First, what are automatic and intrusive thoughts? They are thoughts that pop into your head, seemingly out of nowhere. They can cause fear, distress, sadness, or any of the multitude of feelings that we are capable of having. They can cause you to worry about something that has yet to happen or can cause you to harp on something in the past that you would like to forget. The main points are that these thoughts are involuntary, often undesired, and most importantly, can lead to maladaptive reactions. For example, a person might be experiencing thoughts related to using again, such as: “just this one time. I can handle it now. I can control myself. I’ll quit tomorrow. I’ll quit once I run out. I just need to get passed this and then I’ll quit” and so on. Now imagine having those thoughts all day. The maladaptive reaction to those thoughts could lead to a relapse.
So, what causes us to have these thoughts? Why do they seem to pop in out of nowhere?
We have thoughts pop in and out of our heads all the time. Have you ever found yourself halfway into a counseling session or group, and the thought of what you were going to have for dinner pops into your head? Or had any other random thought that simply had no effect on you whatsoever? The difference between that type of thought and “It will be alright this time/ I can handle it” type of thought, is the way the thought makes you feel. You may be able to dismiss the thought, “What am I going to have for dinner”, as unimportant and continue to focus on the session. But the thought of using again seems to bring about emotions and feelings that you just can’t seem to ignore or shake.
So why do they seem to pop in out of nowhere? In addiction recovery, triggers may play a huge part on those thoughts entering your mind. A trigger can be anything associated with prior use or even something similar that can be associated with prior use. For example, seeing someone sell drugs, the place you used to cop, or seeing a needle at the doctors’ office. All the usual things we harp on in this program, right? Persons, places, and things! A second reason why unwanted thoughts keep popping into your head, is that you may be experiencing the “white bear effect”. The harder you try to suppress a thought or not think about a certain thing, the more likely it is to pop back into your head.
So, what can we do about these thoughts before they lead us to acting on them and to unwanted behavior? For starters, learning to identify automatic/intrusive thoughts (at least the ones we don’t want). They usually make you feel negative feelings. Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you should never feel a negative feeling such as sadness or anger. The goal here is to process those feelings and ensure they don’t lead to unwanted behavior. Same thing is true with intrusive thoughts in general. Suppressing the thought or trying to ignore it only makes it more likely to pop up again in the future (remember the white bear effect). If you learn to process them, they will be less likely to come up again. One way of processing them is to” look for the evidence”. For example, thoughts that produce anxiety often revolve around things that haven’t happened yet or seldom occur. By asking ourselves “what is the evidence to support this thought”, we can arrive at the conclusion, perhaps, that there isn’t any. Which could help put that thought behind us. Another way of getting rid of intrusive thoughts is acceptance. Once you accept that you are having a certain thought, you have stopped fighting against it. You’re telling yourself that the thought is just a thought and nothing else. By telling yourself that these thoughts don’t control you, the thoughts become less powerful and you are less likely to act in counterproductive ways. Yet another way of processing them is to create an alternate thought. Sure, you might be having the most horrible day ever, or it could just be that this morning was a rough start, and things may have evened out after that.
Managing intrusive thoughts and learning to process them is not necessarily an easy thing to do. It is a human experience and has even been part of our instinctual behavior to aid us in times of danger. But with some practice, you can learn to minimize the effects of intrusive thoughts and learn to move on.
Check out the links below for more information on automatic/intrusive thoughts!