dealing with intrusive thoughts
June 20, 2013 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Hi Hivemind. So, when I was a kid I suffered badly from intrusive thoughts. I am a LOT better now, but every so often my intrusive thoughts get triggered, usually from being in a particular place where I had a bad episode as a teenager. I have to go there regularly and often at night when I am trying to go to sleep I'll have another episode. How to deal, apart from therapy? I'm on the waiting list.

Hi guys. Okay, so background: As a kid I had intrusive 'bad thoughts' from around the age of 7 or 8, and probably a wider anxiety issue - I was very superstitious and ritualistic (I used to pray obsessively because I thought that if I didn't, my parents would die) and as a young preteen/teen I was guilt-ridden about my burgeoning sexuality. When I was 16-17 I had a very bad few months and was probably clinically depressed. I never had any kind of treatment for this, as I felt too bad to talk about it to anyone except my mom, who was very understanding. We have a plethora of mental illnesses in our family (schizophrenia, depression and bipolar 2).

Anyway, at the age of 18 I left home for university and ever since then have been completely OK. I think I just needed more friends and company and things to occupy me, as I was a bit of a lonely kid.

When I think back to being a kid I feel like all those bad thoughts and feelings happened to a completely different person, and I feel really sorry for that kid.

But I visit home a few times a year to visit the family, and each time, without fail, I'll have a minor episode of intrusive thoughts at night. I have a feeling it is just triggered by the sensation of being at home again, a place where I had my worst episodes. It's absolutely minor compared to what I went through as a child. I feel fine during the day. But I hate it, all the same. I just want to have peaceful nights. What is the best way to deal with these stupid thoughts? Has anyone else experienced this, and what have you found to be helpful?

I am not on any form of medication. I've have some anxiety therapy in the past but nothing else. I'm seeking therapy, but in the country I live in, it takes a while to get access.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
EFT and Tapping are great for this.

Google the terms and you'll find helpful videos.

Paul McKenna has books that teach it, with DVDs, cheap on Amazon and WORTH IT!

Try I Can Make You Sleep.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:04 AM on June 20, 2013

There are a ton of ways to deal with intrusive thoughts. As someone who has been through several types of therapy for clinical OCD, here are a few that work for me:

1. Don't try to "get rid of" the intrusive thought. That (to me) just makes it stronger. Instead, sit with it. Let it play out. See if you can manipulate it ("If I don't pray, my parents will die. What if I pray to someone other than God? Who is God? What if I try to pray to God in French?"). See what happens when you let the thought spool out in your mind, knowing that it's just a thought.

2. "Decolor" your thoughts. So if you're thinking about something upsetting, take away the colors. Play that movie in your head in black and white. This is kind of like the above, only a more visual approach.

3. Examine the feelings that the thoughts give you. Are you anxious? If so, how much, on a scale of 1-10? If you're at, say, an 8, breathe until you get to a 7. What does 7 mean to you? Can you get to a 5?

All of these things train you to de-couple the feelings from the thoughts. Thoughts are just thoughts, and though they can upset you, you can learn to let them play themselves out.
posted by xingcat at 7:05 AM on June 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

xingcat is right. It sounds like you are experiencing something along the lines of PTSD. One theory of PTSD is that the bad memories aren't properly integrated into your own conscious history of self. They sort of exist as bubbles of memory that aren't accessible or apparent in regular life. Your brain tries to route around the damage/pain, instead of processing it and accepting it. So when these memories get triggered, they are alarming (or worse) because they seem like a bit of a surprise. Sort of like that feeling when you remember a disturbing dream.

So yes, the basic process is "this is a thing that used to happen to me, I can't change that, I'm feeling much better now, these memories have no power over me. They are just memories, they aren't reality."

(Unless, of course, you really aren't completely feeling better now, and there are some unresolved issues. Therapy to sort them out so you ARE feeling better now would be in order.)
posted by gjc at 7:22 AM on June 20, 2013

I haven't read it, but The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts is well-reviewed (and was reportedly useful to another MeFite, last time I recommended it).
posted by kmennie at 8:01 AM on June 20, 2013

I don't have significant problems with intrusive thoughts, but when I do get them (often when I'm trying to get back to sleep after waking up at night), I find listening to podcasts at an extremely low volume usually works for me. I use the sleep headphones from ThinkGeek, which don't hurt my ears the way regular earbuds do when I'm lying on a pillow.

