When a close friend told me that he has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), my response was “Come on man, you’re lying.”
Like most people who use the term OCD in everyday conversation, I truly believed that it was nothing more than a fun little quirk that inclined people to wash their hands, keep a clean desk, or knock on wood. When he asked me whether he should listen to his doctor and start taking suggested medication, my response was: “That’s ridiculous man, you don’t need medication for something as benign as OCD. Just stop doing these things.”
When he told me that he can’t watch a movie with me because he is convinced that his entire family will die if he does, I politely said: “Get the fuck out of here. That’s idiotic.” No matter how hard he tried to explain it, no matter how much he emphasized that the thoughts are the real issue here, not compulsions, I was convinced he was overreacting.
A few years later, I started having intrusive thoughts myself. And I finally realized the hell that my friend was trying to describe.
An intrusive thought is an unwelcome image, idea, or obsession that enters your mind, sets up camp, and refuses to leave. It’s like a drunk, violent hobo sneaking into your apartment, taking a crap on your floor, and then beating your ass every time you try to call the police.
If you’ve never experienced an intrusive thought, it’s hard to understand the depth and horror of this experience. But if you have, you know how much these thoughts can poison your perception and slowly destroy your mind. After a while, you start feeling like you’re actually going crazy. The worst part is that you can’t run away from them — they live inside your head.
Intrusive thoughts can be a real bitch to get rid of. There isn’t any universal solution or method because each person has their own version of them. However, this article is going to help you understand how they work and develop a personal defense system against them.
Understanding intrusive thoughts and why they suck
The way my friend finally managed to get me to understand his OCD was by telling me this:
“Okay, let’s try it like this. Imagine that you want to watch a movie and you’re really excited about it. Then, just when you’re about to play it, a thought pops into your head: If I play this movie right now, my entire family is going to die in the most horrible way. And it is going to be my fault.”
I was silent and didn’t know how to reply. He continued:
“Now imagine that, at that moment, you truly believe that. Even though you know it is highly unlikely, even though it sounds completely ridiculous, somehow, you really, truly believe it.
So you try watching the movie, but that thought is so clear and loud inside your head that you cannot focus. You start having vivid images of your family bloody and dismembered, dying in horrible pain, screaming for their lives, yelling how you did this to them.
At that point, it becomes too strong for you to bear, so you shut off the movie, sit in a corner, and cry your eyes out because you don’t know what else you can do. You don’t want to have these thoughts, but they are forcing themselves into your brain.
That is what having OCD is like for me.”
At that moment, I felt like a complete asshole. Even today, I feel like a complete asshole for not understanding this sooner.
This is the core of the problem. Intrusive thoughts are oftentimes random and irrational, but they can very easily lead to obsession. Once they do, it is very hard to break out of that cycle and allow yourself to calm down and start thinking rationally again. When you finally do, you realize that the whole thing was, in fact, ridiculous.
My own personal flavor of intrusive thoughts was a result of health anxiety, a.k.a. hypochondria.
When I experienced an intrusive thought for the first time, it lasted for days. Think about that for a moment. Having a horrible thought occupy your mind, rent-free, for days. It consumed every moment of every day. It was the last thing on my mind before bed and the first thought in my head as soon as I woke up. The fucker even followed me into my dreams.
It was like being in Freddy vs. Jason; awake or asleep, I was always being chased. I was never safe.
Luckily, I was working from home at the time. Other people aren’t so lucky. If you have to go to work, take care of errands, or look after your kids, this type of thoughts can highly influence, and slowly destroy, your entire life.
This can often lead to avoidance behavior, where you avoid certain activities, places, even words, fearing they might trigger your anxiety. It can even go as further as drug abuse or self-harm. At some point, you’d do anything to silence the demons inside your mind.
These thoughts are called intrusive for a reason. You don’t want to think about these things and you don’t logically arrive at any of these conclusions. They are forced into your mind.
They are usually caused by extremes stress or anxiety. They often develop as part of disorders like OCD, ADHD, depression, PTSD, and many other anxiety disorders (like hypochondria, in my case). But even if you’ve never been diagnosed with any “disorder”, intrusive thoughts can still pop up on their own. Like many mental health issues, they arise during extremely stressful periods in your life.
