Coping with Intrusive Thoughts in Bipolar Disorder
Tuesday, November 28 2017 Natasha Tracy
There are many things you have to cope with when you have bipolar disorder and one of those things may be intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that are beyond your control and can become obsessions. But they are thoughts you do not want and, certainly, obsessions you don’t want to have. Here are some ways to cope with intrusive thoughts in bipolar disorder.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts in Bipolar Disorder?
According to Wikipedia1, in psychiatry, an intrusive thought is:
. . . an unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.
And intrusive thoughts can even lead to compulsions if they are strong enough.
Now, intrusive thoughts are not a specific symptom of bipolar disorder as found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5); nevertheless, intrusive thoughts are common in bipolar disorder and many mental illnesses (typical in posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in the form of reexperiencing the traumatic event). I have them every day and I know many other people have them at various times in their illnesses.
Examples of Intrusive Thoughts in Bipolar Disorder
Intrusive thoughts can be anything that you don’t want to think but repeatedly do. These could be words or images in your mind.
Common intrusive thoughts involve thoughts regarding a trauma. If you have been raped, for example, you may repeatedly replay that experience, or not be able to get the attacker’s face out of your mind.
Other intrusive thoughts that may occur in bipolar disorder and elsewhere:
- Thoughts of self-harm
- Thoughts of suicide
- Thoughts of violence towards others
- Thoughts of self-hatred
- Thoughts of a previous, negative experience (such as a fight with a significant other)
And so on and so on and so on. These thoughts are horrible, against your will and cause great upset.
I have coped with many intrusive thoughts over the course of my illnesses. The biggest intrusive thought I have in my life right now is the sentence, “I hate my life.”
Over and over and over every single day, I think to myself, “I hate my life.”
As any psychologist will tell you, that’s certainly reinforcing the negative, which is not a place where you want to be. Regardless of that, it causes me distress and upset because I don’t want to think that thought. It’s not even a rational thought. It needs to go away.
Bipolar Disorder and Coping with Intrusive Thoughts
I have found that people with bipolar disorder are often obsessive. We obsess over things, people, places and pretty much everything else. I have obsessed over so many things in my life I can’t even recall them all, I’m sure. So, in my opinion, it makes sense that those with bipolar disorder would also suffer from intrusive thoughts.
In my experience, there is no way to get rid of intrusive thoughts psychologically (there are exceptions), but I can cope with intrusive thoughts. Try these steps for coping with intrusive thoughts:
- Identify intrusive thoughts. You need to recognize if a thought is truly intrusive. Are you thinking of something repeatedly when you don’t want to? Is the thought popping up at times when it doesn’t make sense? Is it causing significant distress?
- Acknowledge these thoughts when they occur. I know that a reflex may be to push these thoughts aside as much as possible but, in my experience, this doesn’t help. For example, when I think “I hate my life,” I then to myself, “I know.” It’s not an acknowledgment of the truth of the thought but rather that I know that my brain is simply producing it.
- Take a deep breath. I tend to take a deep breath and sigh at my intrusive thoughts.
- Don’t judge your thoughts. If you understand that these thoughts are part of an illness, then you should understand judging them is useless and inappropriate. For example, you wouldn’t judge a sneeze when you have a cold, why should you judge a mental illness symptom?
- Replace the thought with something more positive. This is the really tricky part. Every time I have an intrusive thought, I try to “thought switch.” So I try to move my brain onto thoughts that I want to think. These wanted thoughts could be anything from a predefined soothing image to something as simple as your to-do list.
Remember, intrusive thoughts are part of a mental illness like bipolar disorder. Intrusive thoughts are created in your sick brain and are not truly what you think and are not truly part of you. I know that I don’t hate my life. I know that it seems like I do because of my sick brain. But I know I can look at these intrusive thoughts rationally and fight them. This may not make them go away, but it can make coping with them bearable.
(Note: There are also psychiatric treatments for intrusive thoughts. Always report intrusive thoughts to a mental healthcare professional like a psychiatrist. Not only is it important for him/her to understand where you are in your illness but he/she may also offer medical help when needed.)
- Wikipedia, Intrusive Thoughts. Retrieved November 28, 2017.