As I discussed in a previous blog post, intrusive thoughts can be defined as thoughts (including images, memories, and internal speech) that repeatedly come up, despite the person’s attempts to control the thoughts. These thoughts can be disturbing to the person having them, and they’ll usually find that any attempts to stop or control the thoughts are ineffective in the long-term.
Note: in this blog post we’re going to discuss strategies to effectively deal with intrusive thoughts through mindfulness and acceptance strategies, but NOT strategies to get rid of the thoughts! When we truly accept our thoughts and allow them to come, stay, and go on their own, then we rob the thoughts of most of their power. Once this happens the thoughts become much less bothersome, and are likely to decrease in frequency.
Notice and Name
Here’s a strategy to try out: Sit in a comfortable place and close your eyes. Throughout the entirety of this exercise you will be taking the stance of a neutral observer. Try to think of yourself as an alien who has just arrived to our planet and has taken on a human body. This alien doesn’t have a concept of what’s “good” or “bad” in our planet, or even what is considered “normal”. The alien is experiencing everything with fresh eyes and curiosity.
The purpose of this exercise is to gain a bit of distance from your thoughts, and to view them less personally. This should lead to robbing your intrusive thoughts of some of their power.
To start, spend a few moments focusing on your breath and noticing the natural flow of it (without trying to control it). Then, move your attention upwards towards your head. If you'd like, visualize yourself sitting in a dark movie theater (this can be helpful to distance yourself from your thoughts). Now let your mind go wild. For the next several minutes allow your mind to do anything it wants to and to show you anything. Your job is to just observe what your mind shows you, without looking away and without distracting yourself.
Name the things that your mind shows you, but with a little bit of distance. So instead of saying, “I’m having a memory of…” say, “My mind is showing me a memory of…” or even, “I’m noticing a memory of…”
Instead of saying, “I’m imagining…” say “I’m noticing an image of…” So for the purposes of this exercise, it isn’t “you” who’s having the thoughts, it’s your “mind.” You’re observing and noticing what your mind shows you. Continue engaging in this exercise for several minutes, and end it by focusing on your breath for a minute or two.
Distort the Thoughts
One exercise that can be interesting to try out is to consciously distort aspects of your thoughts. For example, have you ever tried getting REALLY close to a TV screen, looking at the screen within an inch or so from your face? If you do this you completely lose perspective of what’s on TV, and you just see tiny pixels. Also, have you ever tried listening to a song in fast forward? How about listening to it in reverse? It completely changes the feel of the song, and makes it sound pretty odd!
So during this exercise I’d like you to again allow your mind to show you anything it wants to. When there is an image that arises, try freezing it in place. Now, imagine really zooming into the image, and get so close to it that you can only see blown-up pixelated areas of the image. Then back up and try changing the color of the image. Make it black and white, sepia, ultra-saturated colors, etc. Even try rotating the image around.
If the thoughts are primarily audio, then try changing the tone of what you hear, change the pitch and tempo, maybe add a silly soundtrack to it. Then try listening to the audio in fast-forward, and afterwards in reverse.
Note: The purpose of this exercise is to view your thoughts from different perspectives in order for them to lose some of their power, but it IS NOT to get rid of thoughts or permanently alter them.
Thoughts Are Just Thoughts
Finally, remind yourself that “thoughts are just thoughts” and they are not something to be controlled. Your thoughts are not necessarily a reflection of who you are or of your intentions. Thoughts can be spontaneous, and at times non-sensical. It’s oftentimes just noise that your mind produces with no rhyme or reason to them. Thoughts should be allowed to roam freely and to have a life of their own. Remember this general rule: in the absence of an intention to act on negative thoughts, these thoughts are completely safe.