Intrusive thoughts what are they?
A few weeks ago I lost my Grandad. He was the last of my Grandparents and as precious as they all were he was obviously more so because he was the last one we had. I remember thinking a week before he died "I'm not strong enough to cope with this. It's all too much for me, I'm going to have to distance myself from it" and that's exactly what I did. Then I remembered a song that our Gran used to sing when she was poorly. 'One Day at a time sweet Jesus.' The words "One day at a time" became a family motto, if you like and got us through Gran's illness and death and almost 5 years on we were still coping with the loss of such a brilliant light using this motto.
Suffering from anxiety and depression like I have done this last 10 months meant that every day was a battle. I lived every moment one at a time but actually I didn't, i just thought I did. If I had of 'lived' one day at a time I would have coped much better than I was doing. I took one moment at a time yes but instead of 'dealing' with it one moment at a time and coping, I was 'consumed' by the anxiety, all of the time...a very different thing altogether!
So I am standing in the kitchen a few days after Grandad's death, drying the dishes and because I hadn't allowed myself to 'deal' with his death emotionally, (I had pushed it down instead) I was feeling quite numb. I felt I was in a sort of bubble, so much so that I took a sharp knife out of the pot and held it over my wrist. I remember thinking, "If I cut myself with this I wonder if I would feel it?" Now I was not thinking for one moment about self harming and I certainly did not want to kill myself. I just wanted to feel something physical because I was so screwed up emotionally. I honestly felt so numb that I almost wanted to cut my arm just to see if it hurt. Just to see if I could transfer some of the mental and emotional pain into physical pain. After all I had three children without any pain killing drugs and I have fibromyalgia again which can be agonising at times and yet I can deal with that sort of pain, or at least I can deal with it better than the numbness, the emotional pain, the thoughts and feelings in my head that I sometimes can't even process...
A few day later I was sat in a chair opposite a CBT therapist telling him my story. I thought I should feel shocked that I had even thought about self harming. I thought the Therapist would be shocked at my irrational, self harming thoughts but actually I wasn't shocked, I was still a little numb and that made me think there was something so very wrong with me, but he wasn't shocked either, infact he had a name for it...I had had 'An INTRUSIVE thought'. The therapist told me that everyone has intrusive thoughts from time to time but that people with anxiety and depression can be more deeply affected by them and can almost obsess about them because they can struggle to let them go. In fact, many people with anxiety and depression have a condition called Compulsive Obsessive disorder (OCD) and intrusive thought are a form of OCD.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this over the last few weeks. This was the one and only therapist session I had but it was actually ground breaking for me. It's taken time to make sense and soak in but then that's me...always a little behind the rest to cotton on!
Since becoming a member of a facebook group called 'Making friends with anxiety' and getting to know the founder and author of a book with the same name, Sarah Rayner, a little bit, I have learned so much more about mental illness than ever before. I have always read bits and studied bits through my job as a holistic and hypnotherapist and often applied it to my own life but this time I have really taken the time to read or listen and process what has been said by other sufferes. I have met some amazing people who are just like me in so many ways. Normal, caring, kind and busy people who just happen to have suffered with a mental illness for a variety of reasons and this has helped me more than anything to really begin to understand my illness.
I met a lady earlier in the year called Tracy on another mental health site. The site was depressive and negative a lot of the time so I left it but I learned what I needed to learn before I moved on. The one positive I took from it was my friend Tracy. I can honestly say she has been amazing and really helps me though my good and bad days without reprimand, or judgement. Then theirs my friend Marianne. Who actually is a friend of my husbands through his work but over the last few years and particularly the last few months has become like a sister to me. Marianne was my very first real support outside of my immediate family and the one who got me through the toughest days of my break down. Why did they help more than anything or anyone else? I think just because we understand each other, sometimes because one of us has been through something before the other one and can advise accordingly but also because sometimes when one of us is anxious or panicky the other one will see from the outside what is 'actually' happening. Now I understand what other people see about me when I am feeling anxious, depressed or panicked because I have spent time talking and living through events with these amazing ladies and they have become very dear friends to me. Far from making each other feel worse or wallowing in the anxiety we pick each other up, dust each other down, offer virtual hugs and invaluable support and together we are always seeking a positive way to live with our conditions.
I have learnt that usually the person with the anxiety or panic disorder has no real perception of the situation they are in at the time of the anxiety. They know 'logically' what they should be thinking and feeling but the anxiety takes over because as I discussed in an earlier blog, the brain begins to react with anxiety as a instinctive function. People on the outside of the situation see the logic without the fear and find it frustrating that they can't help the person who is anxious or sometimes...far worse...they get annoyed and believe the person who is anxious is attention seeking or creating a drama over nothing, telling them to calm down and get a grip. This leads to anger, paranoia, more frustration, more anxiety and a deeper level of depression for the sufferer and a loss of valued friendships and close relationships. This in turn brings on a downward spiral of emotions which cause the sufferer to hide themselves away from friends, family and everyday life, which isolates them and begins the cycle of avoidance of social situations...the worst thing any sufferer can do!
