Ever wondered whether our thoughts really define us or not?
We have around 80,000 thoughts every single day. While some of them come into our attention and manage to invoke emotions within us, others often float by unnoticed. The question arises: does each thought add onto the definition of who we are or are they just simple, fleeting ideas that are just thoughts and nothing more?
French philosopher René Descartes gave the statement, Cogito ergo sum, which means "I think therefore I am." He suggested that our ideas are proof of our existence. And a lot of people, even in today’s age, believe that our thoughts construct our realities.
So, what if one has a thought in which they imagine themself shoving someone else over the platform? Or maybe they suddenly feel like sprinting to the altar and shrieking at the top of their lungs while sitting for a church service? Or a thought picturing something terrible happening to someone they care about?
These thoughts sound incredibly awful and distressing and according to popular beliefs, having such thoughts must mean something is wrong with the person. So, are these thoughts really true?
Well, the answer is actually no. Experiencing random thoughts is a perfectly normal human experience. They play a practical role by assisting us in anticipating and avoiding issues and risks, as well as planning ahead and remembering things we may have forgotten. Modern scientists, writers and philosophers believe the same too.
Often, because we believe that our thoughts can create realities, we become paranoid about what we are thinking. This can trigger thoughts that are recurrent, disturbing, and burst into our head at random times. These thoughts are known as intrusive thoughts.
We might think that not many people suffer from these thoughts but the phenomena is a lot more common than one might think. One estimate is that more than 6 million people in the United States are troubled by them. These thoughts are sources of a great deal of anxiety and stress in one’s life. Repetitive concerns about relationships, sexual orientation or identity, safety, religion, death, or worries about matters that cannot be answered with certainty are examples of unwanted intrusive thoughts.
Some myths that are commonly believed about intrusive thoughts are that one wants to do the things that come to their mind unconsciously. This is not true; Intrusive thoughts are often what we call ‘ego dystonic’: they are the opposite of what we actually want and intend to do. They can be quite appalling, but most of us don’t pay attention to it. In fact, it’s the effort that people put forth to combat the thought which causes it to stick and encourages its recurrence.
A second myth is that every thought we have is worth examining because every thought is believed to have meaning behind them. But in truth, thoughts are not messages, red flags, signals or warnings-despite how they feel.
So, one might ask why do these thoughts occur in the first place or how can people know they have experienced the same? Well, the thoughts can just happen randomly. Some thoughts just enter and exit the mind without any lasting impression but in the case of intrusive thoughts, it is a bit more complicated. Obsessive thoughts, sudden changes in thought patterns, etc are some symptoms of having intrusive thoughts. These thoughts could also be a symptom of other health issues, such as: brain injury, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
However, intrusive thoughts are not something that cannot be managed by ourselves. Some natural treatments for intrusive thoughts are labelling the thoughts as "intrusive thoughts", accepting and allowing the thoughts to float in our consciousness and continuing our work while allowing the anxiety to be present etc. Not trying to push the thoughts away or engaging with the thoughts can also be helpful.
Intrusive thoughts are usually harmless but one should definitely consult with a professional and seek help if they feel that the thoughts are too distressing and getting intertwined with the following mental health disorders:
Obsessive-compulsive disorder: When intrusive thoughts become repetitive and uncontrollable, obsessive-compulsive disorder might be the reason behind it. It causes one to indulge in certain behaviours or compulsions that they think is necessary to end the repetitive pattern of thoughts.
Post-traumatic stress disorder: If one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their source of intrusive thoughts might be about the incident that caused it, such as seeing or being involved in a car accident, getting robbed, or going through a major life event like a divorce or losing their child.
Eating disorders: People with eating disorders frequently have intrusive thoughts about the physical impact of food on their bodies. As a result, there is a lot of anxiety about eating and they might indulge in additional actions like purging in an attempt to stop the thoughts.
Even though these thoughts might feel like a suffocating labyrinth for the person, making them feel like a prisoner in their own mind, there are many treatments that are available to help them out. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), medication and self-care have been proved to be very effective in lessening the frequency of such thoughts.
What’s the outlook if you have intrusive thoughts?
Participants in a Harvard University study were told that they may think about whatever they wished, except a "white bear." Despite being warned repeatedly not to think about a white bear, all of the participants in the study thought of one at least once every minute. Dr. Wegner, the study's social psychologist discovered that when we attempt not to think about something, our brain periodically "checks in" to ensure that we are still avoiding it. And, of course, this makes us think about the original concept all over again
Thereby, acceptance is the easiest way to not let these thoughts affect your mental health. Accepting does not necessarily mean we have to believe that thought or like it. It's as simple as detecting it, recognising that it's a "thought," and letting it go.
We must become comfortable with the arrival of these thoughts and they will eventually pass. But even after taking such steps, if these thoughts still linger in your mind and make you emotionally drained, there is nothing to be ashamed about approaching a professional and having them help you out.
It’s about time we let go of the misconception that our thoughts define us. We define our thoughts and it is up to us whether we allow them to become a part of our identity.