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How to Handle Intrusive Thoughts

Most people, whether they have OCD or not, have experienced intrusive thoughts at some point.  Intrusive thoughts are the thoughts that “snag” in your brain and won’t go away.  When you finally shift your focus to something else, the thoughts periodically pop back. If you push the thoughts away, they may pop back faster. You feel hunted. But if you know how to handle intrusive thoughts, it’s like having a secret superpower.

The best way to deal with intrusive thoughts is to not push them away, but rather to react to them as if you are totally unphased. Acting like you don’t care about these electrified thoughts powers them down.  Again, most people have had the experience of being stuck on a thought, sleeping on it, and then in the morning, once they have some distance, thinking: “Wow, that thing that I was so worried about was really irrational.”

But what to do if you wake up in the morning and the thought is still there?

Invite the thought to stay awhile.

Having an intrusive thought that won’t go away and survives a good night’s sleep is unnerving. It makes you wonder if the thought is real. (It’s still not).  The way to deal with an intrusive thought that is sticking around is simply a more involved version of how you would deal with any other intrusive thought. Accept that you’re having the intrusive thought. Let it hang out in your peripheral vision. It may feel uncomfortable, but just let it be.

You can try a few different visualizations:

Invite the worry to exist in your peripheral vision.  Imagine the worry pedaling away on a stationary bicycle.  It’s planted there, and it can pedal and sweat all it wants. Eventually, it will get tired.

Here’s another approach. Imagine you have someone in your social circle who you’re sort of friends with, who is also really annoying and overcaffeinated and clingy. Imagine that this person has shown up unannounced on your doorstep. This person is ringing your doorbell incessantly; she knows you’re home! If you try to ignore her, odds are good she is going to keep ringing the doorbell. She may start texting you or calling you. And you feel violated: why is she at your house, refusing to leave you alone when you clearly don’t want her there?  But imagine if you went downstairs and greeted her. “Oh, hey, come on in. I’m pretty busy right now, but if you want, you can sit on the couch and read a magazine.”  That pesky friend is going to be disappointed.  Odds are good, she’ll sit on your couch, leaf through a magazine, talk for awhile (and be ignored), and get bored quickly. Maybe this person will think twice about showing up unannounced again.

If this exercise sounds hard, that’s because it is hard. When you have an unsettling, intrusive thought, getting through the moment or the day is hard enough. If you use coping mechanisms to unplug the thought and teach your brain a new way to react to OCD thoughts, it’s like going to the mental gym. You’re strengthening a muscle.  You’re retraining your brain.  In fact, you are rewiring your brain.  When practiced over time, your brain is unphased by intrusive thoughts.  A year from now, a thought that could bring you to your knees might just feel like a cold breeze.

This work is hard and it’s so worth it.

If you are currently struggling, I recommend you check out my illustrated guide on how to handle an OCD storm.  If you’re interested in working one-on-one with me to learn OCD coping skills and how to live with your glowing OCD brain, you can read about coaching with me here.

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