Every now and then, I get intrusive thoughts at night. Sometimes they come unannounced (and uninvited) right before falling asleep.
These unwelcome thoughts are quite inconsistent, and usually, come knocking at my door in specific moments of my life. They may show up during midterm exams, or right before a very important meeting the next day.
What’s very ironic is that they always come at night. They pass by to say hello at that moment when everything is quiet and you have no other choice but to listen. This incessant inner-chatter pops up in that brief instant where you’re falling into REM sleep; that pivotal moment that determines if you’ll have either a restful or a restless night. Yup. Right at the best moment.
What’s even more ironic, is that these thoughts are usually senseless, and for the most part, seemingly unimportant. What does that embarrassing moment where I sang (sounded more like howling) in that talent show in 5th grade has to do with my midterm the next day?
It’s as if my nonsensical mind is trying to look for alternatives to unload an emotion that needs to be vented. It learns to ride along with other much subtler thoughts. How very sneaky. Why not ask the real questions, like “Why didn’t I study that little chart on chapter 3, right above the Pythagorean Theorem?” Oh no, it prefers to go back to 5th grade.
What’s even worse is that when your mind gets impetus, it starts throwing in even more self- defeating thoughts. This is called a Negative Thought Pattern. They come from all your fears and self-doubts. However, for some reason, your mind enhances them, turning them into an evil monsters from outer space whose only purpose is to take you down. Ok, not quite, but sure feels like it. They spiral into unrealistic, and completely out of control, ideations. This is what I call ‘Can’t Sleep Anxiety.’
How to stop intrusive thoughts
Trick number 1. Use your imagination
In the midst of these roaming thoughts, one night I decided to store them all in a trunk and lock them up for good (imaginatively, of course). I had just watched Dr. Sleep at the movie theatre and thought that perhaps I could also get rid of these thoughts the same way he did when locked up those strange and paranormal entities. Folks, it did the trick.
But this trick does not always work.
Trick number 2. Don’t let them get to you
Eckhart Tolle talks about retracting yourself from your thoughts and to just “look” at them, sort of like a separate entity. The trick relies on not letting them get to you. See them as a bully that’s trying to get you down. It’s up to you to impede them from provoking you. This also really works for me. Sometimes.
I believe there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. We have different situations that require specific solutions, as well as different mindsets that require diversification. What works for Jon, may not work for Jane. Or what once worked for me, may not do the trick the following day.
Trick number 3. Use cognitive distractions
The other day I came upon my friend Jill’s article. Her trick on how to stop intrusive thoughts is to distract the mind with cognitive distractions. As soon as she realises that her mind is spiralling out of control, she starts enacting math operations in her head. Works like a charm!
Trick number 4. Use mantras or positive affirmations
But sometimes we need to hold the bull by the horns and directly confront some of these intrusive thoughts.
For instance, I’m at a point in my life where I am in the middle of very important personal projects, and I have no idea if they will pan out as I plan them to. I am terrified. When my mind starts playing unrealistic scenarios of imminent failure I retort to mantras or use positive affirmations. I repeat something simple and straightforward, like “Everything will be ok”.
The unconscious responds best to simplicity.
Trick number 5. Meditation
There are also preventive approaches on how to stop intrusive thoughts, such as meditation.
For a long period of time, I meditated every night before going to sleep. I was going through very intense grief and couldn’t conciliate sleep easily. Meditation became my ally. I would just let my mind space out, and soon my body would become so relaxed that a very deep and restful sleep would come along. Meditation may be challenging at first, but once you get the gist of it you’ll get rid of that ‘Can’t Sleep Anxiety.’
When you lose someone you love, or when things don’t turn out as you expect, it can be very difficult to nip painful thoughts by the bud.
Trick number 6. Change your mindset
“Why is this happening to me?”
Something that has helped me with these types of existential questions, is to understand that although we cannot change what happens to us, we can at least have power over our responses. Trying to question the universe as to why things happen is self-defeating and really, it doesn’t take you anywhere.
That being said, holding on ta wishful thinking of a different outcome only generates pain and suffering. Tao refers to this as swimming against the stream of Dao, which basically invites us to “Go with the flow”. Similarly, for Buddhists, “Life Is dukkha,” which means that life is suffering, and as so we must accept undesirable outcomes, and just move forward. The Bible, on the other hand, states that God has an ulterior motive, and there’s no point in trying to reason with it.
You don’t have to be religious, spiritual, or even believe in any divine power to understand the logic behind these wise words. So don’t let your fears or insecurities override your mind, and instead, learn to embrace any current or future outcome.
I think, that having that mindset is probably the best trick up my sleeve on how to stop intrusive thoughts. It has sure helped me put an end to that ‘Can’t Sleep Anxiety!’
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