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All thoughts are not created equal

by | Anxiety, Blog

Have you ever heard a friend joke that they have OCD because they like things organized or clean all the time? Most humans like routine and order at some level, so it is an easy disorder to relate to. Therefore, being somewhat OCD on some level is oddly common. In addition to being neat and organized, another common symptom of OCD is having unwanted intrusive thoughts. This is simply a thought or images that you find distressing.

If you have had an intrusive thought, you may feel like you were not “normal.” These thoughts could seem very odd and alarming. It could be that you know that you have no intent to act on them, but they are disturbing nonetheless. In fact, the content of the thoughts can be flat-out weird and come with no warning at all.

Furthermore, the media often makes light of OCD and it’s symptoms, which can cause it to be misunderstood. The prevalence of true Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is about 2%-3% of the population which is approximately 1 in 50 people (http://beyondocd.org/ocd-facts). Do you wonder sometimes if you are one of these people?

The unwanted imagines, or pictures in your head can be frightening and you may wonder if you are the only one having them. 

The things that come to your mind would not be something you intend to do, but they are distressing nonetheless. Examples of unwanted thoughts could be the following:

  • You are sitting in a quiet place and you have the thought that it would be crazy if you got up and started screaming
  • You are on the balcony of a hotel and you wonder if you will jump off the balcony
  • Thinking that everyone is looking at you and laughing or talking about you
  • Images of violence or sexually assaulting someone. You know that you could never actually hurt someone, so these are particularly disturbing images
  • Thoughts you may accidentally hit someone with your car at night while driving

As you can imagine these can be very disturbing images. According to Medical Daily (2014) a study shows that 94 percent of people experience intrusive unwanted thoughts in their daily lives. Therefore, you can take comfort in the fact that these cognition’s are very ordinary occurrences! If you are still wondering if you have OCD look at this informational link. Remember, OCD can range from mild to serious in how it affects your life.

Intrusive thoughts can be linked to Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Unwanted thoughts can start to produce extra anxiety in your body because you are ashamed or fear the reason that you are have the strange cognition’s. Do you really want to act on them? Will you truly accidentally hurt someone? You may even feel the need to try to stop these thoughts by doing things that you think will reduce your worry.

Intrusive thoughts can raise your anxiety to uncomfortable levels. This is where compulsions can start to happen. When someone wants to control their anxiety, they will perform rituals that they think will help them get rid of these thoughts. Additionally, ritual habits can be the reason that people get caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions because they are trying to deal with unwelcome cognition’s that cause great anguish.

In other words, OCD is not necessarily what is portrayed on TV. It is not always someone checking if they locked the door, cleaning all the time, or checking if the stove is turning off. The cycle of OCD is having the obsessive thought, feeling intense anxiety, and performing a compulsive behavior that brings temporary relief. There can be many ways that the unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, or urges can start to activate compulsive behaviors, then this can become a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Are you the driver of your thoughts?       

Thoughts have less meaning if you don’t pay attention or get too involved with them, but that is easier said than done. Some thoughts are hard to ignore or keep coming up in your self-talk. If you start to notice which thoughts are hard for you to detach from that is a good start to getting the power back in your internal dialog.

Picture yourself as a bus driver who is driving around a bunch of rowdy kids.

The bus represents your mind and the kids represent your thoughts. The kids are the unpleasant or interfering thoughts that are keeping you distracted and could possibly take you off course if you pay enough attention to them.

Let’s say one of the kids asked to drive the bus so they could be in control instead of you. Imagine if you said yes to the child who did not know how to operate the bus, what would happen? If the kid took over the bus, then it would probably crash. Just like if you give too much weight to an unwanted thought, your life gets out of control.

Letting your thoughts take over or giving too much value to them could be like letting a child drive the bus – it may not end well. Your thoughts, like the loud kids on the bus, would be hard to ignore; however, if you stay in control of the bus the outcome is much better.

In other words, most of us can relate to the fact that our mind goes where we don’t want it to at times. Problems become more pressing if we feel trapped in our thoughts or act upon them in unhealthy ways. As an example, this is when our anxiety can become high and we avoid situations, or excessive thoughts can lead to compulsive behaviors.

A hostage situation

There may be times in your life where you feel totally held hostage by your own mind and this can be very distressing. You may even know your cognition’s are irrational or intrusive, but you feel powerless to fight against them. It could feel like you have no control.

Consequently, a hostage situation is when anxious thinking takes over. You have given the disturbing or negative thought more power than it should have. These negative thoughts will be driving your bus, whether you like it or not. This is the point where you can feel very out of control and overcompensate to get back into the driver’s seat.

It may feel like a tape is continually playing in your head and you can’t turn it off. Humans can have between 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. What is more alarming, is that of those thoughts, 80% where found to be negative (The National Science Foundation, 2005).

If you are feeling extremely overwhelmed by your self-talk, it may be time to get help. You don’t have figure out everything alone.

How to handle intrusive thoughts when they are on the attack

When unhelpful thoughts attack, first remind yourself that you are normal and that 94% of people deal with this problem on some level. If you try to over control your mind, then that is when you can get into the OCD cycle. Giving less power to the thoughts by finding them less interesting and confusing can help them fade into the background. It is just a fact that sometimes our brains create meaningless junk thoughts.

Follow these steps:

  1. Notice and label unhelpful thoughts as “intrusive.”
  2. Give yourself a pep talk that these mental images are automatic and not up to you. The cognition’s are not due to anything you did, but just a normal occurrence that happens to most everyone.
  3. It is okay to let these thoughts into your mind, they have no power to hurt you, they are just thoughts that you have no intent to act on.
  4. Try not to attach any “meaning” to the thoughts. They have no meaning, they are random, and most people experience intrusive thoughts.
  5. Expect the thoughts to come back again and remind yourself that you can handle them.

Acknowledge the thought for what it is, intrusive and unhelpful. Simply tell your mind “thank you mind for that thought but I am going to detach from it now.” In comparison, your thoughts are like the kids on the bus in the metaphor. The more attention you give them, the more they will continue to act up. It is healthy to accept that you will have these disturbances, but so will most everyone else. You are not alone!

In addition, to help with intrusive thoughts try not to resist the thoughts that come to your mind, but don’t give them power either. Do not engage with the thoughts but be okay with the fact that they may pop up from time to time. Basically, the content of some thoughts can be irrelevant and unimportant.

In conclusion, not all thoughts are created equal.

Some are nonsensical, repetitive, and negative. In other words, these thoughts are not helpful. In contrast, focus on giving weight to the thoughts that empower us and make us feel good. Building the skills to discard and filter out useless unimportant cognition’s will make you feel better in the long run.

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