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E46: How to Soothe Ourselves with Mindfulness When We Have Intrusive Thoughts or Worry

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or images or impulses, and they can sometimes make us question our stability. They might make us question our mental health, not to mention cause feelings of shame. Ninety percent of the population experiences intrusive thoughts. And many people are hesitant to reveal or disclose these intrusive thoughts to other people.

Here are some examples of intrusive thoughts, thinking about swerving your car into incoming traffic. Thinking about images of hurting a loved one, thinking about catching a disease, thinking about leaving an appliance running that might cause a fire. Thinking about religious dilemmas or having impulses to do something inappropriate.

intrusive thoughts and mindfulness
mindfulness for worry

As far as how intrusive thoughts relate to worry, this is the way I would describe it. We have an intrusive thought. And then the second part of the experience is the fear that comes up around that. We might have a fear of the thought being true. We might have a fear of whatever it is we're thinking about actually happening.

And then there's a third component, the worry. Worrying is the way we respond to the fear. Or for some that might be obsessive thinking, more intense version of worry. But if we can step in and use a tool and work with the fear, then we might be able to avoid the worry.

I love the metaphor of the beach ball for our intrusive thoughts. We push a beach ball under the water and the more we push it under the water, as soon as we turn around, it's just going to pop right back out. So that's how we can think about our intrusive thoughts. The more we shove them away and push them away, we inevitably will create this experience where they will come back with even more force.

The research shows that mindfulness practice reduces the number of intrusive thoughts that we have. A mindfulness practice might be simply closing your eyes, taking some breaths. You're breathing, you're noticing your breath. You're noticing how your breath feels in your body. You're noticing the muscles in your body that are allowing you to breathe. You might be noticing how your shoulders move with your breath.

The reason the experts think mindfulness practice reduces intrusive thoughts is one, you learn how to be less judgmental. So in that practice of sitting there and listening to your breath, noticing your breath, you find compassion for your experience. You will practice not judging how good you are at paying attention to your breath. This plays in with this cycle of intrusive thoughts because you often jump into this self-judgment about having the thought. For example, “Maybe there's something wrong with me.”

Additionally, mindfulness practice can help us not get caught up in the story of what we're thinking, and the practice can help us be more accepting of what comes up in our psyche instead of rejecting what comes up. Realizing, “This is something that my psyche just randomly created.” It might be because of past trauma. It might be a hormonal issue. And just accepting that this is part of your process in that moment.

And the other thing that the mindfulness practice really helps with is view your thinking as temporary. Yes, in this moment I am having an intrusive thought, but in a few minutes, it could be completely dissolved.

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