Dealing With Intrusive Thoughts

Most of us have experienced intrusive thoughts at some point in our lives. They often arrive at times of high stress and can fill our heads with unhelpful ‘what if’ scenarios and irrational fears that leave us preoccupied or distressed. Trying to make ourselves stop thinking in this way doesn’t seem to have much effect. How might counselling or psychotherapy help?
Defining Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts usually involve a perceived threat to safety. This might be fear of something bad happening (to us or to those we care about) or that we are ourselves are in danger of hurting others – and hence being rejected by our family, friends or society. Such unwanted thoughts might come into our awareness completely unbidden and often set up shop and hang about for months on end.
What Lies Behind Intrusive Thoughts?
I work from the premise that intrusive thoughts are often a sign that something is wrong and that our body is trying to tell us that we need to do something about it. This might come about for a number of reasons. Common triggers include:

  • a recent or unprocessed trauma – eg a frightening experience or the death of someone we love
  • a prolonged period of emotional overload
  • trying and failing to make sense of something that has happened to us
  • feeling trapped in a difficult situation
  • pressure to break one or more of our personal ‘rules for living’
  • feeling unworthy of love and attention from others
  • fear of taking a risk or of our own strong feelings (especially anger or sorrow)
  • unexpressed emotion that has not been put into words or heard by another
  • fear of having failed in some way, or of others’ rejection.

Making A Difficult Change
When working with people experiencing intrusive thoughts, I’ve noticed that there is often pressure to make a major life change lurking about in their story background. Perhaps we need to leave a job, break away from an unhealthy relationship, or take another kind of risk that involves bearing uncertainty and the unfamiliar. Alternatively, we might need to look at our own values in terms of standards of behaviour and rules for living; maybe they are set impossibly high or have been overtaken by events.
How Can Counselling And Psychotherapy Help?
Although often vivid, it is useful to remember that intrusive thoughts exist solely in our own heads. Unlike actions, thoughts cannot harm ourselves or anyone else. Simply knowing that most people experience them at some time in their lives can be reassuring. If, however, we feel stuck in a situation which is causing continuing distress, having a therapist alongside us can provide a different perspective, help find clarity and challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions that might not be serving us well. We can also take advantage of regular time to reflect on our lives in a safe, non-judgemental and encouraging place.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation. Emailing in the first instance seems to work best.
Copyright Caroline Clarke, Private Practice Counselling and Psychotherapy in Brighton and Hove, Sussex.
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