesn’t have the ability to control them. The thoughts lead to certain actions in the hopes that they will make the thoughts go away.

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For example, a person with OCD may develop a routine of checking and rechecking to make sure all the doors and windows are secure in order to ease the fear of being assaulted by an intruder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur as a result of a traumatic event, such as a violent attack. The person with PTSD experiences severe distress and has difficulty coming to terms with the event. In such cases, intrusive thoughts are part of the experience. The person keeps re-living the experience and the emotions associated with it.

Eating Disorders

Sometimes people develop eating disorders as a result of not being able to deal with their emotions. The disorder can have different manifestations, such as overeating, binging, starvation, or purging. Whatever the case, the person is trying to either hide or overcome a recurring train of thought, belief, or emotion, and intrusive thoughts are a part of this dynamic.

Addiction

Addiction is usually the result of growing up not learning how to deal in a healthy manner with conflict, one’s emotions, or life in general. When a person doesn’t know how to cope, then the only alternative is to try and cover up the emotions with a substance that changes one’s mood, such as alcohol, drugs, or a behavior, such as sex. Intrusive thoughts are a part of addiction because addicts develop obsessive and compulsive thinking and behavior.

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

The majority of people have intrusive thoughts that are harmless. Though the content of the thoughts might be violence and socially unacceptable behaviors, the person is aware that they are just random thoughts and are not their true intentions or motives.

Though it is difficult to completely stop intrusive thoughts, we can diminish them significantly. Here are some effective strategies:

1. Don’t Indulge in Them

If we indulge in our intrusive thoughts, then we give them more power and increase the likelihood of them reoccurring. The best thing to do is just ignore them and to not attach any significance to them.

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2. Avoid Entertainment Involving Violence

Studies have shown that watching violence on television, or other media, can lead to aggressive behavior.[3] And of course, aggressive behavior is preceded by aggressive thinking.

3. Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a way to calm the mind and help you focus on more positive thinking. Therefore, it reduces the quantity of random thoughts and changes their content from unwholesome thoughts to more wholesome, productive thoughts.

4. Reduce Mental Agitation

Intrusive thoughts are sometimes the result of an overactive mind. In addition to using mindfulness meditation to calm your mind, you can reduce mental agitation by reducing (or eliminating) the sources. These sources can include too many activities or responsibilities in your life, and background noise, such as radio and television when you’re not engaged with them.

Dealing With More Severe Intrusive Thoughts

If you are dealing with intrusive thoughts that make it difficult for you to function, then you may need to seek professional help. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, but rather you may just need some help in learning how to cope with the intrusive thoughts. Here are a couple of approaches that a mental health professional might use.

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy where a mental health counselor helps you examine your thought patterns. The goal is to identify inaccurate or negative thinking and develop strategies for changing that thinking so that you learn to respond to thoughts in a healthier manner[4].

2. Medication

Sometimes mental health problems are the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. In such cases, a mental health professional might prescribe medications, such as antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs)[5].

When considering medication for treating any mental health problem, it is advisable to proceed with caution. First, most medications come with unpleasant side effects. Second, they are generally not a cure, but rather intended to address the symptoms.

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Third, it isn’t always clear if the thought patterns are the cause or the result of the chemical imbalance. For example, addicts may show a chemical imbalance in the brain, but this is the result of years of unrealistic thinking. Addiction generally can be treated without medication. In such cases, seek help from an addiction expert.

The Bottom Line

Intrusive thoughts are a normal part of life. They are the result of having an active mind that works 24 hours a day. For most people, intrusive thoughts are not a problem. They recognize that the thoughts don’t mean much and are fleeting.

For some people, however, intrusive thoughts can be more of a problem. The thoughts may be recurring and cause significant emotional distress. They can also indicate other mental health issues, such as OCD, PTSD, or addiction.

If your intrusive thoughts are making it difficult to live a normal life, it is advisable to seek professional help. A mental health expert can address the underlying causes of the intrusive thoughts and help you develop strategies for coping with them.

In either case, even though the content of the intrusive thoughts may be disturbing, they generally don’t indicate that you subconsciously intend on acting out those thoughts. Remember, they are just thoughts.

More Tips on How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Featured photo credit: Francisco Moreno via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
[2] Healthline: Intrusive Thoughts: Why We Have Them and How to Stop Them
[3] American Psychological Association: Violence in the Media
[4] Mayo Clinic: Cognitive behavioral therapy
[5] Healthline: Intrusive Thoughts: Why We Have Them and How to Stop Them

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Charles A. Francis

Author, meditation teacher, and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

Do you say yes so often that you realize you aren’t really happy about this, wondering how to say no to people?

For years, I was a serial people pleaser. Known as someone who would step up, I would gladly make time especially when it came to volunteering for certain causes. I proudly carried this role all through grade school, college, even through law school. For years, I thought saying “no” meant I would disappoint a good friend or someone I respected.

But somewhere along the way, I noticed I wasn’t quite living my life. Instead, I seem to have created a schedule that was a strange combination of meeting the expectations of others, what I thought I should be doing, and some of what I actually wanted to do. The result? I had a packed schedule that left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled.

It took a long while but I learned the art of saying no. Saying ‘no’ meant I no longer catered fully to everyone else’s needs and could make more room for what I really wanted to do. Instead of cramming too much in, I chose to pursue what really mattered. I started to manage my time more around my own needs and interests. When that happened, I became a lot happier. And guess what? I hardly disappointed anyone.

