The thoughts we don’t talk about

05-08-2019 Blog

Do your daydreams shock you? You are not alone, explains psychotherapist Anna Mathur…

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I could yank this steering wheel and cause a pileup. I’m going to chuck my phone over the balcony, pull that lady’s ponytail, strip off my clothes and streak through this wedding.

This isn’t an insight into the mind of someone awaiting a court order; this is my mind. And according to 94% of my Instagram poll respondents, it’s likely yours too.

These thoughts run unprompted through my head, playing out vivid scenarios from the humorous to the terrifying. Despite being an experienced psychotherapist, I’d long felt fearful of others knowing about these thoughts and worried that I could actually act on them: that I may throw the baby or pull the ponytail. But I now speak openly, because only by speaking about it can we shed the shame and starve intrusive thoughts of power they don’t deserve.

Why do they happen?

Our mind is creative, clever and wild. It constantly assesses risks, possibilities, needs, fears and our own power, often without us noticing.

Until we hone in on one thought. Because it’s funny, or terrifying, or so beyond our moral compass that we question who we are. Intrusive thoughts feast hungrily on attention. Attention transforms what would be monochrome thoughts into stark technicolour.

The challenge is that I’m not imagining aliens swooping down from Mars: I’m hit with potential real-life scenarios.

Intrusive thoughts are enflamed by tiredness, hormonal shifts and stress. And aren’t these all familiar states of parenthood, hey?  When our resources are limited, our ability to rationalise is compromised.

Additional challenges come when your fears are based on your own experiences, such as losing a loved one, crashing a car, rowing with your partner about ‘that thing’. Then, what you’ve experienced gives intrusive thoughts more power because you you’ve lived and felt it before.

What can you do?

So what did I do about my intrusive thoughts? I decided to change
the way I interacted with them. I began to realise that while I can’t stop them coming, I could starve them of attention.

Here are some of my go-to techniques. Practice them so that they feel familiar for when you need them.

  • Counteract an intrusive thought with a more mundane, statistically likely alternative. E.g follow a thought of crashing a car, with one where you’ve arrived safely.
  • Use a breathing exercise. I recommend the 4,7,8, which calms physical symptoms of anxiety, enabling you to rationalise the thought more easily. Breathe in for four counts, hold the breath for seven counts, and then exhale for eight counts.
  • Use a grounding technique to bring yourself back into the present. Name five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell and one thing you can taste.  
  • If you find imagery helpful, picture the intrusive thought passing through your mind like a moulding leaf being swept up by a breeze.

Like any unwanted thoughts, there’s an extent
to which they can be disempowered. However, if your intrusive thoughts are reminiscent of trauma, are traumatic in themselves or affecting your daily life, please seek further support via your doctor or a local therapist. My ‘Reframing Anxiety Course’ also offers techniques to deal with anxiety.

So, when a thought strikes you, leave it to pass and wilt. Know that you’re not mad, you’re not bad: you’re normal.

The author donated the fee for this piece to Pandas, the pre- and postnatal mental health charity.

Pass the Mic is an occasional series where we hand the Mother Pukka platform over to other voices to share their perspective. Each piece is edited as lightly as possible and pays a fee of £250. 

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