In actual fact what is happening is that the anxiety or depression is a form of intrusive thought or feeling. I have often said that I have had no conscious thoughts that lead to a panic attack or anxiety, but actually what I have realised more of late is that I have a distinctive sinking feeling just before the anxiety sets in. This is a form of warning sign but sometimes it happens just seconds before the anxiety hits and when it hits it can hit like your slamming into a wall. Your powerless to stop it and it just floors you. Other times you can put the anxiety off only to find as soon as you relax it smacks you in the face again. The panic is then all consuming and once the sympathetic nervous system is in full swing and the adrenaline has been released no amount of positive thoughts can reverse the effects. In fact the harder you try the worse things get. What needs to happen is that the sufferer needs to distract themselves (far easier said than done until you get the hang of it), not panic when it happens (see previous brackets) and wait for the parasympathetic nervous system to 'shut down' the adrenaline over flow, which then means you have to find a way of getting rid of the effects of the adrenaline dump because the physical effects of such an adrenaline dump are horrendous and can last for hours whch can then lead to further anxiety attacks.
Everyone who suffers with anxiety will have different symptoms and triggers and sometimes each attack is different from the last. That's the tricky bit. You just get used to the symptoms of an attack and they change, leaving you feeling the carpet has been swiped from under you and you have to find new ways of coping. If you have ever had an anxiety or panic disorder you will know exactly what I mean. Here is a list of some of the symptoms I have felt. Sometimes they group together, sometimes I get them all, sometimes I get just a few but here they are in their full glory
A sinking feeling
A feeling of dread like something really bad is happening
Feeling I am dying or being sucked out of my body backwards
Head spinning like a top
Feeling like I am going to pass out
Legs and arms begin to shake and or go like jelly
Breathing becomes rapid and shallow and in some cases my diaphragm is so tight I literally can't get any air out to make room to breathe back in
Tension if every muscle in my body
I feel numb in my hands, arms, or legs
Chest pains - which can travel into my back or down my arm into my fingers
I get hot and then ice cold or vice versa
My skin can look flushed or chalky white depending upon the attack itself
I sometimes loose the ability to talk properly
I can't always swallow...my throat just won't open and then when it does it's sudden and I can choke
Pounding in my head or face (usually behind my nose)
I feel sick
Fear of madness
Manic thoughts or actions
The world falls out of my bottom or excess wind
I need to wee much more than usual
Visual disturbances...sometimes I can't focus on anything 6 ins away from my face
Overwhelming exhaustion and fatigue
There are scientific reasons for all of these feelings based on the biological fight or flight mechanism we as humans relied on x hundred/thousand year's ago to protect us from or prepare us for physical attacks. Such as the body needs to eliminate waste so it is lighter and can fight or flee depending on the situation hence going to the loo or being sick. The blood rushes to the core of your body so that if you were in a fight and an extremity was cut you wouldn't be as likely to bleed to death and this in turn can make you feel hot with cold extremities. You sweat to make your body slippery so if you were attacked the attacker wouldn't be able to get a firm grip. The spasms and shakes are caused by too much carbon dioxide in the system due to hyperventilation plus the excess adrenaline in the system and this is your bodies way of getting rid of these excess chemicals. You hyperventilate to get more oxygen into the blood stream to release vital energy stored in your muscles...leading to an energy drain and chronic fatigue. Chest pains are due to the heart working overtime to force the blood around your vital organs. The pupils dilate so they can take in more light so see an attacker or danger and make your vision fuzzy, the feelings of dread or terror is to make the person alert to danger etc etc. So you can see now why someone suffering with anxiety or panic attacks feels so physically ill and why this in turn is terrifying for them. When you have a level of raised anxiety in your body all the time (General anxiety disorder) or several panic attacks a day or week this can make the sufferer feel ill almost all day long and the heightened anxiety means we can not switch off or relax and so we don't sleep and sleep deprivation makes the symptoms worse. The fact is that this all then kicks off more anxiety and begins a cycle of anxiety, fear, symptoms, fatigue, anxiety, fear, symptoms, fatigue etc
So back to intrusive thoughts and OCD. Well people with OCD use it as a way of coping with anxiety. It's almost like an avoidance technique. For instance "I can't go out today I have ironing to do" Means I could go out but If I do I won't be able to stop thinking about my ironing pile and that will cause pressure mentally which means I can't stop thinking about doing the ironing and therefore I will become anxious unless it's done first and won't be able to cope. Or I have an anxiety disorder which prevents me from going out spontaneously and doing things I enjoy so I will use the ironing as a reason for not going instead of admitting that actually I am avoiding going out. In both cases the easy answer is stay home, avoid an anxiety trigger and do my ironing!" In reality ironing is not always 'that' important. When were dead I am sure when St Peter delivers us from the pearly gates to God doesn't he doesn't whisper "She didn't do her ironing, don't let her in! What we are doing is avoiding situations which 'may' or 'may not' cause us anxiety and this avoidance alone creates a cycle of more anxiety.
