My heart is still heavy this morning, thinking about all the people out there who are suffering because of intrusive thoughts. If I hadn’t experienced persistent intrusive thoughts myself, I am sure I wouldn’t understand the depth of the suffering intrusive thoughts cause. It is hard for those who aren’t trained professionals, who’ve not experienced this mental health issue firsthand, to understand how exceptionally difficult life becomes in the shadow of intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts is a normal consequence of trauma. However, the battle of intrusive thoughts feels nothing like normalcy. Let’s explore this together.
First, intrusive thoughts are a threat response kicked off by one’s subconscious mind. After experiencing trauma, a person’s mind often becomes hypervigilant. It behaves as though the trauma is still happening, or as though the person is at risk of this happening again in the here and now. The mind keeps sounding alarm bells, and one way it does this is in the form of intrusive thoughts. This is drastically different from one’s conscious thoughts. For example, one can choose to think about their problems. One can choose to think about how they feel about their problems, or how they want to solve them. One can choose to ignore their problems and not think about them at all. One can choose to confront their problems with their thoughts; (offensive).
By contrast, intrusive thoughts confront the person without prior permission. This is an overgeneralization, but it holds truth. Often a person’s mind continues to persistently overwhelm itself with intrusive thoughts related to their trauma. It does this as a protective measure, to prompt the person to seek and obtain safety. Can you imagine what it would be like to want to never think about one’s traumatic experience ever again, just to be forced to think about it hundreds or thousands of times per day. The trauma side of the brain confronts the conscious brain over and over again, demanding action. Intrusive thoughts throws the person into a battle they didn’t ask for, (defensive).
The harder a person fights to stop thinking intrusive thoughts, the louder the intrusive thoughts become. It’s our brain’s job to keep us safe. If it thinks we’re ignoring danger warnings, it will sound the bell louder. For example, if one is holding their hand over a fire, the hotter their skin becomes, the louder the thoughts about moving their hand away becomes. Trauma related intrusive thoughts really aren’t any different. Would it be reasonable to calmly go about one’s day while their hand is in flames? Of course not. If one’s brain is using intrusive thoughts to send danger messages, it is going to be brain-cell-to-brain-cell combat. One can confront Thought A, challenge it, and defeat it. Right away up pops it’s close friend, Thought B. Thought B brought Thought A with him. It’s like a reverse surprise birthday party. Intrusive thoughts get invited to a party the conscious brain doesn’t want to attend.
The mental battle to deal with intrusive thoughts is isolating because it is exhausting. Consider how tired our minds become when we do a mentally taxing activity, like a full day of studying. People who work in a call center might not move more than about a quarter mile over the course of an 8-hour day, but can be exhausted at the end of it. Why? Because they’ve used their brains all day long. The last thing people in call centers want to do when they get home is pick up the phone and call someone. The last thing people who deal with intrusive thoughts find energizing is being social after a day of intense battle. What I’m not addressing in this segment are all the ways our bodies are impacted physically by this kind of stress. This needs to be its own well-researched, well-articulated segment. However, if we watch TV at all, we know that stress does harsh things to the human body that saps one’s energy. Intrusive thoughts are mentally and physically draining.
Intrusive thoughts are isolating because they can induce feelings of failure in the one who is fighting them. “Why can’t I just stop thinking about this??” Remember the hand-in-the-fire analogy. “I’m trying so hard to stop thinking these thoughts, but they just keep coming”, says the woman with her hand on fire. Speaking from my own experience, it did feel like absolute failure to not be able to stop the thoughts. It really seemed like I was doomed to live a life of misery. Eventually with the help of trained professionals I was able to grasp what was happening, and start to take some helpful steps to address it. That said, when one has tried as hard as they can, seeing very little change or improvement, it is natural to start having feelings of failure. If one tried every day for a year to fix a car, and it still only drove in reverse every time the gas pedal was pressed, eventually one would start to think they’ve failed as a mechanic. No big deal. Get somebody else to fix the car. For the one trying to stop their brain from going in reverse back to their trauma, big deal!
There are other reasons people who are recovering from trauma, or experiencing intrusive thoughts isolate. Sometimes it just feels safer to not let anybody else in. All people can seem risky when we’ve been hurt by someone, and we don’t want to be hurt again. Often people didn’t have a social support system in place before trauma happened. Lots of reasons isolation happens.
I want to say to the person experiencing intrusive thoughts, “there’s hope”. You can allow yourself to hope for a future free from intrusive thoughts. What now? Hope by itself doesn’t shoo the thoughts away.
- Invite God in. I used to have thousands of intrusive thoughts every day that tormented me. Even though my trauma was long since over, the nightmare continued. God was not willing to let me suffer alone. He walked this journey of recovery with me. It helped that we already knew each other.
James 4:8 NLT says, “Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” James 5:11 NLT says, “…the Lord is full of tenderness and mercy.” People who have experienced trauma need a great deal of tenderness and mercy. God doesn’t want us to sit in feelings of failure and shame because we’ve tried so hard to stop intrusive thoughts, but keep coming up short. Hebrews 2:11 NLT says, “…Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.” We become his brother and his sister when we decide to trust in Jesus. Ask him to come into your life and help you. You will be amazed at how he pours out his love into you. If you don’t know Jesus, a great place to start is by reading the book of John from the Bible. If you just read one chapter each day, you’d finish it in 3 weeks. The chapters aren’t long. Will you give yourself 5 minutes of reading per day to learn about the heart of God?
- Find a support community to join, and then join it. It can seem like we are the only one in this pain. It can seem like nobody could understand how this feels and how hard it is to cope. This is the lie of isolation. We aren’t the only ones. It’s possible to find a group of trauma survivors who’ve been walking the same road as you. When we meet with others, share our experiences, talk about ways we’ve fallen down and ways we’re getting back up, it’s cathartic. It cracks the door open just enough to start to let a little light come in. You can google search “support groups near me” and find a list of options to explore. Celebrate Recovery is a wonderful Christian 12-step support group for people experiencing “hurts, habits, or hang-ups”. Find your community! They are out there, holding a seat open for you.
- Get professional help. Don’t go it alone. We’d rush someone with a burnt hand to the doctor, maybe even an emergency room. We’d not tell someone having a heart attack to try harder. We’d get them to a doctor. After a lot of effort to fix the car that’s always going in reverse, we wouldn’t just give up and drive backwards down the highway. There’s so much that counseling, skills training (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), and other evidenced-based psychology can do to help aid in recovery from trauma. For the person who isn’t sure psychology is credible, I want to say this again. Just like there is evidence-based therapies a cardiologist can use to help their patients, there are evidence-based therapies a psychologist can use to help their clients.
Today I’m free from intrusive thoughts. One way God helped me and continues to help me is through a 15-minute morning journaling process based on Philippians 4 from The Message Bible.
You can see what a page from the journal looks like here.
You can get a free copy of the journal here.
Let’s continue the conversation! Comments are encouraged. By talking together we can learn from each other.