“I can’t stop them from coming; it’s like I’ve lost the will to even try!” I said, pushing through my embarrassment. I took a deep breath and waited some time before speaking again. “Sometimes they start with a nightmare, where I’m chasing an ex who is running away from me, or I’m talking to a loved one whose eyes are gone, or my dead grandfather comes back from a long trip, or I’m covered in blood, beheading people tied in ropes. Sometimes, I just wake up and start panicking for no reason at all. Either way, all the ugly thoughts come back and overwhelm me.”
It all started with a string of stressful events in a short period of time. I was applying to go to grad school for research I did not want to continue doing. I felt obligated to pursue an amazing opportunity, even though deep down, I knew it wasn’t a good fit. There was a lot of pressure for me to “live up to my potential,” and I didn’t want to let anyone down. I had very little time to put my application together, and it consumed most of my non-working life for a few weeks.
As I was contemplating my future, my girlfriend and I suddenly broke up. She had decided to move out of the country, and didn’t want to try long distance. I really enjoyed spending time with her, more so than anybody else I’d dated before her. It was like I’d lost a part of who I was.
Shortly after, the CEO of the startup I was coding for decided I wasn’t working enough. At first, he periodically asked me if I could spare hours beyond what was required. Soon, though, his polite requests became aggressive demands. Eventually, he’d bring it up in front of my coworkers, suggesting I wasn’t dedicated enough to the product we were building.
The last straw came when a friend I had recently reconnected with was given a terminal cancer diagnosis. He should have had many more healthy years before him, and I couldn’t help but feel cheated on his behalf, knowing all the good times that were being robbed from him.
“I can handle the stress of these thoughts during the day,“ I continued explaining to my therapist. “Why can’t I at least get a break at night?”
The Shame Preventing Me from Getting Help
It took me a long time to even admit there was anything wrong. My friends and family could tell I wasn’t my usual self, but I wasn’t ready to agree.
“It seems like you are tired all the time,” one friend mentioned, out of the blue. “It’s like you’re hardly ever present anymore when we hang out. Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay!” I’d say. In truth, I was hardly getting more than four hours of sleep most nights, six if I was lucky. Within the first few hours, I’d be wide-awake again, mind churning with troubles and unable to go back to sleep, even though I was exhausted.
The problem was that I really didn’t want to admit to anyone what my brain was telling me — I carried a lot of shame, even though many people experience undesirable thoughts. I’d constantly question myself: would people see a creep if they knew I had dreams of chasing my ex as she ran away? Might people think less of me for waking up sweating and worrying I’d get lost in some city I had to present research in? Would others see less value in me when I spent more time fretting about being unemployed than finding a new job? Was it weird that I would imagine what never waking up would feel like whenever my friend was on my mind? And that didn’t even begin to cover the really scary, violent stuff, often involving different gruesome ways I might die or be hurt.
Learning to Cope
It was months before I regularly got the magic eight hours. During that time, I had a lot to learn about how to handle these thoughts. Doing some research told me I wasn’t the only one to involuntarily experience unwanted, disturbing thoughts and dreams. In fact, most people have them! The trick is healthy individuals don’t obsess over either the usual boring thoughts or the really troubling ones. I further learned that nightmares are more likely when you are actively trying not to spend time with your intrusive thoughts.
Learning I wasn’t the only person seeing horrible things helped me let go enough to get help. I could at least tell myself that a professional therapist wasn’t going to judge me for the weird stuff passing through my brain!
During my first therapy session, I received sleep hygiene 101: avoid stimulating activities before sleep like exercise and looking at screens, keep a tidy bedroom, only use it for sex and sleep, and don’t eat before bed. I was also told to leave the bedroom after 30 minutes of lying awake, and instead, make a warm drink, read a book, or do something else soothing until feeling tired enough to return.
The first therapy breakthrough also came in the first session when I learned proper deep breathing practices. I did not realize that it can take ten or more minutes of focused deep breathing to get the brain to calm down during cycles of intrusive or obsessive thoughts, panic attacks, or emotional distress from nightmares. Implementing the recommended changes got me back asleep within an hour of waking up for the first time in many weeks, and with each passing night, my brain started to learn that these thoughts would pass, if I let them.
I had to remember that trying to avoid the thoughts did not prevent them from happening, too! It seems paradoxical, but the more I tried to push them away, the more they came back. In fact, suppressed thoughts can return during our dreams. To combat this, I would find ten minutes each day to meditate. Practicing observing thoughts at a time I felt in control helped develop my ability to let distressing ideas pass more quickly at night.
Over time, I eventually returned to my normal sleeping patterns. But that doesn’t mean I am permanently cured.
During more stressful periods of my life, some recurring intrusive thoughts have come back to me. Most recently, COVID-19 and the societal stresses of living in 2020 have caused riffs to form in friendships, my day job to end, routine changes, and social isolation. Coupled with regular life events like health issues and day-to-day disappointments, I found my most distressing thoughts and dreams returning, some of them worse than ever.
However, I am far more confident about handling my intrusive thoughts. While I occasionally get stuck in bad thinking loops and am haunted by vivid nightmares, I have the skills required to change how my brain responds again. Each night, my sleep is starting to resemble something roughly normal again.
About the Author:
Graeme is a writer, entrepreneur, and software engineer who creates tools and experiences that help improve the world. He is very passionate about applying evidence-based thinking in everyday life and sharing stories that increase our awareness of what is beautiful all around and within us.
Graeme’s work includes wellmentally.com, a place providing researched-based resources for people to quickly evaluate their options for accessing therapy. In his spare time, Graeme performs music, plays sports, cooks complex dishes, and writes short stories.
Photo by Elvis Bekmanis on Unsplash
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