Are you exhausted just reading this yet? Imagine how we feel as sufferers?
One thing I know for sure with all of my hypnotherapy, psychotherapy and a vast majority of energy healing clients who have a mental illness, is that the root of their fears, phobia's, habits etc is a feeling of not being in control. Most of them accept they can not control their lives but what they fear is that they can not control what happens to them, how they cope with it and their thoughts. So they develop barriers to escape from this. Eating disorders (under and over eating or bulimia), smoking, drinking, drug taking, cleaning, forming a compulsive routine, avoidance...the list is almost endless. We can accept that we can not control life but what we have to learn is how to control the fear, how to deal with the intrusive thoughts, the internal madness which can drive us insane
The answer is to realise that we can not control it all. Infact we can't control many things. We can't stop the world from turning or bad things from happening. We can't avoid everything in life and by avoiding one thing we are teaching our brain that avoidance is the way forward so it reacts with more anxiety so that we avoid more things to prevent it happening but because we can't apply this to everything in life the walls close in and we feel we are going mad. What we can control is how we react to such stimuli. We can control how we deal with intrusive thoughts and feelings. So now when I get those feelings of dread, a horrible image in my head or feelings of sinking or anxiety, instead of thinking I am going mad and focusing on it, I recognise the thought or feeling as intrusive and I let it go, telling myself it isn't real. It won't last for ever and I don't need it. Hence I am stopping the fight, I am not running in fear, I am standing my ground in a loving way and accepting myself for what I am...human!
I have written a meditation where we see our thoughts and feelings as clouds in the sky and we allow them to blow away on the breeze and watch them as they go, allowing them to float away without any attachment. Trying to force them away only brings more intense feelings or thoughts. Staying attached to them only makes us feel we have failed because we can see them go but we are still holding onto the strings. Some clients like to sit on a park bench and visualise putting their thoughts, feelings and worries into a basket which they then give to the Angels and ask them to take the basket away and either remove the energy altogether or transmute it and bring it back in another form we can deal with. Whatever way works for you is good. Try a few different methods of letting your thoughts and feelings go. Write them down in a journal. Write them down and burn them on a candle flame (safely). Release them like animals out of a cage. Watch them blow away like clouds. Give them to your Angels to carry away for you. Blow them out of your body like bubbles. Send them up in a hot air balloon or maybe think of your own. But realise that no matter how scary, these thoughts and feelings are not real. They are your subconscious way of keeping you safe...in it' own warped way and by taking back the control of your thoughts, feelings and reactions to them you are taking back control of your life and reducing your fears.
So next time you want to eat, drive, go out, whatever your particular fear is, instead of allowing the intrusive thought or feeling to gain power and instead of fighting it, just recognise it, release it and do it anyway. Doing, without thinking or over thinking is truly the best way to overcome a fear and once you have done it be very very proud of yourself and challenge another fear as soon as you can because it really is the way to better health. Of course this takes practice and perseverance but it can be done and is by many.
We know through science that chemicals in the brain are directly linked to depression and anxiety when imbalanced and now we know that these chemicals respond to thought and therefore can be corrected with positive thoughts and actions. Hence therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Neuro Linguistic Programming and counselling. Far less are we relying on drugs to correct these imbalances as mood stabilising drugs can cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects and many are addictive with with drawl being worse than the actual illness, but much more research needs to be made in to the brain chemicals and functions before medic's can really find a cure for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression but if we can find ways to help ourselves and each other in the mean time we can save lives and give ourselves and our families
the quality of life we deserve.
We may never be free of anxiety or depression fully. Anxiety is a natural response designed to keep us safe and we can not change our genetic make up but we can find our inner control panel and reset the dial from 'out of control' to 'self control' and learn to live a more settled life. Finding your unique code is the challenge but if we look deep enough inside we realise we all have all the codes we need and we can all regain a more comforting level of control. I hope I have found mine and I pray that by reading this blog some of you will also find yours xx
Hi my Name is Philippa Woodsford and I am a Holistic therapist, Reiki Master Teacher and Hypnotherapist. I suffer with anxiety and depression due to a condition called fibromyalgia which I believe is linked with an auto immune disease I was diagnosed with at just 17. My blog is written for me as a sort of journal but also in the hope it may bring hope and healing to others suffering with similar issues on a daily basis. Enjoy