They force their way in and mask themselves as your thoughts, even though you don’t want them, need them, or believe them. But after a while, cognitive dissonance kicks in and you start to wonder… why would I think it if I don’t believe it? I must really believe it then.
This is why it is important to separate your own thoughts from intrusions forced into your mind by anxiety. Without this distinction, you will start believing that you really want to think about these things, which often leads to self-hatred, depression, and feeling of hopelessness.
People can feel ashamed or disgusted by themselves for having even these thoughts. So even when the initial anxiety passes, they will feel changed in some way, and that feeling only strengthens the anxiety that caused these obsessions in the first place.
It’s a lonely battle, but you’re not alone
Consider this quote by Hank Green, which really hits at the heart of the problem:
“Ever heard a really good joke about polio? Or made a casual reference to someone having hepatitis? Or maybe teased your buddy by saying he has muscular dystrophy? Of course you have never done that, because you are not a terrible person.”
His point was that, while most people will not make fun of your physical struggles, many will not take your mental health problems as seriously. People will give you advice like “toughen up” or “just snap out of it”. From their point of view, it really seems that easy. These thoughts really do seem ridiculous from the outside.
The worst part is, you already know this. On a logical level, you know these thoughts make no sense. You know they’re fucking stupid. But like Mark Manson explained in Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, your Feeling Brain is always in charge and your Thinking Brain is just the passenger.
Telling a depressed or anxious person to “snap out of it” is the same as telling someone with a broken femur to “walk it off”. Both have the same chance of being effective.
My intrusive thoughts began as a result of a very stressful period in my life. For some reason, a thought would pop into my head that I have somehow acquired a deadly disease and I would become convinced I am going to die. Random comment about weaker immunity would convince me I have somehow developed full-blown AIDS. My sore throat wasn’t just irritated, it was a definite sign of throat cancer. And who knows what kind of a terrible, painful outcome will result from that skin deformation on my forehead, even though it only looks like a regular pimple.
Reading this, you might think it sounds ridiculous. I thought so too. “That’s fucking ridiculous,” I’d tell myself, “there’s no way this can be true… but what if it is?” When plagued with intrusive thoughts, that “what if” is the worst thing you can say to yourself. Because there’s always a “what if“.
I would become convinced that somehow, somewhere, I was infected with a deadly disease, have missed all the symptoms, and now it was too late. I would start researching everything about the disease, all the irregular cases, think about when it could have happened, and what should I do now. My behavior would become erratic and even more unsocial because every time I would see a hint of blood on my body, I would become scared of infecting other people and ruining their lives.
I thought I was fucking crazy. I mean, I’m running a website called “Mind of Steel”. How can my mind be so weak?
At one point, I got angry. No, scratch that — I got pissed. I decided that I’m not going to let my anxiety win. I’m going to understand my enemy and then develop a strategy to beat him. So I started doing a lot of research and, the more I learned, the more I realized how common these issues actually are. This was a relief: I wasn’t crazy, I was normal.
It is estimated that about one in every five people will, at some point in their lives, be able to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. At the same time, less than 40% of those people will seek some form of treatment. It’s not that anxiety disorders aren’t that common, it’s that people are just afraid to talk about them because they don’t want to seem crazy. But as it turns out, most people are at least partially crazy.
Each person’s anxiety manifests in a different way. My intrusive thoughts are different than yours. So while your thoughts sound ridiculous to me, mine sound ridiculous to you. To any outside observers, your issues are not real because they’re really not. They do not exist out there in the world. They exist only inside the confines of your own mind.
But to you, they’re too real. They’re all you can think about.
Since this is a battle going on inside your own mind, you have no choice but to fight it alone. Sure, you can ask people around you not to trigger you or to be careful with the words or actions. But that’s always going to be a half-measure. The problem isn’t with the world, it’s with you. It is you who needs to get your head straight, not everybody else.
Asking people to support your delusions will end up causing more harm than good. People will start resenting you for having to walk on eggshells around you. They will spend less time with you and you will feel even more alone, meaning your intrusive thoughts will get increasingly worse.
The way to build mental strength is to make your mind stronger than it currently is. You can only do this through hardships and challenges.