The Importance of Saying No

When you learn the art of saying ‘no,’ you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all of the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say yes to what’s important.

In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey considered one of the most successful women in the world confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no. Even after she had become internationally famous, she felt she had to say yes to virtually everything. It was only when she realized that after years of struggling with saying no, I finally got to this question: “What do I want?”

Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better.

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Warren Buffett views no as essential to his success. He said,

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

When I made ‘no’ a part of my toolbox, I drove more of my own success focusing on fewer things and doing them well.

How We Are Pressured to Say Yes

It’s no wonder a lot of us find it hard to say ‘no.’

From an early age, we are conditioned to say ‘yes.’ We said yes probably hundreds of time in order to graduate from high school and then get into college. We said yes to find work. We said yes get a promotion. We said yes to find love and then yes again to stay in a relationship. We said yes to find and keep friends.

We say yes because it feels better to help someone. We say yes because it can seem like the right thing to do. We say yes because we think that is key to success. And we say yes because the request might come from someone who is hard to resist like the boss.

And that’s not all. The pressure to say yes doesn’t just come from others. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. At work, we say yes because we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing more than we are. Outside of work, we say yes because we feel guilty we aren’t doing enough to spend time with family or friends.

The message no matter where we turn is nearly always, “You really could be doing more.” The result? When people ask us for our time, we are heavily conditioned to say yes.

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How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Deciding to add the word ‘no’ to your toolbox is no small thing. Perhaps you already say ‘no’ but not as much as you would like. Maybe you have an instinct that if you were to learn the art of ‘no’ that you could finally create more time for things you care about. But let’s be honest, using the word ‘no’ doesn’t come easily for many people.

The 3 Rules of Thumbs for Saying No

1. You Need to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Let’s face it. It is hard to say no. Setting boundaries around your time especially you haven’t done it much in the past will feel awkward.

2. You Are the Air Traffic Controller of Your Time

Remember that you are the only one who understands the demands for your time. Think about it, who else knows about all of the demands on your time? No one. Only you are at the center of all of these requests. are the only one that understands what time you really have.

3. Saying ‘No’ Means Saying ‘Yes’ to Something That Matters

When we decide not to do something, it means we can say yes to something else. You have a unique opportunity to decide how you spend your precious time.

6 Ways to Start Saying No

Incorporating that little word ‘no’ into your life can be transformational. Turning some things down will mean you can open doors to what really matters. Here are some essential tips to learn the art of no:

1. Check in With Your Obligation Meter

One of the biggest challenges to saying ‘no’ is a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes and worry that saying no reflect poorly on you?

Ask yourself whether you truly have the duty to say yes. Check your assumptions or beliefs about whether you carry the responsibility to say yes. Turn it around and instead ask what duty you owe to yourself.

2. Resist the Fear of Missing out (FOMO)

Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO can follow us around in so many ways. At work, we volunteer our time because we fear we won’t move ahead. In our personal lives, we agree to join the crowd because FOMO even while we ourselves aren’t enjoying the fun.

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Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you really want to say yes? More often than not, running after fear doesn’t make us feel better.

3. Check Your Assumptions About What It Means to Say ‘No’

Do you dread the reaction you will get if you say no? Often, we say ‘yes’ because we worry about how others will respond or the consequences of saying no or because of the consequences. We may be afraid to disappoint others or think we will lose respect from others. We often forget how much we are disappointing ourselves along the way.

Keep in mind that saying ‘no’ can be exactly what is needed to send the right message that you have limited time. In the tips below, you will see how to communicate your no in a gentle and loving way. You might disappoint someone initially but drawing a boundary can bring you the freedom you need so that you can give freely of yourself when you truly want to.

4. When the Request Comes In, Sit on It

Sometimes, when we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. The request might make sense at first. Or we typically have said yes to this request in the past.

Give yourself a little time to reflect on whether you really have the time, or can do the task properly. You may decide the best option is to say ‘no.’ There is no harm in giving yourself the time to decide.

5. Communicate Your ‘No’ with Transparency and Kindness

When you are ready to tell someone no, communicate your decision clearly. The message can be open and honest to ensure the recipient that your reasons have to do with your limited time.

Resist the temptation not to respond or communicate all. But do not feel obligated to provide a lengthy account about why you are saying no.

A clear communication with a short explanation is all that is needed. I have found it useful to tell people that I have many demands and need to be careful with how I allocate my time. I will sometimes say I really appreciate that they came to me and for them to check in again if the opportunity arises another time.

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6. Consider How to Use a Modified ‘No’

If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may want to consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” giving you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you.

Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked.

Final Thoughts

Beginning right now, you can change how you respond to requests for your time. When the request comes in, take yourself off autopilot where you might normally say yes.

Use the request as a fresh request to draw a healthy boundary around your time. Pay particular attention to when you place certain demands on yourself. If you are the one placing the demand on yourself, try to evaluate the demand as if it were coming from somewhere else.

Try it now. Say no to a friend who continues to take advantage of your goodwill. Or, draw the line with a workaholic colleague and tell them you will complete the project but not by working all weekend. Or, tell someone in your family you can’t loan them money again because they never paid you back the last time. You’ll find yourself much happier.

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Featured photo credit: Chris Ainsworth via unsplash.com

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