Intrusive thoughts are those thoughts, memories, and mental images that constantly come back time and again despite us not wanting them to. This could be due to them being distressing or because we’re doing something else and don’t want to think about that right now. Intrusive thoughts don’t have to be about PTSD…when you’re hungry, for example, you might keep thinking about food until you eat something. The thing with hunger is once you eat, your obsessive thoughts on food will likely end. The problem with PTSD is you can’t “feed” the obsessive thought to make it go away.
Intrusive thoughts regarding PTSD often happen because our brain is trying to “heal” a traumatic memory. Our bodies and brains are meant to heal from wounds. However, when something gets stuck, like a splinter, the body doesn’t heal without getting rid of the splinter first. The brain does the same thing – it tries to get rid of whatever is keeping it from healing. Our intrusive thoughts are the brain working on healing and not being able to. It tries again and again to heal. However, an important aspect of intrusive memories is it NORMAL in the first few weeks after a traumatic event happens. Our brain is processing what happened. It becomes more problematic if they continue beyond a few weeks.
Doing something to avoid the memory or distract from the memory often doesn’t seem like enough. The memories are “intrusive” because they intrude on what we are doing, including trying to avoid or distract. The ironic thing is working on intrusive memories includes using distraction techniques.
There are a variety of techniques therapists use to help with intrusive memories including cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients understand and replace negative self talk, dialectical behavioral therapy to help clients learn how to stay in the present (mindfulness) when they start going into past memories or having intrusive thoughts, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) to help clients resolve trauma memories, and many more.
Try staying mindful of what you are doing when you have intrusive thoughts. Don’t beat yourself up over them…your brain is trying to heal. Gently bring your mind and all of your senses back to what you are currently engaged in. Notice your body and any tightness, discomfort, or stored energy. If there is any, release it through muscle relaxation, meditation, exercise, or using sound (singing, making other noises as your body feels is needed). Every time your mind wanders, just gently, without getting angry at yourself, bring it back to what you’re doing.
If you are unable to feel relief by doing this by yourself, you may want to seek out support. There are many support groups: The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great resource to find support groups near you. There are also many treatment groups, from partial hospitalization day treatment programs to weekly dialectical behavioral therapy groups. There are also so many therapists trained in many different forms of treatment to help you through your difficult time. You are not alone with intrusive thoughts!
For more information, or if you are not sure where to go for help, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I will help you find support or therapy, even if you do not live near me. You can reach me at 860-501-9767; 941-462-4807; or firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay strong! The intrusive thoughts WILL subside!