But like I said, many people understand what you’re going through. They might not be willing to admit it, but they do. So when it feels hard, or you feel lonely in your fight, remember this quote by Tim Ferris:
“No matter where you are in terms of anxiety, depression, or darkness, there are thousands of people in the world, probably millions, at that exact same moment, on the frontlines with you, fighting the exact same battle.”
A strategy for overcoming intrusive thoughts
In the movie Inception, the protagonists are criminals who get hired to, quite literally, “break into” someone’s mind and interact with representations of their subconscious.
However, certain characters in the film have undergone a special type of training. They have taken trained their subconscious to protect itself from intruders. So when someone tries to break into their minds, their subconscious is literally armed to the teeth and start attacking the invaders.
Imagine if you could do the same thing. If every time anxiety starts attacking your mind, you had a personal mental army that would automatically rise and defend itself. Imagine that, when intrusive thoughts try to break into your mind, you had a defense system that would stop them from overflowing you and keep your own thoughts safe from the invaders.
Guess what — this is exactly what I am going to help you develop.
This mental defense is something I named The Battle Plan (BP). I originally developed it to stop my own intrusive thoughts from taking over my mind. With the constant use of TBP, my intrusive thoughts have gone to basically zero. If I do have them, my mental army destroys them within minutes.
The Battle Plan is just a simple document where you are going to collect everything related to your anxiety: causes, past experiences, methods, techniques, and phrases you can fight back.
The Battle Plan has a very specific structure but, at the same time, it is entirely personal and customizable. Everyone’s Battle Plan is going to be styled differently, as every anxiety is different and every battle with it is different.
The same methods that work for me may not necessarily work for you. What I am going to teach you is how to properly structure the outline of your plan and some of the most popular methods that worked for myself and for the people I’ve coached. You can use all of them or none of them. It is up to you to pick and choose how you’re going to apply them.
Question of the day: How do you create a mental army if you do not have control of your mind? Well, the solution is — focus on what you can control.
The Battle Plan can be a digital note, a piece of paper, a notebook, or anything you are going to use to keep everything you need in one place. Personally, I keep a digital note that I can always update and have with me whenever I need it. If you prefer, you can always stick to simple pen and paper, but it makes it a bit more difficult to carry it with you wherever you go.
Here is how the outline of your Battle Plan should look like:
- Anxiety history list (AHS)
- Defensive techniques
- Offensive techniques
- (Optional) Notes
Now, let’s break each of these down one by one:
The Structure of Your Battle Plan
Title. The title I currently use is THE BATTLE PLAN for Defeating Intrusive Thoughts.
Description. A short explanation of this plan is and what purpose it should serve.
READ THIS FIRST. This is section is the first thing you should always read. It’s a reminder from your logical self that these thoughts are not real. It’s a personal motivation that lets you know that you should listen to your logical self and that you have beaten anxiety before by using this plan.
It’s a simple trick, but it works wonders for your subconscious because you will mostly read through your BP when your anxiety gets extremely bad and you aren’t able to think rationally. In those moments, you will need all the encouragement you can get.
This lets you know, from the start, that you have experienced, and more importantly, managed to overcome, similar feelings numerous times. And that this exact plan has helped you do so.
PRO TIP: You should write the name of your specific anxiety, if you know it, in big letters. This makes it easier to understand that these intruders are not your own thoughts. Specifics make it clear that you are not going crazy, but battling an enemy that has infiltrated your mind. If you’re not sure what your specific anxiety is just yet, give it a name. Make it personal and specific.
Warnings. Do not skip this step! The last part of the Introduction contains phrases that you most likely need to hear in the moment of your anxiety attack. These are things that are supposed to slap you back into reality. Since I’m struggling with hypochondria, here are the phrases I have listed:
- “DO NOT GOOGLE ANYTHING! When googling, you won’t find the true answer. You’re only going to find the worst possible scenario.”
- “If your conscious mind could have thought your way through this, it probably would have already.”
- “You know what, there is not enough evidence to support this belief. Instead, I’ll believe a thought that’s more likely and more realistic.”
If you’re struggling with a specific intrusive thought lately, address it here. Add anything that you need to hear in a time of need because, once anxiety hits, logic goes right out of the window. When that happens, these phrases act as a friend trying to shake you out of it.
