Before I can explain this there are three systems of the brain that you need to be aware of. 

  1. The Amygdala – sensors that identify potential threats, and regulates the fight or flight response.
  2. The Reticular Activating System – a filtering system or search engine that presents you with relevant information and resources on a moment-to-moment basis. 
  3. The Interpreter Function – the way we make sense of, or assign meaning to our thoughts and experiences. 

It is also important to know that when a person is regularly anxious or highly stressed, they spend a lot of time operating from the primitive part of their brain, often referred to as the emotional center or limbic system. People sometimes refer to this as being in survival mode because our thinking is very different when we are functioning from this part of the brain. Instead of being logical, rational, and positive (which is how we will be when operating from our pre-frontal cortex), we instead think negatively, obsessionally, and tend to assume the worst. The reason I bring this up is because where we are operating from will influence the interpreter function. 

So, what is an intrusive thought?

Well, if you google this question, you will get the following definition.

“Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that can pop into our heads without warning, at any time. They’re often repetitive – with the same kind of thought cropping up again and again – and they can be disturbing or even distressing”.

In my experience as a therapist, I have come to the conclusion that the primary reason people become distressed is due to a lack of understanding. The moment you understand something the meaning changes and therefore so does the emotional response. So that being said, lets break down what is actually happening in the brain when we have these intrusive thoughts. 

I want to begin by stating that the brain or our mind (mind is the brain in action), is always working on your behalf. In other words, it has a positive intent for everything that it does, even if the experience isn’t always pleasant or understood; and intrusive thoughts are a perfect example of this fact. 

I will use an example from a recent case I had with a client who has regular intrusive thoughts. She was carrying a bottle of wine and she suddenly had a thought of stabbing herself in the eye with the bottle. This image or scene was obviously very distressing and made her very anxious. But why would her mind do this? Her interpretation of this thought was that her brain is telling her to stab herself in the eye!

Let’s begin by talking through what happens neurologically. First the amygdala identifies the bottle as being made of glass and potentially dangerous. The reticular activating system then brings up a potential scenario that could happen and presents it as an image or mind movie. The person’s interpreter function then tries to make sense of why the thought was presented. The meaning or conclusion she comes up with is that her brain is telling her to stab herself in the eye. But is that what her brain is telling her to do? Remember that the brain is always trying to help not cause problems, so what is really going on here?

Well let’s look at this from a different perspective. The brain has identified a potential threat of the glass and as a warning it shows a potential scenario that COULD happen. It isn’t telling her to do anything. It is the interpretation or meaning that the person has come up with that has created the anxiety, and if they are operating from the primitive part of their brain in that moment, the meaning is going to be negative. If the person had been operative from the pre-frontal cortex in that moment, they could well have perceived the thought as – I had better be careful or I may trip and stab myself with the bottle. 

IMPORTANT – the interpreter function will always make meaning, even if there isn’t any! This is why coaches and therapists have to be very careful about using the word “Why”, because this will active the interpreter function. If someone says they don’t feel very good today and you ask why that is, they will start come up with all kinds or reasons (meaning). They may just have woken up feeling a bit tired, but now they have made all kinds of meaning out of the emotion which could amplify and perpetuate the negative emotional state for the rest of the day. On the other hand, a therapist can use the interpreter in a positive way. If the client has just noticed a positive emotional shift and say “I feel so much better” and the therapist asks – “why do you think that is”? They will come up with all kinds of meaning which fortifies the positive change. 

So, in summary the problem is not our thoughts, but what we make them mean. Our brain will always present us with possibilities and potential threats so that we can avoid them. But if we are already feeling anxious or prone to experiencing anxiety, these thoughts may be more extreme and perceived as a personal attack (my brain is telling me to stab myself). The key is to understand what is happening, so that you can understand and rationalize your thoughts. 

Anxiety is simply your body’s way of trying to protect you against potential threats. But if you have a lot of unresolved trauma in your past it can be overly protective or sensitive to things in your current environment. If this is the case, it may be a good idea to seek professional help to release the trauma, and the emotional triggers, because once your stress levels are under control and you are functioning from the pre-frontal cortex most of the time, you will find that your thoughts will be a lot more manageable. 

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Categories: Psychology


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