While anxiety has a lot of physical symptoms, it's often the mental ones that are the most disturbing. That's because your mind can only focus on so many things at once. You can still go about your day with weaker legs and a slightly sped up heartbeat, but you can't go about your day while your mind is flooded with thoughts, because you can't fit in any other thoughts, happiness, or enjoyment.
When these thoughts are disturbing it can be even worse, because it causes you to think worse of yourself and almost always causes significant additional anxiety. In this article, we'll explore causes and solutions of these disturbing thoughts.
Disturbing Thoughts = Anxiety?
Even the most psychologically healthy people can have the occasional disturbing thought. But anxiety makes it more likely those thoughts come back over and over. If you think you have anxiety, take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your severity, see what type you have, and more.
Types of Disturbing Thoughts
All people have the occasional disturbing thought. It's anxiety that makes it so hard to control, because anxiety causes reactions to those thoughts that create more anxiety and more thoughts. Find out how to cure your anxiety with my free 7 minute anxiety test.
There is more than one type of disturbing thought, and the idea of a disturbing thought is completely subjective. For some, the thought may be violent, sexual, or otherwise. For others, it may be something as simple as believing they forgot to lock the door, or that someone doesn't like them.
When people discuss disturbing thoughts, they're usually talking about those that are disturbing to other people - thoughts that they feel ashamed about, because they think it means something terrible about their character. Examples of these types of thoughts include things like:
- Violent sexual fantasies about family members, animals, strangers, etc.
- Wishing to do law breaking things that would otherwise get them into trouble.
- Nightmares or frightening day dreams about fears and phobias, like spiders.
- Thoughts about death, injury, or kidnappings.
- Reliving frightening events you had in the past.
Remember, there is no "wrong" disturbing thought, since these thoughts are subjective. Many people have anxiety related thoughts that are somewhat harmless, like the idea that they are going to be late for work. These thoughts are no less upsetting to the people dealing with them. But the above list are the most common types of thoughts that people would generally describe as "disturbing."
Causes of Disturbing Thoughts
What's interesting is that in general, the cause of disturbing thoughts is "nothing." It is possible for something in your past to cause a negative thought like this - especially in the event of trauma - but that doesn't necessarily mean that your specific thoughts were caused by much of anything.
The reality is that nearly everyone has the occasionally weird or disturbing thought. The only difference between you and them is that you have anxiety. So when you have a disturbing thought, it tends to be extremely consuming. You feel terrible about yourself, you struggle to prevent the thought, and you feel it keep coming back.
Those with anxiety have a tendency to internalize the thought, rather than simply ignore it and forget about it. Anxiety actually causes this in several ways:
- Anxiety is known to make negative thoughts easier for the brain to remember.
- Anxiety makes people worry about what it means to them, thus becoming more negative.
- Anxiety causes changes to brain chemicals that start to translate information in more frightening ways.
Anxiety is about fear, and these thoughts are both the result of and fueled by fear. They're unlikely to be caused by much of anything - only reacted to with fear and then brought back by fear. It's possible that your thoughts are caused by changes to your neurotransmitter levels and it's possible that you've experienced things in your life that have caused these types of thoughts, but generally they're simply normal thoughts that receive a reaction that continues to cause them to affect you.
Why Disturbing Thoughts Are Hard to Stop
So if these thoughts are normal, why do those with anxiety struggle to stop them while those without anxiety seem to have no problem? We already mentioned the idea that anxious brains are more prone to reliving negative thoughts and creating new ones, but a far greater problem is known as "thought suppression."
Studies have shown that those that try NOT to think about something think about it MORE than someone that doesn't care. Time and time again, studies on those trying to suppress a thought have shown that suppressing it brings it out more than someone that doesn't seem to have a problem with it.
Why this occurs isn't entirely clear. It's likely that it takes more mental energy to try to fight a thought than it does to avoid it, and it's known that your brain hates forgetting things, so it's also possible your mind reminds you because you're trying to forget.
Nevertheless, thought suppression is one of the key reasons that these types of thoughts continue and recur. It's why those with obsessive compulsive disorder often struggle to stop their thoughts, and why those with anxiety find that the same (or similar) thoughts keep coming back.
How to Stop Disturbing Thoughts
So how does one stop disturbing thoughts? Eventually, you'll have to control your anxiety. Until your anxiety is fully under control, it is going to be very difficult to stop disturbing thoughts altogether. But in the meantime, consider the following:
- Don't Be Afraid Remember, disturbing thoughts mean absolutely nothing about you, even if they are graphic, illegal, violent, or scary. Thoughts are simply thoughts, and even the most psychologically healthy people have the occasional strange thought. You need to make sure you're not afraid of these thoughts anymore. You have anxiety - these thoughts are natural - until you cure anxiety you can't expect to control them, so accepting the thoughts is one step forward towards recovery.
- Write Them Out Any and all recurring thoughts - even if they're not necessarily stress inducing or disturbing , and especially if they occur before sleep - should be written out as well. The mind relaxes on trying to remember things when it knows they're in a permanent place, so when you write them out you effectively tell your brain it doesn't need to focus on them as much.
- Mental Distractions Distractions are an incredibly important part of coping with stress and can reduce the effects of negative thoughts. Do your best to try to keep your brain as active as possible. Exercise, go do fun things with friends, and try to be as mentally overwhelmed as you can be provided all of the activities you do are emotionally healthy.
If you effectively do all of these things, you'll find that over time you'll be able to successfully reduce at least the frequency of the thoughts or your reaction to them, even if you cannot necessarily stop the thoughts completely.
What you still need to do is make sure that you're learning how to stop your anxiety as best you can, because thoughts may always occur but how they affect you can easily be changed.
Find out more about how to start making an impact with your anxiety today by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test is a useful way to learn more about how your anxiety works and what you can do to stop it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.