Everyone is subject to intrusive thoughts on a daily basis.
They are ideas or images which occur spontaneously in the person’s mind, against their will. Most of the times, these thoughts are merely annoying. However, if they are coupled with a deeper, underlying issue, such as OCD or depression, intrusive thoughts can become more of a problem.
How you deal with them depends a lot on the severity of the situation. Choosing the best course of action might require some experimentation. There are is no universally valid solution.
Suppressing intrusive thoughts appears to be the easiest method of dealing with them. This is probably what most of us do with the mild episodes that occur throughout the day. If you imagine yourself punching the person in front you, it’s best if you tried to quiet that thought down.
It can work in situations in which the intrusive thought is linked to some powerful emotion. Calming these feelings is usually enough to banish the thought away. In these instances, the root of the problem is your emotional response to a certain situation, not the thought itself. For example, suppressing thoughts which occur when your temper flares up can work momentarily, but what you’ll really want to do is learn how to control these emotional outbursts in the future.
However, suppression only works for these very minor instances. If practiced too often, for a very long period of time, suppression can be quite damaging. In situations in which intrusive thoughts are associated with depression, anxiety, or OCD, trying to avoid them can actually make these images or ideas come back in a more aggressive way. This is called ‘the rebound effect.’ Thoughts which have been unsuccessfully suppressed tend to become more violent and persistent. The person then enters a vicious circle of suppression and rebound, making the whole process an exhausting and painful one.
Repression occurs when a person has a natural inclination to suppress unwanted thoughts. It tends to occur without the person knowing it. Often times, they are not even aware of the images, ideas or memories they are repressing.
This is basically the mind’s defense mechanism against ideas or memories that are too painful to be handled on the spot. The brain pushes these thoughts to the subconscious, so you don’t have to deal with them. Unfortunately, the repressed material will have a tendency to pop back to the surface when you least expect it.
Because it occurs in the subconscious mind, people can’t really control it. It only becomes apparent when its effects become noticeable in the conscious mind, in the way people react to certain situations, or in the images that are triggered by some stimuli.
Recurrent intrusive thoughts can actually be a symptom of a repressed traumatic experience from the past. The basic principles of modern psychoanalysis have been founded on the idea of repressed memories, and the methods one can employ to bring these memories to light, and help people deal with them.
Intrusive thoughts can become repressed, particularly if they are associated with strong emotions, such as guilt, shame or fear. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t come back to haunt you. Repressed thoughts will return in more subtle ways, and may continue to affect your life, even if they are not present in your conscious mind.
One of the best ways to deal with repressed memories and thoughts is by talking. In psychoanalysis, this is known as the ‘talking cure.’ The patients are encouraged to speak about what they think the problem is, and to work through the painful memories and thoughts on their own.
Sometimes, it might feel like people with repressed thoughts are lying about what’s bothering them. In some cases, this might be true. Talking to them becomes a matter of gently coaxing the truth out of them so that you can work on solving the issue. However, if the thought was repressed a very long time ago, they might genuinely not be able to remember what it was that affected them so much in the first place. In these cases, you might need the help of a specialist.
The best way to deal with these intrusive thoughts, in the long run, is accepting them. This is perhaps the most difficult of these three options. It involves a great amount of work, which is often very painful and goes against one’s natural instincts of self-preservation.
People struggling with intrusive thoughts will often times feel very lonely. Understand that you are not alone, on the contrary. There are many people going through similar experiences all over the world. Accepting the fact that your situation is not unique will help you come to terms with your issues.
Many feel that if they accept them, and really let them play out in their head, eventually they will end up acting on them. These reoccurring images usually come associated with feelings most of us would want to avoid, like guilt, or shame. But avoidance is only a temporary solution.
How To Deal With Intrusive Thoughts
When you feel these intrusive thoughts creeping in, think about the situation that triggered them. Find the patterns that lead up to them. Try to analyze these recurring mental structures as if you were conducting a scientific experiment. When these intrusive thoughts start popping up, ask yourself a series of questions, as you let the scenario unfold in your mind. What do these thoughts have in common? What are the feelings that you associate with them? In what contexts are they more likely to occur?
These questions serve a double purpose. The answers you reach can help you figure long-term solutions for dealing with these thoughts. They also help you take some distance. By looking at them in a semi-objective way, you will no longer perceive them as signs that there is something fundamentally wrong with you.
Accept the fact that the emergence of these thoughts is beyond your control. Let these mental scenarios play out. They are in no way indicative of anything you might do in the future. And most importantly, remember that everyone has thoughts like these, and they are normal, as long as they don’t interfere with your daily life. The most damaging thing you can do is to exaggerate the severity of the situation. You can control how much importance you afford these thoughts.
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