Have you ever been standing on the side of a busy city street with the traffic flying past and all of a sudden been struck with the thought, “I could just step into oncoming traffic and end it all”? Or perhaps the thought of pushing someone else into the barrage of cars has popped into your head? When asked, the vast majority of people will report experiencing similar thoughts.
These unwanted intrusive thoughts may be extremely negative, self-defeating or even of a violent or sexual nature. Many people report these thoughts as being weird, or crazy, or bizarre. These thoughts may scare you, they may disturb you, and you may have tried very hard to suppress or get rid of them, with little success.
When you are in a high state of anxiety it is common to have physical symptoms such as your heart beating fast, shaking, sweating, etc., but it’s also common to have psychological symptoms of a 'weird', 'crazy', and intrusive nature. You might worry and you might even vividly imagine that you will all of a sudden snap and tear all your clothes off in public, that you might drive your car into an oncoming truck, that you might push someone off the train platform, that you will become sexually aroused by something inappropriate, or that you might rape or kill someone.
People experiencing these thoughts and images going through their mind will often feel distressed and disturbed by them. These thoughts and imagery might happen occasionally, or they may also be quite repetitive and relatively constant. When these thoughts emerge, a person’s initial instinct will often be to try their best to get these thoughts to go away somehow, in any way they can. Common fears that people have in conjunction with these thoughts include themes revolving around social embarrassment, losing control, and going insane. People begin to fear that these thoughts and visual images will never go away. Often people will try anything to make these thoughts go away because they believe that if they are having these thoughts then it will only be a matter of time until they act on them, or until they go insane.
Intrusive Thoughts are Normal
Having these thoughts, visual imagery, and fears are completely normal. Everyone has these thoughts from time to time. I bet you weren't expecting to hear that? It is a part of the human condition, but when you are experiencing high levels of anxiety these thoughts may become more frequent and prominent.
Many people will attach meaning to these thoughts and appraise them as a sign that they have some kind of abnormal underlying issue or condition. Some believe that having these thoughts means that they are a psychopath, or a rapist, or a lunatic, or a bad person, or perhaps these thoughts might be evidence of some kind of residual remanence from a past life. These beliefs will often create even further anxiety and distress for the person. The problem is not having these thoughts, the problem is how we respond to them. For example, everyone has these kinds of thoughts from time to time but whilst some people will obsess over them, others won't pay them much attention at all. It may feel instinctual to obsess over them but this will only fuel the problems further. I have said it once and I will say it again, anxiety is a paradoxical problem. In other words, we often must do the opposite of what our instincts are telling us to do in order to bring about change.
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
Most commonly these types of thoughts and fears come from being in a heightened state of physiological arousal, commonly known as hyperarousal. Normally when you worry about something or perhaps you almost get hit by a car, a stress response, also known as the fight or flight response will be triggered by the amygdala, the fear centre of your brain. This will spark an influx of physiological sensations, such as an increased heart rate, and feelings of being on edge. As the body is always trying to maintain homeostasis, your body will then naturally begin to calm itself down, and you will feel like you are back to normal. But if these stress responses are being triggered too often then the body does not have time to calm itself down before the next stress response fires off, resulting in the stress building over time, culminating in a state of hyperarousal. Humans have evolved over the last few hundred thousand years, and of the key issues that enabled our survival as a species was the ability to anticipate threats, such as a lion. When in danger or even when danger is perceived, the amygdala's primary objective is to keep you alive and therefore must rapidly analyse the environment for any and all threats. Being able to imagine worst case scenarios has helped humans to preempt threats and avoid them, thus increasing chances of survival. This is very helpful when it comes to survival but not so helpful in the modern world, perhaps anticipating if our boss is going to scream at us at any moment.
In a high state of stress the rational part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is suppressed and we struggle to think clearly. We become emotional and we start to panic and struggle. Have you ever seen videos of people cave diving? Panicking in a situation like that could result in their ultimate demise. They must stay focused at all costs despite feelings of adrenaline and fear coursing through their veins. The more you fear and fight these thoughts and images, the more you feed them, only reinforcing them and creating more stress for yourself.
