Understanding intrusive thoughts


For many of the clients I treat, intrusive thoughts are part of their problem. This is especially true in cases of PTSD or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but intrusive thoughts are often a major issue in cases of depression, anxiety, or marriage therapy where there has been infidelity.

With PTSD, a client "stuck" in the trauma may suddenly have a flashback to horrible abuse, or with OCD, an internal voice may say "You hit a pothole on that road" over and over until the client is tortured into re-driving the road several times the "right way." Depressed or anxious clients often have uncontrollable thoughts of self-criticism. In a marital crisis, a woman may be unable to stop thinking about an image of her husband telling another woman he loves her. There are many examples, and some individuals struggle with intrusive thoughts without any other mental illness present.

You don't know how horrible it is to live like this until you experience it yourself. However, I can give you an idea of what it's like:

DON'T THINK ABOUT A WHITE POLAR BEAR!!!

What did you think of first? That's right, a white polar bear. Now substitute the memory of being sexually assaulted, and imagine experiencing this for most of your day, every day. Imagine constantly going back and forth between either suffering the flashback or desperately trying to shut it out.

I had a client yesterday tell me that two previous therapists had more or less told her to think happy thoughts when this happens. Not only does this not work, it creates a new, futile compulsion of speaking back to the thoughts, which further focuses the client on unreality.

There are ways out of this. Using EMDR, my PTSD/trauma clients no longer experience any intrusive thoughts and images, as we eliminate both the triggers for the thoughts and the fear that keeps them going. Concerning OCD, I recently treated two men with EMDR, reducing intrusive thoughts by over 60%, and reducing anxiety when they do happen. Additionally, a client with crippling social anxiety earlier this year experienced a total elimination of intrusive thoughts about his self-worth. These are fairly typical results.

A variety of therapeutic techniques, including EMDR, address these issues, and you don't have to live with intrusive thoughts. Above all, don't think that you're alone or abnormal, or feel any shame for thinking things you did not intend to. It's not the real you, it's just your mind playing tricks on you, and we can work on that.