Dealing with intrusive thoughts
We all have ‘noise’ going on in our minds. Odd thoughts pop into our minds that surprise us but usually we never act on them. Many of my clients don’t realise that intrusive thoughts happen to all of us. The trick is to realise that thoughts will always keep coming. Learning to filter your thoughts and not pay each thought equal attention is the key to a more contented life. When we focus on the negative thoughts, it can often lead to anxiety and/or depression.
Optimists are very good at buffering themselves from their negative thinking, they are just somehow good at placing less importance on negative self critical thoughts and spend more mental energy on the positive hopeful thoughts.
Imagine that you are a bus driver and you need to drive your bus from A to Destination B. On your bus you have a few intrusive difficult passengers who keep yelling, “What if we get lost?”; “You can’t drive a bus, you’re pathetic!”; “What if we get a flat tyre?”; “What if we have an accident?” or “You’ll never be able to do it”.
What would happen if you listened to these passengers? It would certainly make the task a lot harder and would probably distract you or lead you to avoiding driving the bus altogether.
Our intrusive thoughts are like these passengers on the bus – they can be ignored. If we pay attention to them they distract us and affect our confidence and our behaviour. Learning to focus our attention only on thoughts that are helpful is a skill that takes practise but we are all capable of doing it.
At times, we have to distract ourselves completely in order to stop the thoughts. One clever technique is to practise mindfulness which means being fully present in the moment. To help bring you back to the present moment rather than engaging with mad thoughts in our minds – try this technique:
- Look for 5 things you can see around you
- Listen our for 4 things you can hear
- Three things you can touch
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
It’s possible that not all the above will be possible depending on where you are, but engaging as many of your senses as you can leaves your brain with less space for mindless thoughts.
Thoughts are not facts – they are just part of how your brain works. Learn to ignore the thoughts that are unhelpful. Look for evidence of your thinking to ensure you are not assuming or mind reading (imagining you know what other’s are thinking), overgeneralising, catastrophising (thinking about the worse possible scenario) or personalising (eg. assuming someone isn’t talking to you because of something you have done – it could be that they slept badly or have a worry completely unrelated to you that has made them seem unfriendly). All of the above examples are not evidence based yet cause us stress.
Learn to be discerning with your thoughts – many of them are just complete nonsense!