When you are in this highly aroused state you give random thoughts that pop into your head more significance than what they really deserve because when we are in a hyper aroused state our sense of danger is heightened and our rationality reduced. For example, if a lion was approaching you, you would want to feel a heightened sense of danger in order to motivate you to run away. If you were rationalising, asking yourself “Hmmm, I wonder if this lion is a threat to me?” Or thinking, “What kind of elaborate plan do I need to get away from this animal?”, then it would be too late. The lion would have made you it’s dinner. From an evolutionary point of view, survival comes first, not rationality, and we absolutely want it to be that way. Whenever we find ourselves in a dangerous situation, the fear and emotional centre of our brain starts sounding alarm bells to alert us that there is a potential threat to us. With anxiety, we have inadvertently trained our brains to sense threats where there aren’t any. For example, a person about to stab us is a real threat. Worrying about being stabbed is not a real threat, but our brain interprets these worries as if they are real, and produces a REAL physiological response. Over time our brain and nervous system becomes overstressed, tired, and subsequently does not respond optimally.
How Do We Stop Intrusive Thoughts?
Considering these thoughts are psychological symptoms of being in a state of hyperarousal, we need not be concerned of the intrusive thoughts themselves, as this will simply contribute to more stress and more symptoms. Being overly concerned with the thoughts, fearing them, analysing them, obsessing over them, trying to suppress them, and trying to figure out how to get rid of them will only add more stress. These behaviours are exactly what keeps your anxiety and these thoughts persisting. What we need to do is to reduce our level of physiological arousal, and we do this by addressing and modifying our behaviours that contribute towards our hyper-aroused state.
If we can reduce our level of physiological arousal, our anxiety, and our stress, then over time then these ‘weird' thoughts will naturally disappear. Believe it or not but even people who do not struggle with anxiety have these bizarre thoughts from time to time. The difference is that these people do not allow themselves to get drawn into these thoughts, they let them come and go because they understand that these thoughts are only coming about from being in a heightened state of stress. Therefore, they do not overreact and catastrophise over these thoughts. When dealing with these intrusive thoughts, you are giving them much more significance than they deserve and if you fear or try to fight them then you are only fuelling them further. Whilst you may be worried that you might lose control or go insane, you are always in control whether you realise it or not. There is no causal link between having these thoughts and losing control or developing a severe mental condition.
The reality is that whilst these thought might seem scary, they are meaningless and will dissipate of their own accord if you allow your mind and body enough time to rest. Additionally, extinguishing the fears that fuel the continuance of these thoughts largely involves learning how to respond to them with a calm and neutral response. Over time we train our brain to realise that these thoughts are insignificant, and once the brain registers this, it naturally stops producing them. The thoughts may still pop up occasionally but if we continue to underreact to them and recognise that they do not pose a threat, over time our fear of these thoughts will be completely extinguished.
How Long Does Recovery Take?
If you’re not someone who has been dealing with anxiety issues, but you are still getting these thoughts then it’s just a matter of not giving these thoughts much significance and reducing your overall stress. These thoughts are simply a symptom of high stress and anxiety. Overreacting to these thoughts will only add more stress. If you have been dealing with anxiety issues, whether, it has been for a short period of time or a long period of time the answer is the same. When we are in this state of hyperarousal it can take a long time to recover, and the length of time taken for recovery will be different from person to person. Some of the reasons for this are that everyone is unique, people have different levels of physiological arousal, people live their lives more or less anxiously than others, people have more or less problematic behaviours to address, people may have substance use issues and hardcore addictions, people may be experiencing multiple anxiety disorders concurrently, some people may have a more or less complex belief system than others, and the level of commitment to recovery is also different between individuals. Recovery will take as long as it takes. Putting a timeline on recovery or comparing your recovery with someone else’s will only slow down your progress. Recovery may be your goal, but I want to make it clear that recovery is actually a physiological outcome of solid therapeutic work. If you do the work required then recovery is the inevitable outcome.
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