Until recently, I kept a large aspect of my fear of the world hidden because I was terrified of the consequences I would suffer if I talked about it. I was already scared of the judgment I might experience from opening up about my fear, but this was enormous. What would people think? The fear of this backlash made me feel physically ill, and I felt like there was no one I could turn to who would understand.
I’m talking about intrusive thoughts, which the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland says “become obsessive, evoke fear and shame, and often lead to doubts about reason, control, motives, character, and safety.” They are common in those who struggle with generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
A majority of my life has been spent dealing with anxiety, so for as long as I can remember, this symptom has always affected me. I never understood why horrible images and scenarios would pop into my head, leaving me scared and frightened. I did not know that I was experiencing intrusive thoughts or why they disturbed my reality.
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People who experience anxiety often experience these episodes, during which they watch an alarming event unfold in their head. These intrusive thoughts are frightening scenarios we create, causing us to think of harmful things we can do to ourselves or people we love.
The thing is, however, we would never act on these thoughts, and we know that, but we feel the fear as if it is really happening, and they make us incredibly uncomfortable. These thoughts are an automatic reaction and completely beyond our control. Our brains become a film roll of thoughts and actions that we play in our mind, and we cannot see away.
When I was a kid, these imprinted thoughts came in the form of monsters, like the ones you see in movies. Despite knowing that monsters did not exist, they came to life in my mind and gave me physical symptoms of fear. Sometimes it would get too much, and I would hide under my blankets and cry at night. I knew in my mind that nothing could hurt me because there was nothing physical, but I could not understand why these images haunted me.
I just wanted to get to my destination, but these thoughts would run through my mind, and I could not stop them.
As I gained more life experiences, my intrusive thoughts developed into other fears. Now that I was older, these thoughts turned into new scenarios, which, however, felt. For example, when I started driving, I saw myself getting off the road, hitting a side rail, flying off a ledge, or walking head-on into a semi. I really did not want to do any of these things. I just wanted to get to my destination, but these thoughts would run through my mind, and I could not stop them.
I’ve learned that these intrusive thoughts are our brain’s coping mechanism for fear. They distract us from the fear we feel in real life with a fictional event that we can focus on instead. This is the way your brain works to help you deal with the anxiety you are experiencing in real life. It’s like your brain telling you, “Look, I know you’m scared, but it can get worse, so what’s happening is not that bad.
Believe it or not, my baby monsters have followed me into adulthood, and I still see them when I’m scared. Because I have experienced them for so long, I have for the most part been amazed at their effects. However, I pay attention when these imprinted thoughts come up because it is an indication that my fear is off the charts and I need to stop and judge myself.
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I’ve opened up about it to just a few of my closest friends; one is afraid and confirms that she herself is experiencing the same thing. She thought there was something with her, like me, and dared not tell a soul out of fear of judgment and mockery. It was redeeming for her and me that we were not alone.
I want those who do not experience intrusive thoughts to know that this is not something to be alarmed about. We are in no way looking to hurt ourselves or anyone else; we are just trying to deal with our fear. If someone close to you is experiencing these intrusive thoughts, just love and support them. That understanding will help reduce the fear we feel by having these thoughts ourselves. Know, however, that this is not a problem that you can solve; this is a process we will go through nonetheless.
If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts, share them. The more we share these experiences, the better we can understand ourselves and others and the more we can help each other. Know that you are not alone.
For resources and information on intrusive thoughts, please visit the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.