When Thoughts Become Torture

If you’ve never had an intrusive thought, it’s hard to imagine. These are thoughts that appear, unbidden and undesired, and that (in my experience) are immune to the techniques I usually use to stop thinking. I guess the best way to describe it is the example of “Don’t think about a pink elephant.”

Really, don’t.

Stop thinking about that pink elephant.

You’re not thinking about a pink elephant, are you?

(The theory is that when someone says all this, the listener–reader–will start having unbidden thoughts about pink elephants and be unable to stop.)

That doesn’t really convey it, but it’s a start. Anyway, my experience of intrusive thoughts are that they’re not like regular thoughts. Then again, I hadn’t had them since…before I went on meds. I used to have intrusive thoughts about running into the street, or biting down on a wine glass, to the point where I’d walk close to buildings, so that there were other people between me and the street.

By now, you’re wondering what this has to do with living the mess…

Last November, I had a routine mammogram, and something showed up. Nothing big, just a spot that seemed to have grown a bit since the previous year. They did an ultrasound the same day and found nothing, then recommended I return in six months for a follow up. My GP is a bit of what I call an arsonist firefighter, someone who (unintentionally) creates fear so that he can be the one to provide reassurance. He said, “Let me worry about it. Don’t you worry about it — just go live your life.” Yeah, right, especially with that comment.

The follow-up screening is in three weeks. For five months, I’ve had intrusive thoughts about what it might show. It’s not like I haven’t been through this before: In the past decade, I’ve had two surgical biopsies and three core biopsies, and nothing dangerous has shown up —  but that’s a whole story in itself, and all but one were tied to my past Sick Identity. Intuitively and logically, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. But intrusive thoughts aren’t logical and they don’t come from the intuition.

Finally, I found something that gave me some relief, in Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance. I started accepting that I was having these thoughts. Rather than try to push them away or down, I just let them be, without saying they were right or true (or wrong or false). The more I resisted the intrusive thoughts, the more I tried to push them away, the harder they came back. The more I beat myself up for having them, the more suffering I created. The thoughts are bad enough; why add a layer of guilt?

I also started doing Pac Man-type visualizations, as well as visualizing light coming in and dissolving whatever’s there (cyst, calcium deposit, etc). And, for good measure, I’ve visualized it getting smaller. I’ve bathed myself in light (I do that at least once a day, often several times), and I’ve focused on what an enormous relief it will be when technicians says they don’t see anything, and I can go home.

I’m writing about this because it’s where I feel a lot of spiritual teachings don’t help. The idea that I should be able to let go of any thought, on command — I’m pretty good with that most of the time, but these are different. The idea that I should only focus on the positive, or on the desired outcome — that’s not so easy. The idea that if we just think happy thoughts, our bodies will always be healthy — that’s just another form of judgment, couched in ‘spiritual’ language. Positive thoughts feel better than negative thoughts, and it’s true that they’re healthier for the body, but when people say, “Just think happy thoughts, just visualize the positive,” what’s unspoken is a form of shaming.

That said, I believe that whatever comes up in our lives is what we need for spiritual growth in the moment. Having been through financial hardship and hunger in a way I never thought I’d be able to endure, much less embrace, I know I can accept each moment, whatever it holds.

For now, though, I really hope that future-moment holds health.

One other technique just occurred to me: These thoughts are coming up to be released. So I can acknowledge them, thank them for how they’ve served me in the past (keeping me vigilant when I thought my health might be in danger, when I needed others to take care of me)…and consciously release them.

But I’m still doing the Pac Man.


Photo credit: PeterThoeny on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

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