A few readers have asked me recently to write more about my daily struggles and how I overcome them. This post is dedicated to them.
One of the most painful symptoms of my depression is the obsessive thoughts that arrive uninvited, unannounced, like a group of campaigning politicians who throw a rally inside your limbic system (emotional center). Try as you might to distract yourself, revise their agendas, ignore them, you’re held hostage to their voices.
Ever since I can remember, I have been cursed by these invaders. When I was eight, I jumped over each crack in the sidewalk because the thoughts told me something horrible would happen if I didn’t. In junior high, I spent two hours a day in prayer – walking to daily Mass followed by a few rosaries – to appease the voices that said I was on the express bus to hell if I didn’t make my piety quota. In college the process of declaring a major was torture because the voices said that I was writing my future in cement with absolutely no option to change courses later on should I be wrong.
The unwanted guests visit less often today, but they occasionally make a surprise visit and hone in on one thing in my life that I’m worried about. They tell me the outcome is going to be horrendous, that I will never recover from it. On some occasions the pain involved in battling these conniving, deceptive, and convincing voices is so intense that they morph into suicidal thoughts.
I have learned through the years that willpower and mindfulness techniques are not enough to loosen their hold over me. I need the intervention of friends, a support network, to be able to hear my more nuanced, better informed thoughts. Here’s a recap of their wisdom, words that recently empowered me to move through the panic to a place of peace.
It’s Your Brain, Not the Thing You’re Obsessing About
The obsessions aren’t about the remark you think you shouldn’t have made, or the crack in the sidewalk, or about the major you have to declare. It’s about your neurons misfiring, your brain getting confused, much like I do when I go near a stove. Your amygdala, belonging to the older, reptilian brain that kept us safe from saber-tooth tigers, got triggered by something and is throwing a tantrum. It’s stuck, like the Winnie the Pooh keychain that I had that wouldn’t stop playing the annoying theme song. Even when I chucked it into the backyard.
Therefore, no immediate action is required from you. You don’t have to make things right or do anything to reconcile the situation. No behavior or next step is going to save you from the distress because 99 percent of the obsession isn’t based in reality as much as it feels like it is.
Ride the Wave Because It’s Temporary
When the politicians visit, it feels as though they have just taken out a mortgage inside your brain—you will have to tolerate their noise for the rest of your life. That’s one of the despairing thoughts that leads to suicidal ideations – there is no way out. But they do leave. This last time, I tried to tolerate the sting of their messages much like I did labor pains – breathing through distress, riding the waves, and remembering it was temporary.
It also helps to remember that the thing about which you’re obsessing is also temporary, that life changes, and many things have a way of restoring themselves. So the friendship you think you lost or the bad nursing care you chose for your mother doesn’t mean you are permanently ruined. Despite what the voices say, we always have a second chance of declaring another major.
You’re Safe – And Where You Need to Be
There is worry, which can be informative at times, and there is panic. Obsessions induce panic. Ultimately, we feel as though our life is in danger. It can be especially difficult for people who have experienced trauma or chronic stress early in their lives because they have a hyper-responsitivity to stress cues, a greater activation in certain brain regions, that affect emotional regulation.
Stress quickly turns into panic, and before you know it, you’re upstairs serving the politicians chicken wings and margaritas. However, remember this: there is no saber-tooth tiger running toward you. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, you are safe, exactly where you are supposed to be. Repeat that as a mantra.
Trust the Wisdom With Which You Made the Decision
Decisions can be especially challenging for person prone to obsessions—even the minor ones like deciding on a salad dressing or pair of shoes. Bigger decisions – whether or not to put your mom in assisted care or send your son to boarding school – are prime triggers for obsessions. A friend of mine recently ended a relationship, a decision that produced all kinds of anxiety and regret. She told me that she had to remind herself on an hourly basis to trust the wisdom with which she made the decision, not to second guess it.
Solicit a Rescue Crew
Don’t enter the battle without support. Anyone who has ever experienced these intense thoughts knows that assistance is required in order to tease apart the kernels of truth that triggered the obsessions from the web of hurtful lies that produce the pain. Call some trusted friends. If you don’t have any that would understand, visit Group Beyond Blue on Facebook, a great community of understanding people who battle the beast of depression and provide inspiration.
Obsessive thoughts go away. Your guests will leave. But some extra insight and help from friends might bring you some relief before they go on to harass someone else.
Amazing Therese you have summed it up in such a concise way.
I have tried to explain to my husband and friends but never managed to do so.
It’s these thoughts that make you feel as though you are going mad.
Thank you. Lizzie
You are wonderful! I have been struggling with thoughts and depression for years. Great article which explains what is happening in the brain. Helps me know there is hope and caring people out there.
What an exceptional writing. Thank you, thank you angel!
Once again, thank you! I needed the reminder that obsessive thoughts, no matter how loud they are in my head, are not based on reality. That is one of the biggest struggles for me. It’s so easy for me to be convinced that what’s in my head is the truth. Sometimes when I share my thoughts with someone close to me, thoughts that I am convinced are reality, because I see this thoughts as logical conclusions to events in my life, they will almost laugh at how far off base I am. And I am usually genuinely surprised that they can see things differently than I do. Thank you for reminding me to trust them and to traffic in reality and avoid the destructive, negative thoughts.
It’s our thoughts that can drag us down. All the years believing them makes me want to cry.
Sometimes they are so hard to ignore but if we are aware of them maybe we can bat them away – like in a tennis match and send them back to where they belong! Lizzie
Could you speak more on the role of religion and intrusive thoughts? Do you think that intrusive thoughts often focus on religion or morality because that is an “easy” way to add value to otherwise incorrect thinking?
Are you still Catholic?
Thank you, Therese. You are right- willpower sometimes is just not enough, or the white-knuckling through just wears you down. I have read previously of your attempts to amnage without medication, and acknowledgement that sometimes it is needed. I was wondering if you use medication now as a tool?
Hi Susan, Yes. I most certainly do. The medications help a lot with the obsessions (and depression), but I also must do a lot of work myself.
For the first time ever I have a break from obsessive thoughts. I mean the ones that hurt your every moment. And I can actually feel the past fading a little. As these thoughts would be so intense they would take me back to any decision I have ever made and beat me up until my brain was like pulp.
Agony, pain, hurt guilt and heart breaking like raw grief.
Suddenly they are quiet. Yet in this quieteness I feel I am surrendering. Surrendering
to all the wrong decisions I have made. Waking up and finding I’m not living where I want to be. Let go of things, people I would have liked to held on to. Moved house left gardens, friendships trying to battle depression anxiety obsessive thinking .
In surrendering sometimes I just sit and listen to my quiet mind.
I’m not climbing the mountain I would like to climb or being the dynamic person I would like to be.
But this peace is like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. My mood still fluctuate and tears still flow and sadness of what might have been.
But I feel I am almost sitting in wait in case they return. Lizzie