In this blog post:
What are intrusive thoughts?
In a nutshell, intrusive thoughts are thoughts that come into your mind out of nowhere. They are the ultimate proof that we do not fully control what we think about. We can quickly become disturbed by our intrusive thoughts, especially if the theme of the thoughts is based on fear, insecurity, shame, guilt, or any combination of difficult emotions.
Our thoughts are not who we are. Our thoughts do not define our character. This can be hard to believe when we have always identified with our thoughts. If we think horrible, scary things then we must be horrible, scary people, right? Not so fast. Are you actually controlling the content of your intrusive thoughts? No, you are not and no amount of willpower or training can completely control what pops into our heads.
Why do people get intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts about disturbing content are actually part of how our brains operate. Our brains are constantly processing incredible amounts of data in order to keep us alive. Our brain is constantly scanning our surroundings and assessing for danger and ways to improve our personal and familial survival rate. There may be times in our lives when intrusive thoughts become more pronounced such as during the perinatal period or during a highly stressful time. This is usually when people notice them more, find them problematic, and seek help.
So what can you do about it?
Two of the most powerful methods to address intrusive thoughts that have worked for me personally and work for my clients are mindfulness and gratitude.
The practice of mindfulness gives you the ability to defuse from your intrusive thoughts and see them for what they are, just bubbles of random data that your survival-oriented-brain is producing. Sometimes they are meaningful and helpful and sometimes they aren't. The practice of mindfulness gives you space between stimulus (thought) and response (upset feelings about the thought) so you can have the freedom to choose what you believe about the thought and how you want to react (eg letting the thought pass, exploring the thought, labeling the thought).
There are many ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life. There are guided meditations on Youtube.com, there are meditation retreats and daylongs, and there are various books on meditation and mindfulness. Also choosing a therapist who is well-versed in mindfulness and can incorporate it into therapy is also helpful.
When we are lost in our thoughts, we generally do not remember to practice gratitude. Gratitude means to affirm the good things in our lives and acknowledge all the factors in our lives that contribute to what is good (e.g. other people). For many of us, a daily gratitude practice was not something that was prioritized growing up and falls outside of our sphere of awareness. We have heard that gratitude is helpful but we don't really know how it can help when we are bombarded with intrusive thoughts that don't seem to let up. In the section below I will spell out some ways to include gratitude in your everyday life.
Incorporating gratitude into your life
The best gratitude practice is the one that you will actually engage in regularly. I personally do not journal but I know that journaling works well for a lot of people. My regular practice of gratitude is a mixture of both formal gratitude practice and informal. My formal gratitude practice involves lighting a candle at dinner with my loved ones and intentionally speaking about what we appreciated that day or what we appreciate in general. My informal practice of gratitude involves moments of pausing in my life and noticing what I am thankful for and spending time feeling gratitude for what I have.
Your gratitude practice can be a mix of informal and formal practice or only formal or only informal. You get to decide how you want your practice to be. What is most important is that you are consistent and that it feels good to you.
Some ways to incorporate gratitude into your life include:
Journaling: This can be a daily, weekly, or monthly practice. You can have pre-written prompts or just freely write about gratitude and what you are thankful for.
Go on gratitude walks: This can be a daily, weekly, or monthly practice. Take a mindful walk in a place that feels peaceful to you. Practice becoming aware of the good things in your life and all the factors that need to be in place to make it possible for you to live the life you are living. Lean into the feelings that this practice evokes.
Include your loved ones: A gratitude practice does not need to be a solo endeavor. Include your family and friends. Include collectively sharing thankfulness during meals or at certain parts of the day.
Make a gratitude bowl: Create a gratitude bowl where you and your loved ones write on strips of paper what you are grateful for and fill the bowl up. At the end of the week or month, empty the bowl and read aloud together what people wrote and celebrate!
Gratitude in action: Practice Random Acts of Kindness as a way to physically express your gratitude to the world. Give large tips when you eat out. Write expressions of gratitude on Yelp. Text grateful messages to your friends. Notice who is responsible for good things in your life such as babysitters, farmers, construction workers, electricians, sanitation workers and find ways to express your gratitude to them.
Set reminders to practice gratitude: These can be physical reminders or mental. A special stone could be your gratitude stone and you can place it somewhere obvious so that you are reminded to practice gratitude each time you see the stone. People or places can be reminders. For me, every time I experience an intrusive thought about something awful happening to a loved one, I use that thought as a reminder to practice gratitude that at this current moment, everything is ok.
Closing thoughts on gratitude
Gratitude cannot be forced. It cannot be forced on children, and it cannot be forced on ourselves. Gratitude practice is an invitation. It should not be seen as a chore or something to be forced because it is "good for you." You are not failing if you can't get into a regular habit of practicing gratitude. Perhaps that simply means that you haven't found a practice that works for you yet. Keep exploring and trying new ways of incorporating gratitude until you find something that is easy to regularly practice and feels good to you. Even just one thought a day that appreciates what you have counts as a gratitude practice.