Why am I having these thoughts?
Many of us have thoughts at different times in our lives that leave us worried, confused and even distressed. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering something like this, it’s completely normal:
While some types of thought can be linked to mental health difficulties such as anxiety and OCD, any of us can experience them at absolutely any time, and on the whole they don’t cause us any problems. In this blog, we explore the three main categories of ‘troubling’ thought we may have, what’s behind them, and how we can manage them.
Rumination and worrying: the stuck record This feels like there’s a thought or an image stuck in our head, and our mind goes over and over it. Rumination is when we think about things that have happened in the past, and can sometimes be a symptom of depression. When we worry, we play out things that might happen in the future and get anxious about them.
The images and thoughts we have can be very strong. Often, people think it’s something that’s happening to them – but it can help to know that it’s a behaviour we actively do, and can control.
It’s very powerful if we can recognise the thought for what it is, and make a choice to move away from it. What triggers you to ruminate? Is there a particular time you tend to worry? If it happens on your commute, for example, or while you’re clearing up after dinner and everything’s gone quiet, you could decide to do something different. For instance, you might read or listen to music on the way to work, or ask your family to stick around in the kitchen for a chat (and get them to do the washing up!).
Intrusive thoughts: the bouncing lottery balls Random thoughts, images and doubts can pop into our mind at any time, and often for no apparent reason. People with OCD can be very troubled by their intrusive thoughts and what they might mean – however, we all get them.
These thoughts can be about absolutely anything, and they tend to come and go. Usually we barely think about them, and we’re able to carry on as normal. Problems can arise, however, if we attach meaning to our intrusive thoughts, and worry about why we’re having them; particularly if they’re about something shocking or even violent. We might think ‘Do I want it to happen?’, ‘If I think about this a lot, does that mean it’ll come true?’ or ‘Am I a bad person?’. It can be especially distressing if the thoughts go against our values – for example a nurse could have thoughts about injuring someone, or a mother might see herself dropping her baby!
It’s important to know that intrusive thoughts are very normal, and they don’t mean anything at all. Nobody is really sure why they happen – but what is certain is that we don’t need to respond to them, for example by trying to make them stop. We can attempt to change our relationship with them, by consciously recognising that we’re having the thought and saying to ourselves ‘Ooh, it’s that random thought again!’.
Flashbacks: the messy linen cupboard Flashbacks can happen if we’ve been through something traumatic, and haven’t had the chance to process the memories properly yet. People with PTSD often experience flashbacks, but we don’t have to have PTSD to get them.
If you’re not sure whether what you’re experiencing is a memory or a flashback, ask yourself whether the thought or image arrives randomly, or because you’ve chosen to think about it. When you deal with an event properly, it’s like your brain tidies up your memories and stacks them neatly in a cupboard. When you want to, you take out a memory, leaving everything else in there, and put it back when you’re ready.
Sometimes, people don’t process an event fully – perhaps because it’s traumatic and they can’t remember it clearly, or they’ve been discouraged from thinking or talking about it. This leaves the cupboard messy, so any trigger can bring memories tumbling out. They can be very powerful – involving smell, sounds, movement and vivid images – and people can truly believe they’re back in the moment the event was happening.
Having flashbacks doesn’t mean we’re unstable, or dangerous – it’s a well-understood response to unprocessed trauma. Grounding can be a very useful technique for coping with them. This involves using our senses to bring ourselves back into the present moment: noticing how the room smells, the sounds we hear, the details we see, how the floor feels under our feet.
Another technique to try is recognising the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’. For example, you may hear a sound that takes you back to an accident you once had. Listing what’s different between that time and now – for instance, it’s a different season, you’re with different people, it’s not raining – will help to anchor you in the present.
If you’re troubled by difficulties with rumination, worrying, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks, CBT treatment can help to equip you with techniques and strategies for managing them – often by changing your relationship with the thoughts you have.