Thoughts & Anxiety

Maybe this seems a bit intense for a beach vacation, but it was actually nice to remove myself from every day life to think about something more serious, thoughts I've struggled with.

When I shared with my therapist the anxious thoughts that I've been having and how disturbing I find them, she said, "You know, medication can really help with that." But I refused to believe that a simple pill can clear all my anxious problems up. Mask them? Sure. But truly address them? So I picked up this book (Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts) out of my unwillingness to just surrender to them.

What I've learned is that just about everyone has intrusive thoughts. And when they are disturbing in their content, it's easy to hold onto them and start making judgments about yourself, your mind, your intentions. But here's the thing: "What you resist tends to persist."

A Few Voices Inside Our Heads

The book speaks of the voices in your head, Worried Voice and False Comfort:
Worried Voice articulates the fears and doubts and misguided conclusions that predict tragedies and awful outcomes...False Comfort is actually so disturbed and frightened by Worried Voice that it continuously tries to argue, control, avoid, suppress, reassure, reason with, neutralize, or work around whatever Worried Voice comes up with.
Worried Voice goes nuts when the content of the thoughts is essentially the exact opposite of who you are and what you truly want to believe. The ultimate goal is to experience the thoughts without judgment or evaluation.

Suffering about unwanted intrusive thoughts is a disorder of overcontrol, not undercontrol. Doubt and uncertainty. Trying to control those things that you can't control (the thoughts) and wanting to be absolutely sure that nothing bad will happen. And that's how the thoughts take hold. It makes perfect sense why I'd struggle, someone who wants to feel in control and wants to be reassured all the time.

But simply being alive involves risk. Loving involves the risk that you could lose the ones you so deeply care about.

Common thoughts are of harming, either yourself or someone else. Thoughts about death and dying. Worry is even a form of intrusive thoughts. Especially when you worry about the fact that you're worrying all the time. Toxic worry tries to solve problems that cannot be solved or addressed (i.e. I'm worried that the plane could crash). Anxiety is reacting to something safe as if it's dangerous.

While thoughts have no power to change probabilities in the real world, experiencing disturbing thoughts somehow makes terrible things seem more likely, and so you work hard to "make sure" they never happen.
They fluctuate in intensity and frequency based on the fuel they receive—triggering events in the real world or the stickiness of your mind due to fatigue, mood, or anxiety—and, ironically, by the amount of effort you expend to try to counteract, avoid, or suppress them.
The basic premise of the book is that people who struggle have taken their thoughts too seriously, as if they actually say something about the people they are and the things that might happen. And so the key is to think of the thoughts in a different, non fearful light.

What the Book Teaches

The initial fear experienced as a result of the thought is unstoppable, but the ongoing fear is what we have the power to change. And that first bit of fear goes away quickly when you realize you are not in any danger.

Passivity is actually far more efficient than effort. Sometimes you just have to figure out how to let time pass. Without rationalizing or analyzing.

Most preached techniques involve trying to control. Trying to control the thoughts is entirely the wrong attitude. It ignores the fact that the thoughts are meaningless and harmless, and don’t require controlling. Because when you don't recoil from your thoughts, they lose their power.

The book also hit on a very important point for me involving faith and prayer, but simply by asking God to remove it, I give the thought power and am taking it seriously. And so the prayer feels ineffective, leading to doubt and questioning God. Giving the thought importance leads to it sticking all the more.

And so we are to recognize that they are just thoughts. Accept and allow them to be. Not to distract, not to engage, and not to reason them away. Float and feel them. Let time pass. And proceed. Continue on with normal activities.

Acceptance is the opposite of fighting with the feeling or fleeing from the thought.

Trying to figure out what the thoughts mean or whether or not they are true only keeps them coming back. The problem is thinking that Worried Voice is actually re-assurable. Worried Voice has to learn to tolerate that it can’t have a 100% guarantee about anything in life. And not everything has to mean something.

Anxiety tries to convince you that intrusive thoughts have a special meaning. Part of beating anxious thinking is refusing to be taken in by this misleading message.

Imagining a horrible future does not allow the present reality. 

And so it's best to return the mind to the present, noticing the floor under your feet or the sound of the wind. Focus on what you can sense right now. Sensations change from moment to moment, so do thoughts.

Intentional Exposure

This therapy takes recovery one step further by intentionally exposing yourself to triggers, like carrying the written thought around in your pocket. Saying, "I'm seeing the image of..." over and over to yourself.

The most important aspect of exposure is to stay in contact with what frightens you until the feelings seem more manageable. The goal is to allow all thoughts and feelings into awareness. Avoiding them reinforces and empowers the thoughts. But if intrusive thoughts just don’t matter because you have less fear of them and you are able to tolerate them much better, they then fade out on their own.

The books says that instead of responding to a what-if question, pivot your attention gently over to your senses: what can you hear, see, smell right now here in the moment? What does your body feel like? Notice without judgment or struggle.

Any thought can be tolerated...because there is no real danger. It is only a thought.

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