I am 21 year old girl. I have had OCD and panic attacks for a long time, but I have learned to live with and control them until now.
Recently, I started thinking about what life is, how we live it, why we are doing exactly this or that, what is the meaning and so on. Generally, I am a genuinely optimistic and happy person. Still, these thoughts make me so scared, and I’m afraid that I won’t be able to feel that easygoing and free from those terrible thoughts. I know they are irrational, but I just can’t stop them.
I love life, the people around me and many things, but these bad thoughts are like horrible clouds over my head. Please, could you give me some advice?
Thank You in advance
Hello, and thank you for your question.
I want to say that they are just thoughts. In saying that, I do not deny the fear that surrounds some thought processes, but when you begin to see them for what they are, mental activity in your brain, just thoughts, the fear starts to lessen.
If you have lived with panic attacks and OCD for a long time, you probably have had periods in the past where things that no longer bother you could have caused you major distress.
Your ability to cope will be greater than you realize. If you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, they might be “intrusive thoughts.”
Someone once asked me, “Why do I not get intrusive thoughts about good things?” I answered that it is just how your brain works.
Part of our brain is still quite primitive and is constantly looking for things that may cause us harm. Depending on how you are reacting to the thoughts you describe, if it is causing distress, your brain might interpret these thoughts as something that might cause you harm, so it will pay great attention to them.
Suppose something really nice happened to you, or something made you really happen. In that case, your brain will not pay much attention, as it does not need to protect you from happiness.
The trick is to take the fear out of the thoughts, and I know that that is easier said than done.
You say you are generally a happy and optimistic person. You still are; just have a few troublesome thoughts. When you say that they are irrational, that is a good thinking part of your brain that knows that, but it will feel like some other part of your brain just does not accept this.
You have to teach it!
If you are getting scared by the thoughts, you could have a stress response attached to them. This is the bit that you need to retrain.
Let me backtrack and explain that a bit better. Based on the information you have given me, I will explain what your brain could be doing with these thoughts.
Each time you have the thoughts, if you also feel some sort of stress in your body, this will get stored in your brain. (I am explaining this quite crudely, but it should make sense.) There are two things important here
- Your hippocampus
- The amygdala
To answer your question, think of the hippocampus as helping you to form memories and the amygdala as a fire alarm in your brain.
So, each time you have these thoughts, your brain will pay attention if you are afraid. The amygdala (your fire alarm) – if it detects a significant emotional response from you, it can shout to the hippocampus, “, Hey these thoughts are important, as they really cause a lot of stress.”
In doing so, you are more likely to think about them again. Think of it like burning your hand on a hot ring on the cooker. Your brain will carefully store this memory, along with all the thoughts and feelings relating to it. So next time you are in danger of burning yourself, your brain takes over, and you snatch your hand away.
This is great when your brain works like this; it is really helpful. In the case you describe, it sounds like your brain is doing its best, but it is not really helpful.
So you need to show it differently. Those thoughts could be getting stored, as your brain thinks you are in some sort of danger, so it carefully takes note, just in case. So, each time you think this way, you will feel fear. It does not mean it is real, though.
To relax this in your mind, you need to unmatch those thoughts from the stress response and match them up with something neutral.
Each time you have the thought, remind yourself that they are only thoughts. The only reason you feel something uncomfortable is that your brain thinks it needs to give you a stress response to prepare you for something that may cause you harm.
Try to avoid paying attention to them. Divert your mind to something else. The thoughts will keep coming. It is like me telling you not to think of a white elephant. But if I keep talking about elephants, the colour white, your brain will think about white elephants. They will reduce when you keep bringing your attention to something else.
Say you were in the room now chatting with me, and you wanted to tell me your thoughts. I would keep telling you to focus on our conversation, or if we were out having a walk together, I would tell you to focus on the walk, as that would be happening. The thoughts are just that, random thoughts that you do not need to pay attention to.
You need to begin some sort of relaxation training also; this helps to match up the thoughts with a relaxation response, as opposed to a stress response.
Every day, whether you have the thoughts or not, do some form of meditation or relaxation. When the thoughts pop into your head, remind yourself it is just a thought, and start to focus on your breathing. Your breathing could be a bit fast if you are stressed, but keep paying attention to it; over time, you will learn to relax.
The more you do this, the more you are teaching your brain that the thoughts are okay, that they are harmless. You are instructing your brain: “Hey, it’s okay, you don’t have to protect me from these thoughts.”
Be patient while you are doing this, as it will take a bit of time for your mind to accept they are just thoughts, but once you can accept them for what they are and stay relaxed at the same time, you will lose the fear.
I hope this helps.