Working with Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

October 10th is World Mental Health Day.  What better day to turn our attention to managing our unwanted intrusive thoughts? These are the thoughts that pop into our minds, get stuck, cause us distress, and interfere with our ability to focus on the task at hand. Some are just annoying, but others can be extremely upsetting and may even compromise our ability to do our job safely. How we work with these thoughts influences the impact that they have on our mental health and day-to-day lives.

Think of the last time that a song got stuck in your head. You may have gotten frustrated, labelled the song as annoying, wished that it would leave, tried a couple of tricks to get it to leave, and then gave up struggling with it and went on with your day. Eventually the song disappeared on its own. Later, if you realized that the song was gone it may have popped right back into your head and got stuck again! What a predicament, but also an excellent example of how thoughts sometime get stuck and what can be done to loosen them up and let them pass from our minds on their own.

If you break down this example and look at it closely, you can see that the activity and effort that was put into getting rid of the song made it last longer and increased your distress. What eventually worked was giving up fighting against the song, and then shifting your attention to something more interesting. Sounds easy when you put it like that, right? 

Well, not so much if you believe that every single thought that you have is important and worthy of your attention. Here is the thing: some of our thoughts simply do not mean anything, they are just thoughts. 

Sure, you might be thinking, but what about the thoughts that are important and need to be worked with? There is a fine line between reflecting back on the past and unhelpful ruminating, just as there is also a fine line between thinking ahead to the future to plan and unhelpful worrying. Talking through where those lines are for you with a counsellor or other confident can be more productive than trying to figure them out for yourself.

It can be scary when we feel like we do not have a good understanding of or control over the way that our minds are working. Current research has shown that most people struggle from time to time with intrusive and upsetting thoughts, especially during times of elevated stress such as the loss of a loved one, or after experiencing a traumatic event. The good news is that with a little understanding of how your mind works, you can learn how to manage your thoughts more effectively. 

Mindfulness meditation can increase your ability to notice your thoughts without getting tangled up in them. This is a foundational skill when it comes to managing our day-to-day thoughts and emotions. The following is an example of a guided meditation that is designed to help generate a little bit of space between you and your thoughts. If you are curious about mindfulness meditation and want to learn more, check out this article in the Walmsley wellness library.

Allow yourself to see your thoughts as fish in a river. Notice the part of you that is observing the thoughts while resting on the riverbank. You are not interested in catching any thoughts today, you are simply resting on the riverbank observing. You see a couple of thoughts circling in an eddy, they seem stuck but eventually they swim out of the eddy and continue down the river on their own. See how long you can maintain this attitude towards your thoughts while gently bringing your focus back to the present moment. Remember that the thoughts are always swimming by and that you can choose to go fishing whenever you like. When you catch a thought, you are free to choose which to throw back and which to keep.

You may find taking this approach helpful for managing the discomfort of upsetting thoughts and feelings. Many people experience relief when they learn that their thoughts are just thoughts and that they can learn to not get caught up in them. 

If you find yourself needing some help managing intrusive thoughts, please contact us at Walmsley and we can connect you with a counsellor.

Wishing you all the best, 

Jeremy Biffert MEd
Walmsley EFAP