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Intrusive thoughts

Unwanted and disturbing thoughts that appear in your mind unexpectedly can cause discomfort, but rest assured, they are common and can be managed effectively. Intrusive thoughts can be sudden and unsettling, ranging from violent or sexual to recurring fears of embarrassment or inappropriate behaviour. The more you try to push these thoughts away, the more they persist.

Intrusive thoughts are more common than you may think, with many people experiencing them at different points throughout their lives. While some may be associated with a mental health disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, many people do not have a mental health condition. Stress, anxiety, or biological factors like hormonal shifts can trigger intrusive thoughts. For example, women may experience an increase in intrusive thoughts after giving birth or transitioning to a different stage of their life.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant stress and isolation, leading to an uptick in anxiety and obsessive thinking. Unfortunately, people may feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about their intrusive thoughts. It is essential to recognize that these thoughts do not indicate a desire to act upon them. Patients may preface their thoughts by stating they are not crazy, but a weird thought came to their mind, such as the desire to harm a family member.

It is possible to identify intrusive thoughts by recognising that they are unusual, bothersome, and difficult to control. It is vital to learn to live with intrusive thoughts by not fighting with them, accepting them, and not judging oneself. When an intrusive thought occurs, one should identify it as such, acknowledge that it is not a reflection of their beliefs or desires, and not try to make it go away. Remember that having a strange or disturbing thought does not mean something is wrong with you.

Three steps to manage intrusive thoughts:

  1. Recognise the thought as intrusive by labelling it as such.

  2. Avoid trying to suppress or fight the thought. Instead, try to calmly accept its presence in your mind.

  3. Don't blame yourself or feel ashamed for having the thought. Intrusive thoughts are a normal experience that many people have, and they don't necessarily indicate a problem.

The beach ball

The metaphor of beach balls refers to the process of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the importance of acknowledging and accepting difficult thoughts and emotions, rather than trying to avoid or repress them. The beach ball represents an unwanted emotion, experience, or memory that is being held underwater, causing limitations in the individual's actions and keeping them stuck in one place.

Just like holding a beach ball underwater, avoiding or repressing difficult emotions and experiences may seem like a temporary solution to keep the surface of our lives smooth and serene. However, this approach is not sustainable and only creates more problems in the long run.

When we try to push these emotions and experiences down, they eventually resurface, causing a big mess and leaving us feeling overwhelmed and stuck.

The solution is to learn how to let the beach ball rise to the surface of the water, to acknowledge and accept these difficult thoughts and emotions. By doing so, we can begin to move around more freely and make choices based on our values, rather than being limited by our attempts to avoid discomfort.

It's important to note that accepting these difficult emotions does not mean that they will disappear entirely, but rather that we acknowledge their presence and allow them to coexist with our values and goals. This approach enables us to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

Dealing with your beach ball (your intrusive thoughts)

  1. Identify your beach ball: Start by identifying the difficult emotion, experience, or memory that you've been avoiding or repressing. It could be shame, fear, anger, criticism, social rejection, or a prior trauma. Whatever it is, imagine holding it in your hand like a beach ball.

  2. Hold it underwater: Now, imagine holding the beach ball underwater, just like you would in a swimming pool. Notice how holding it down may provide some temporary relief, but it also limits your actions and keeps you stuck in one place. Pay attention to any physical sensations or emotions that come up as you hold the beach ball underwater.

  3. Release your grip: Next, let go of the beach ball and allow it to rise to the surface of the water. Notice any feelings or thoughts that come up as you release your grip. Remember that it's okay to feel discomfort or vulnerability in this moment.

  4. Observe the beach ball: Watch the beach ball as it floats on the surface of the water. Notice how it moves around in the pool, sometimes close to you and sometimes far away. Acknowledge its presence, but don't try to push it back underwater.

  5. Move around freely: With the beach ball now on the surface of the water, you're free to move around the pool more easily. You can make choices based on your values, rather than being limited by your attempts to avoid discomfort. Remember that the beach ball may still be present, but you don't have to let it control your actions.

Practicing acceptance using the beach ball metaphor may feel uncomfortable at first, but it can be a powerful tool for living a more fulfilling and meaningful life. Give it a try and see if it helps you to move through difficult emotions and experiences with more ease and compassion.


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