A podcaster I respect gave advice on dealing with negative thoughts by telling people to “shut the door on the thought”. That probably works wonders for her, but for people with anxiety disorders, it backfires.
My story of learning how to deal with intrusive thoughts
That fourth trimester was a wild ride. I wish someone had told me that 91% of new moms and 88% of fathers experience intrusive thoughts in the postpartum period. Or how to deal with them.
91% of mothers and 88% of fathers experienced upsetting intrusive thoughts about their newbornHaving Disturbing Thoughts as a New Parent? Here’s How to Cope, The New Yorrk Times
I was being hit will all these feelings from hormones and sleep exhaustion and then – the cherry on top – intrusive thoughts. ????
My mind kept replaying terrible memories of the Bosnian war news coverage that played nonstop in my house as a kid. I didn’t think of this stuff for decades. But suddenly the scenes and passages I had read came floating up and replaying nonstop in my head.
Intrusive thoughts also accompany anxiety disorders. So if you’re googling advice for “negative thoughts” and it’s not working, try my advice for “intrusive thoughts”. Sometimes the terms we use stop us from finding the advice we need.
Where am I getting my advice on intrusive thoughts?
I get my advice on dealing with intrusive thoughts from my go-to for anxiety disorders: the DBT workbook, and from various OCD awareness accounts on the gram.
OCD? The topic is negative thoughts.
OCD is mischaracterised in media as people needing everything to be “perfect” or “super clean”, but it’s actually clinically defined by having frequent, unwanted, sometimes really unsettling or disgusting intrusive thoughts. While we often hear about postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, but postpartum OCD is a thing, too.
OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. People with other anxiety disorders may experience intrusive thoughts more often than a person without an anxiety disorder, while still not having OCD.
Generally, dealing with their anxiety as a whole will help with intrusive thoughts. And that’s pretty much the backstory of how the DBT handbook got into my life.
What advice doesn’t work for people with anxiety?
Many of the non-OCD-aware influencers and mindset coaches will tell you to simply “not allow” the thoughts to enter your head. To push them away. To extend mental control.
For those with anxiety disorders, this advice can backfire and make the thought stronger, and also make the person feel like a failure. Our brains just don’t work that way.
In fact, a lot of advice frequently given to anxiety sufferers backfires, while it might work for non-anxiety sufferers who are temporarily experiencing anxiety. The irony.
What thought suppression does in anxiety sufferers
- The suppressed thoughts are more likely to come back after suppressing them, compared to people who didn’t suppress their thoughts.
- The frequency of the thoughts intensifies compares to people who do not suppress their thoughts.
Other behaviours that backfire include trying to “check” or “prepare” for the anxious thought/event we’re afraid of. This sends the signal to our brain that it’s a valid fear so the fear only gets stronger and the behaviour becomes more frequent and necessary. e.g the more I check my phone to see if my partner replied yet or has left me on read, the more I fear he will not reply and keep checking my phone.
A caveat: there are obviously basic things we can do for events we should prepare for: we should have a baby gate if we have a staircase in the house. We should have a first aid kid and a fire escape plan and an extinguisher. There’s a difference between these normal preparations and – for example – making our family do fire drills every morning, though.
So what advice works instead?
- As hard as it is when the thoughts are disturbing (like an intrusive thought) or just scary (like “I’m not going to make it/ my partner is gonna find someone better), you have to learn to treat the thought like it’s neutral and has no moral value attached to you.
if I fail? it doesn’t make me a failure. It’s just one fail in a string of attempts I’m going to make. If my partner cheats, it says everything about them. Not about me.
That intrusive thought? It’s not indicative of what I want to happen, intend to do, or my morality. It’s just a dumb thought that’s floated into my head and will go away if I don’t give it attention. Trying to analyse it, pushing it away, and trying to reason with it are all forms of “attention”.
- Let it be there and leave of its own accord. There is a difference between trying to block something and simply letting it be there for now and not giving it attention, and not attaching any significance to it being there. As I write this, there’s a pigeon that nests above the patio of my building. the entire patio is a mess. Does this mess reflect poorly on me? Can I control where the pigeon nests? Nah. It’s just a pigeon. Her chicks will fly away soon enough. That’s how thoughts are. Imagine if I was obsessively checking the window for signs the pigeon had left. I would make zero impact on the patio, but waste a lot of energy.
- Acknowledge the possibility. Yeah, maybe if you launch that course or apply for that job you will bomb. Maybe your partner will cheat. Trying to argue with yourself that it’s not possible gives your brain more of a reason to push back with even more reasons it’s right because the truth is – of course, it’s always possible. It’s just not very likely in the cases of many intrusive thoughts.
I’ve learned to treat my negative thoughts like a dramatic character from “inside out” that isn’t worth arguing with. I mentally go “could be”, “ah huh” and “maybe” in a bored voice until she runs out of things to say.
- Do something nice for myself. Show myself a bit of compassion. This is what Tara Brach calls the RAIN method. In the case of intrusive thoughts, I skip the “investigating” parts because I’ll have already internally assessed if this is something I have evidence for as being likely, or if it is just fear/anxiety prior to labelling it as intrusive.
Usually, the nice thing I do for myself is just a cup of herbal tea or a minute of a breathing exercise or playing a short soundscape on my phone with my earpods. But extending that friendly gesture to myself helps me a lot.
It’s much kinder than mentally fighting with myself.
Sources: (Because I am the credible hulk)