2. ANXIETY HISTORY LIST (AHS)
This is the most important part of your BP. It can easily be overlooked because it is the easiest thing to write, but it is also the most powerful element of this strategy.
Here you will list every single example of every single anxiety attack, intrusive thought, psychosomatic symptom, obsession, or compulsion you have ever had. It doesn’t matter how old or how recent it is. Whether you’ve experienced it only once or you haven’t had it for a while, put it on the list.
It may seem too simple to matter, but putting all of your past experiences in a single place is a powerful tool. It gives you a birds-eye view of your anxiety, which will help you spot patterns you otherwise wouldn’t. When you come back to this list, especially if you are being flooded with anxiety at the moment, you will be able to see that you have gone through all of this before.
And that no matter how real or special these thoughts may seem at the moment, they are not. They are passing and they are irrational.
AHS is a detailed log of every time you were in this same situation. Every single instance on that list is proof that during those events, even though your emotions felt completely real, they were ultimately wrong.
Based on your AHS, you will be able to recognize certain patterns amongst the things you have written down. Use it to identify triggers — specific situations or locations that trigger your anxiety — and patterns in your behavior associated with it.
If you don’t know the name of your anxiety or how it functions, this will help you analyze your behavior and understand which specific anxiety issues you may have.
4. DEFENSIVE TECHNIQUES
These are also known as “Code Red Methods” as they are techniques you will use when the anxiety has already taken over. Here you will write all the methods, actions, and phrases you can to use calm yourself down in the heat of the moment.
A formula that often works well is trying to distance yourself from your intrusive thoughts, i.e. going from “I am thinking this” to “I am observing my mind having this thought”.
- LEVEL 1: (Something is wrong).
- LEVEL 2: I’m having a thought that (Something is wrong).
- LEVEL 3: I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that (Something is wrong).
Let’s say that, like my OCD friend, a thought comes into your head that your family is going to die for whatever reason. You think: “My family is going to die!”
But then, you take a step back and say: “I’m having a thought that my family is going to die.” Then, you take one more step further and say: “I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that my family is going to die.”
Thought < Realize it is a thought < Realize that you’re just observing a thought
You go from believing that your family is going to die to you’re just observing yourself having a thought. It might seem ineffective as you’re reading this, but give it a try. At the moment, it works wonders.
This method helps you realize that your thoughts are not reality. They’re just abstract ideas in your mind and you don’t have to act on them.
5. OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUES
When the anxiety isn’t attacking you, you need to initiate the attack yourself. The focus of offensive techniques is to prevent future anxiety attacks by gradually overcoming your issues. This will include making changes to your lifestyle and habits based on the triggers and causes you have identified, as well as the steps you can take to gradually confront your anxiety and diminish its power.
(6. OPTIONAL) NOTES
This part is optional, but it is recommended to keep a note section where you can write anything that doesn’t fit into this structure, but you feel is relevant to keep in your Battle Plan. For example, I use it to outline the levels of my anxiety, so I can always track how good or bad they currently are.
The worst mistake you can make is not getting to your BP as soon as possible. Every second you avoid doing so, your anxiety grows worse. The last time I avoided consulting my BP, I was in an obsessive spiral thinking I have a serious disease because of a symptom that I was sure I have never had in my life. It seemed like such a big thing at the time but, once I finally opened my BP, I realized something interesting.
About six months earlier, I put that symptom on the list. That exact symptom I was sure was something entirely new was right there on the list, with the note: “This is something that regularly happens and it is not a big deal. You always worry about it for no reason”.
Those were the exact words I had written over half a year ago, but at the moment of my anxiety attack, I simply forgot. I was staring at these words, completely dumbfounded as my anxiety made me feel like it was something I have never experienced before. Needless to say, I felt like a complete idiot and calmed down pretty quickly.
As soon as you start feeling like anxiety is going to rear its ugly head, consult your BP immediately. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will be able to snap yourself back to reality or even prevent anxiety from taking over.
It is extremely hard and difficult to battle an irrational foe of your mind, but it’s definitely possible to overcome it.
Or as Revolver put it: “Where’s the best place an opponent should hide? In the very last place you’d ever look. He’s hiding behind your pain. You’re protecting him with your pain. Embrace the pain and you will win this game.”