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  • Matthew Frank
    Matthew Frank

    Confronting Intrusive Thoughts: Is Mindfulness the Key to Pushing Away Pink Elephants

    We all experience unwelcome thoughts that come out of nowhere, reside in our heads and seem impossible to replace. In fact, they can be so powerful that when we focus on them, we become enshrouded by the fear, sadness or worry that accompany our thoughts. Dubbed 'intrusive thoughts' by psychologists, these unwelcome and often unbidden episodes of anxieties and insecurities profoundly impact our everyday lives and have serious implications for our mental health. As such, it is invaluable to gain an understanding as to what constitutes an intrusive thought, how to identify it, and importantly, how best to counter it.

    Intrusive thoughts can be succinctly delineated by two key facets: they are involuntary and unwanted. Unlike recurrent and lingering obsessions, intrusive thoughts are unlikely to clearly require conscious effort to bring them back to conscious mind, and are usually experienced to elicit strong emotions, (in particular a sense of repellence). This response could range from sensations of anger, stress, panic and even disgust. One example of an intrusive thought might be replaying a false memory of a traumatic event that never happened.

    These unwelcome thoughts construct mental barriers to our fully integrated cognitive function, typically leave behind only sensory-accessible and sensory-bound representations in memory, making them hardset and intrusive. This has been demonstrated by research suggesting that intrusive thoughts occur frequently across populations due to a "minimized effort threshold", requiring less energy than the avoidance (or mitigation) of the intrusive thought. As such, without effective management, intrusive thoughts can become increasingly powerful and persistent in our minds, leading to substantial distress.

    To mitigate the effects of intrusive thoughts on our life, psychologists have advocated for various solutions, including acceptance and commitment therapy, work to enhance ones mindfulness, and/or identifying triggers. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a practical intervention based on the idea that it is not the nature of our thoughts, but rather our relationship to them which causes us distress. In this view, the aim of mindful practice is not to be rid of unwanted thoughts, but rather to become aware of them and realise that we do not need to act on them. A pivotal component of ACT is to practice non-judgement towards our thoughts and feelings, additionally developing non-conforming cognitions that focuses an individual's attention away from the intrusive thoughts.

    That said, being conscious is not enough — we must take action to further extinguish intrusive thoughts by engaging with the triggers to provide ourselves with better coping mechanism and new ways of thought. Analyse and document your intrusive thoughts and reflective on any potential triggers which may initiate them. Taking the time to understand and reflect on possible triggers before the onset of an intrusive thought, can enable proactive solutions. Such strategies may include techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, practice with progressive relaxation and sensori-motor exercises.

    Processing your thoughts doesn't end there - it's integral to educate yourself about intrusive thoughts by referencing academic research, having open conversations with your family and friends, and cultivating self-compassion. It's natural for us to feel alongside intrusive thoughts, anchoring these sensations will help you become accustomed to them, eventually allowing your mind to let go from this intrusive state.

    A combination of reading, communication, education and executing mindful practices may prove to be successful in fighting intrusive thoughts. As such, evidence suggests that mindfulness and ACT are powerful tools to not only reduce the power of intrusive thoughts, but to maintain mental wellbeing. As such, mindfulness and acceptance based therapies may offer the key to reducing the severity of intrusive thoughts.

    Although research touches on the nature of intrusive thoughts, their consequences and their management, it is essential that one never hesitates to talk to a psychiatrist or mental health professional if intrusive thoughts become unmanageable. Cognitive-emotional therapies practiced under the guidance of professionals may be beneficial in helping to further manage the negative cycle of intrusive thoughts.

    Our unwelcome thoughts serve as profoundly powerful reminders of how complex and multifaceted our cognition is — do not hesitate to discuss any concerns or feelings regarding intrusive thoughts with mental health professionals. By developing a knowledge of intrusive thoughts, and working towards diminishing their power through mindfulness and acceptance based strategies, it is possible to remove the pink elephants in your head.

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