Updated: Oct 27, 2022
Dr. Butch Losey
Author of Managing the Aftermath of Infidelity
Here are some thoughts about managing intrusive thinking. It is one of the hardest aspects of counseling for therapists when it comes to assisting couples with the aftermath of infidelity. There are two reasons for this. First, the techniques clinicians have been taught in the past and still use today actually increase the frequency and intensity of intrusive thinking. These ideas persist in contemporary therapy and frustrate both the therapist and the couple because they are only moderately effective and only in the short term. Second, there are only a limited number of “techniques” for recovery from intrusive thinking and recovery really requires changing one’s relationship with intrusive thoughts and the beliefs about them.
Below are some considerations about recovery from intrusive thinking.
Thought about thoughts
Thoughts are not in your control; they certainly do not ask permission to enter into your awareness.
People are much more prone to intrusive thoughts when they are fatigued, have slept poorly, or depressed.
You hold onto your suffering because you’re not ready for the past to be past.
Remember this…What you resist, persists.
Deconstructing myths about managing intrusive thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are not under our conscious control and therefore you should not try to control them or replace them. They will only come back more forcefully.
Intrusive thoughts do not speak to our underlying character. If what you think is bad, it does not mean you are bad. What you choose to do indicates your character.
Fearful thoughts do not predict the future. Just because you think it does not mean it will happen.
Not every thought is worth thinking about. Consider television. Many channels available to you are just crap. You flip through them and move past them. Just like television, you should not believe that every intrusive thought is really important, that it has some message to you, or it is a warning signal. Some, maybe most thoughts, are just junk. Some are just crap.
Just because thoughts repeat themselves, this does not mean they are important. The fact is that the importance of a thought has very little to do with how much it repeats. Thoughts are repeating because they are pushed away or resisted.
Our brains are better at noticing the negative and they are noticing the positive. In its attempt to protect us, our brains exaggerate threats, undervalue our abilities and strengths, and obscure our capacity to deal with difficulty. “We are Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for good experiences”.
Our brain creates an alarm response to sensations as an adaption for survival. This is how the brain works…Ringing the alarm when there is no danger is called a false positive. Remaining silent when there is real danger is a false negative. Your amygdala sends out many false positive responses because it never wants to risk a false negative.
This alarm response is called “first fear”. It is automatic because the amygdala is responding to something you have sensed. With false positives, people typically recognize quickly that there is no danger and they move on with their day. However, people experiencing intrusive thinking spend time thinking about the false positive. This is called “second fear” and is not automatic but within your control. If you do not change your beliefs about, and your relationship with, the false positive, your amygdala will send out another false positive, creating the scenario for intrusive thinking.
We are hardwired to overestimate threats and underestimate our resources and ability to deal with them.
Why nothing has worked
Sticky mind-thoughts get undeserved attention and gets stuck and repeated.
Paradoxical effort-the more you resist, the more it persists.
Entanglement – getting involved with the thought as if it were important.
Thought stopping techniques do not work.
Thought stopping only increases the frequency and intensity of intrusive thinking. You must change your relationship with your thoughts and your beliefs about them.
Distraction techniques do not work either. When you do this, you’re enforcing the idea that you need to keep away from them.
Things that work
Demote your thoughts to be something not so special, not so interesting, and possibly not even worthy of your attention. Just because the thought has appeared does not mean that it is deserving of your attention.
Stop believing that the thoughts you have are your thoughts. Your thoughts are not yours at all, and not something you have chosen to create. Rather they are a random bits of content containing characters, emotions, and situations, usually popping up for no particular reason.
Change your relationship to your intruding thoughts. This means taking a broader view, a step back, an attitude of curiosity and humor instead of judgment, alarm, and urgency.
Create awareness by simply noticing what’s happening, nothing more. Observe without getting involved in the content or storyline that’s being offered, just noticing without judgment.
Adopt an attitude of curiosity and friendliness, just observing. Notice what’s going on inside your head. Be curious. Notice how many thoughts, the mood of the thoughts, etc. Just look, without changing, improving, managing, or controlling what you are seeing.
Detangle with acknowledgment and acceptance. Say to yourself, “Wow, I am really caught, my mind is really hammering me”. This distinguishes your thoughts from you, setting up two entities. One is awareness of that you are one entity and the second entity is your thoughts. Keep them separate.
Six Steps to Reducing Stress of Intrusive Thoughts
1) Pause and Label- Begin the process of observing yourself as you experience the intrusive thought. Say something like “Right now I am having a thought that intrudes on my awareness. It caught my attention because it feels awful”.
2) Recognize it is just a thought- “Thoughts are automatic and I can leave this one alone. This is just a junk thought and I do not need to do anything”.
3) Accept and Allow- This is more of an attitude than a technique. Say to the thought “I will allow you to be here but you do not require any attention or response.
4) Float and Feel- Move from all the thinking into your current senses. Focus on “what is” as opposed to “what if”. Notice what you see, hear, smell and touch. Create awareness of self in the moment.
5) Let Time Pass- Observe your anxiety and stress from a curious, disinterested point of view. Allowing time to pass is one of the most important skills for recovery. “As far as I’m concerned, I can sit with this thought all day. My discomfort has nothing to do with being in any danger. These are just thoughts”.
6) Proceed-Even while you are having the thoughts, continue whatever you were doing prior to the intrusive thought.
Winston, S.M. & Seif, M.N. (2017). Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts: A CBT-based guide to getting over frightening, obsessive, or disturbing thoughts.
Colier, N. (2021). Can’t stop thinking: how to let go of anxiety and free yourself from assess of rumination