The low volume means that I have to focus my attention on the podcast to hear what the speaker is saying, and if I go for more low-key podcasts, I don't get so involved that I wake up.
posted by telophase at 8:44 AM on June 20, 2013

When I get intrusive thoughts, it helps me immensely to visualize the opposite "good" outcome that is likely to happen. For example, if your intrusive thoughts involve your parents dying, imagine them calling you or visiting you over the next holiday. It's usually pretty easy to visualize these in detail, because they've happened before and are certain to happen many more times, so the good thought often becomes more vivid, familiar, and believable than the intrusive thought.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:09 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can be in a state where your thoughts are what you are observing rather than what you are experiencing. Some people use visualizations for this. xingcat mentioned decolorizing images. You might use other ways as well, like adjusting the volume of thoughts that are more auditorially represented. You can also create a sense of distance between you and your thoughts. Bring the image close than far, wiggle it. See it through a fisheye lens or hear it through an echochamber or adjust the pitch lower.

Thoughts as something that happens to you happens. You have will and skills by which you can interrupt this though.

As far as the emotional component, your reaction to your thoughts, resistance usually magnifies rather than diminishes feelings. Go ahead and note what you feel with self compassion while being ready to move on to the next feeling. Feelings we resist persist. Feelings that get felt are able to move on.
posted by logonym at 9:20 AM on June 20, 2013

Mindfulness meditation helped me to deal with this issue in general -- just learning how to let thoughts go, allowing them to pass through my head per their inherently transient and impermanent nature rather than trapping them like an object so they can spin on my brain-wheel for hours. Focusing on the tip of your nose as you breathe in and out is a good one; the simple act of consistently noticing the physicality of your breathing can assist in your pursuit of a clear mind. Alternately, you could try lovingkindness meditation, so the runaway thought train might eventually have another route to take.
To gain perspective and patience, I've likened my intrusive thoughts to a smoothly paved four-lane highway, and 'positive' thoughts to a small dirt path through a thick forest -- it takes a lot of work to make the dirt path as easy to drive on as the highway, especially when you have no experience driving off-road.

White noise machines are great for sleepytimes (I have this one). In terms of eliminating nightly dives into existential terror, I've found that valerian tea will knock me out just the same as Xanax without giving me that groggy, medicated hangover feeling in the morning.

I also have a small set of harmless, silent tics that I rotate through when I am having a particularly bad bout of intrusive thoughts, especially fingerspelling the thoughts out using the American Manual Alphabet/American Sign Language. Something about the concentrated, methodical nature of fingerspelling gives me something tangible to refocus and train my attention on, which can help to remove the venom from the feverish anxiety that always seems to come knocking around 3 AM.

If you are feeling triggered by going back home, you might explore getting a hotel in town for a night or two and seeing if that improves how you feel -- you don't have to sleep in your family's house in order to visit them, particularly if continuing to do so is damaging your mental health. If you feel weak or helpless in the face of your intrusive thoughts, please remember to forgive yourself. It's the most important thing.
posted by divined by radio at 10:07 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanissaro Bhikku's approach to meditation explicitly deals with fashioning more skillful thoughts. Try his brief talk "Training the Whole Committee." His book With Each and Every Breath has a long section (Part III) on bringing these skills from meditation into daily life. As divined by radio says, loving-kindness meditation will probably be a major plank of any solution along these lines.
posted by fivebells at 11:17 AM on June 20, 2013

In addition to addressing the thought part of it, I will suggest you eat right, exercise, take your vitamins, work on any health issues and, if traveling home involves physical stress (like jetlag), then try to address that.

I had an abusive childhood and I have serious physical health issues. I have a much harder time keeping my head on straight when suffering insomnia, running a fever, etc. It is vastly easier to deal rationally with my thoughts and feelings when my body is more together and functional.
posted by Michele in California at 12:09 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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