Intrusive Thoughts As Teachers
Many of my clients come into therapy overwhelmed by scary intrusive thoughts that seemingly pop into their minds out of nowhere. The reality is that, most of the time, intrusive thoughts do not just pop into our minds out of the blue. When we stop and pay attention, we can start to notice a pattern in how our thoughts show up and we can begin to see how they are connected to our emotional state. Not only are these thoughts usually connected to our emotions but many times our intrusive thoughts can be warning signs that something is not right about our life, that we are not living a life in line with our deeper values.
So how can we begin to develop this ability to understand where these thoughts are coming from and what they are trying to teach us? The first step is mindful awareness. When we mindfully pay attention to our thoughts and our emotional states, we can begin to notice how they are connected to each other. Our thoughts might be signaling to us that we need to notice that we are feeling difficult emotions such as embarrassment, shame, disappointment, sadness, anger, resentment, guilt, etc. As we begin to address the underlying deeper emotions, we may notice that our intrusive thoughts tend to lessen in intensity, frequency, and/or duration.
Vipassana And Intrusive Thoughts
Vipassana is a type of meditation and literally means "insight into the nature of reality." The instructions for vipassana meditation are quite simple. Find a comfortable seated position, focus on your breathing, and notice distractions but bring your focus back to your breathing when your mind wanders. Although Vipassana is a formal practice, the ability to focus and let go of thoughts and distractions is a practice that can be valuable everyday life.
Our minds constantly are thinking random thoughts. Some thoughts are helpful (e.g. problem-solving, constructive thoughts) and others not so much (e.g. disturbing intrusive thoughts). Vipassana can teach us how to notice disturbing intrusive thoughts and let them pass like clouds in the sky. We may notice that the thought is signaling a deeper unmet need or emotion which we can then turn our focus to while allowing the content of the thought to rise into our awareness and fall away. The thought has done it's work and we are now aware of something needing our attention like unmet emotional needs and/or that we are living a life in conflict with our deeper values.
Values And Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts may be signaling to us that our lives are not in sync with our values. Perhaps we are working at a job we despise or we are working too many hours and are away from our loved ones more than we want to be. Understanding if we are living a life in tune with our values requires that we take a moment to evaluate how we are living our lives and recognize the deeper values we would like to live by.
Marcus Aurelius instructed us to "Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” Answering this question can help us understand if we are living a daily life in line with our values. Are we afraid to die because we are not doing what we want and we are afraid of missing out on finally doing it or are we afraid to die because we are doing what we want and it would be sad if it ended so soon?
Values Exercise (ACT)
Here is an exercise from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) that can help you discover if you are living your life in line with your values. Print out this form and write down values based on each category: Relationships, Personal Growth/Health, Work/Education, and Leisure. Mark an X to show much you are living these values every day. The more you are living these values on a daily basis, the closer the X will be to the bull's eye. Step back and take a look at your bull's eye when you are done. How close are the Xs to the bull's eye? If they are far away, what changes could you make to live a life more connected to your deepest values and purpose? Write out a plan on how to move your life in the right direction.