Freedom from Intrusive Thoughts

Since experiencing trauma, I’ve spent a lot of time in a mental battle with intrusive thoughts. My intrusive thoughts seemed to have a mind of their own. They were like leeches that latched onto my brain and sucked the peace and joy right out of me.

It isn’t always so easy to get rid of intrusive thoughts. When our minds don’t feel settled or safe, the brain keeps bringing up the intrusive thoughts, hoping we will pay attention and do something about it. Most of my intrusive thoughts were about what had already happened; not what’s happening right now. There wasn’t anything immediate for me to address…that traumatic event was over.

I wasn’t getting any better with time. Time wasn’t “healing all wounds” –which isn’t a bible verse, by the way. Time seemed to amplify the misery, not heal it.

I tried to get rid of intrusive thoughts on my own by thinking about pleasant things. There just weren’t enough lists of other things to think about to starve the leech and have a good day. A mind needs to rest. Once my mind rested from the hard work of constantly-thinking-so-I-don’t-think-about-that, I would have intrusive thoughts. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, thousands upon thousands of trauma-related, joy-robbing intrusive thoughts. I only bring this up in such detail because I would want people to know that intrusive thoughts are debilitating, and aren’t just a simple “you must lack gratitude” kind of an issue.

But thanks be to God, we don’t have to fight the leeches on our own. He will do it for us!

We Can Be Free!

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Philippians 4:6-7 MSG

I used to focus on the “don’ts” of these verses…don’t fret, don’t worry.  Easier said than done once you’ve encountered trauma. Am I right? Many parts of my recovery were making substantial progress. However, this area –constant intrusive thoughts– was not.  One definition of fretting is “gradually wear away (something) by rubbing or gnawing”. Sounds about right.

When my psychologist quoted these verses (Philippians 4:6-7), I heard a promise that God makes to his people: to come and settle them down. I thought, “Hello! I want THAT! All the stuff in my life to come “together for good”. And, if “good” wasn’t good enough, I’ll be settled down?? Yes, please!” It sounded like the chaos in my life and my head could start to be put into a sensible order, into some semblance that’s bearable. How does God do that? Here’s how:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8-9 MSG

“Put into practice”…”meditating on things”… things that are “true, noble, reputable, authentic…”

Do that

“Do that, and God…will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”

This is our starting place. We starve the leeches when we practice, when we meditate on what is

  • true
  • noble
  • reputable
  • authentic
  • compelling
  • gracious
  • the best
  • the beautiful
  • things to be praised

Then God asks us to practice the thoughts we can control. To practice not thinking about the worst, the ugly, and cursing our existence. Practice, like riding a bike or playing the guitar. Steer the bike into a tree…try again, this time not looking at the tree. Practice. Perfect the skill, make it ingrained and automatic, natural. Practice the choice not to dwell in unconstructive mental conversations with ourselves.

When we practice meditating on the right list, choosing to stop dwelling in the other list, Christ displaces worry from the center of our lives. This is big! It isn’t just a promise to help us settle down and have peace in our brains and our thought patterns. It’s that our lives won’t be centered on worry, either.

I worked this into a journaling template; The Philippians 4 Project. This exercise is different than a gratitude list. Being grateful is wonderful, but when trauma happens it is condescending and dishonoring to force gratitude. I don’t really think God expects us to be grateful for this horrible, life-altering, traumatic thing that has happened. In essence, being sin is the basis for at least some trauma, expecting someone to be grateful for trauma is therefore expecting that person to be grateful for sin. So, if you are in trauma, please know this exercise isn’t about trying to force some super-spiritual square peg into an ugly round hole. It’s not about that. (That’s not to say feelings of gratitude won’t sneak up on us…they will. Now that I’m not in a full-fledged war against intrusive thoughts, gratitude pops in to say, “hi” all the time! Again, not gratitude for the trauma, but my mind is freed up to be able to see and feel grateful for the beauty in my life.)

It did sneak up on me…before I knew it, I was sensing God’s wholeness in my life. God’s perfect wholeness, an anchor to hold me in my brokenness. Of course God’s wholeness was there all along. I just couldn’t sense it because I was trapped in an endless cycle of intrusive thoughts. Trauma seeks to keep us busy focused on what hurts instead of what (or Who) heals.

I noticed over time (maybe a month or so?) practicing Philippians 4, I started to have less intrusive thoughts. I found myself starting the day a little more settled. A little less jangly. Some days are still hard ones, because of the other ways PTSD manifests itself. Because of the work God has done in me, (and this is important) I am having healthier responses to those bad days. Now when an intrusive thought floats by, I’m able to fling the leech aside. Freedom.

If you have experienced trauma or are just struggling with intrusive thoughts, please give this journaling-meditation project a try.

  • Here’s where you can read about each section of the journal, (this post just describes the first section): The Philippians 4 Journal
  • Here’s where you can request a free copy of the journal template: Get the Journal

God’s promises aren’t just for me. They are for all people who believe in him. It can’t hurt to try, right?

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