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Jennifer Leigh: Coping With Intrusive Thoughts


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Coping With Intrusive Thoughts

by Jennifer Leigh | Feb 18, 2019 | Coping Skills | 5 comments


*Warning, this post could be triggering for some.



The day I lost my mind.

I can’t recall the exact day. Was I just home from the hospital after my cold-turkey, or was it before I was carried into the emergency room and admitted? No matter. What I do remember was that everything I knew about life had vanished. Gone. Completely. In its place resided a horrible voice in my head that repeated one thought over and over and over and over from the moment I woke up until I finally, mercifully, fell asleep for a few hours. But as I slumbered, the thought kept vigil by my bed, waiting for me to regain consciousness so that it could torment me again. This went on for a Very. Long. Time. There were other benzo withdrawal symptoms I had to cope with, equally as heinous and cruel as the intrusive thoughts, but the thoughts were exceptionally challenging. I had no control over my mind. None whatsoever. My mind wanted me to know, and to know in gory detail, that one day, I’d have to face the dreaded D-word. Death. It was all I could think about.


Convinced it was just me.

Of course, I’d read about intrusive thoughts so I knew that they were a common withdrawal symptom, but still, I wondered and worried if this new mental torture was “just me.” Had I devolved into some new and tortuous anxiety state? Or was it something even more nefarious? Was I teetering on the brink of true madness? It felt like it. I wish there was a way to convey the suffering the thoughts induced, but it would be like trying to explain a newly discovered color. How could anyone know without a point of reference? So I don’t try. But suffice it to say that the suffering was inhumane.


At first, nothing worked.

I tried everything to stop the intrusive thoughts. I fought back at them, screamed at them, told them to F off. Nothing phased them. If anything, my standing up to them made them fight back a little harder, much like a bully on the playground. Give him or her a bit of your attention and the game is on, for it is attention they feed off of. After months of standing up to the thoughts, I abandoned my attempts to fight back. It didn’t work.


My next ploy was to ignore them. This worked better than confrontation, but the problem was I wasn’t really ignoring them. I was aware that I was aware of them but ignoring them. So they hummed along in the background taunting me from the sidelines. But, at least they weren’t so front and center anymore. I was able to distract from them for short periods of time, especially if I engaged my hands in an activity. (Gardening became my go-to distraction and it helped in so many ways.)  I was relieved that I could get a break from them, but now an uneasiness set in. What if this was my new normal? I wondered. I had seen a few healthcare professionals and they told me that I was in denial: I had an anxiety disorder and would need some type of medication. I wanted desperately to believe the thoughts were “just” withdrawal symptoms, but there were times when I was completely overwhelmed and demoralized by the increasing fear that this was just who I was unmedicated. The days and months slowly ticked by and the thoughts didn’t budge. It was if a bad stink had settled down on me and I couldn’t wash it away. It followed me everywhere.


The distraction time got longer and longer.

It’s been so many years now since those first brutal years off of my benzo that I don’t remember how long the intrusive thoughts lasted. Years? (I know they weren’t gone in the first year and they came roaring back at my three-year setback.) What I do remember is that the distraction times got longer and longer. I could put the thoughts on hold for a while. As long as my mind was busy, the thoughts were quiet. As soon as I stopped what I was doing they raced back in. The transition from one activity to another was hard. I dreaded the ending of a movie, for example. I’d close my laptop and get off the couch where I’d been watching and there was the thought, waiting for me. “You’re going to die one day,” It would hiss at me. I’d feel the old familiar rush of ice-cold fear course through my veins, but I’d keep moving toward what I needed to do next. I learned to allow the fear to well up because I had learned that it would also subside. (Everything in the known universe outside of God has three things in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end.) I was still triggered if I saw anyone with a bandaid, a scratch, a cast, or any type of wound to the body. And pregnant women really set me off as did older people. So, I wasn’t even close to healed, but things were more tolerable. I wasn’t completely freaking out anymore.


Things started to get better.

My intrusive thoughts didn’t go away magically. It wasn’t like someone flipped a switch and they vanished. They faded away ever so slowly. What helped was my budding spiritual practice of acceptance. Instead of fighting with them or ignoring them, I accepted them. I stopped dreading them. I stopped fearing them. I saw in them their frightened brokenness and I decided to love them instead of hating them. I even went so far as to invite them to a tea party. I set a place for them at the table and invited them to come and tell me everything they wanted me to know. I poured myself and my thoughts a cup of tea. I’m sure if someone had poked their head into the kitchen and heard me talking to an empty chair, they’d have thought I’d gone round the bend. But offering my intrusive thoughts some love helped. I realized that there was no part of me that I wanted to hate. Just the opposite, I was on a spiritual path to learn to how to love—God, others and myself. And that included my thoughts.


They were almost all gone. Then they were gone.

My days were remarkably better. Many of my worst symptoms had disappeared. What remained was tolerable. I’d have a flare-up of intrusive thoughts if I was in a wave, but other than that, they were mostly gone. I recall thinking to myself, “Wow! I haven’t thought about death in days!” I even attended a funeral and wasn’t triggered. That’s how I knew my nervous system was repairing itself. A bit more time passed and then I felt normal. No, better than normal. I had grown and matured so much from having had to survive benzo withdrawal that I was in the best place I’d ever been in my entire life! And the thoughts were gone. No more taunting me, no more intruding on my days and nights.


The doctors were wrong.

All those healthcare professionals that wanted me to believe that I had an underlying anxiety disorder or some other mental health issue were wrong. I came out of benzo withdrawal a completely transformed person. I don’t need a pill, a drink, a joint, or any other substance to manage my nervous system or my emotions. The intrusive thoughts were simply a symptom of benzo withdrawal, a symptom of an overly excitable nervous system that needed time (and love!) to heal. The best medicine I gave myself was patience, acceptance, and love. Those were by far my best coping skills!


Do you have intrusive thoughts?

I know how frightening they can be. Perhaps you might want to consider practicing acceptance and love instead of fear and dismay over them. That’s what helped me the most. Our nervous systems do settle down, in time. For some of us, it is quite a bit of time. And it’s exhausting, I know. But, we have to keep going, because recovery is just up the road waving at us, calling to us, delighted to see us headed towards it.


I don’t have intrusive thoughts anymore. I have mental clarity, creativity, gratitude, happiness, and the ability to regulate my emotional states. You’ll get here. In time. We all do.


Here are some comments after the article:


Joshua on February 18, 2019 at 5:48 am

This is SO spot on. The thoughts make you feel like a complete basket case. My first experience with them was one day soon after cold turkey (I cold turkeyed without knowing ANYTHING about withdrawal or benzodiazepines in general and was extremely ill and unnerved without any clue why for about a month) getting in the car and noticing that I had a spider on my sleeve. I attempted to gently brush it off out the window and accidentally smushed it. I instantly completely melted down into tears, sobbing in my driveway. From then for a period of at least a year thoughts of death haunted me, the fragility of life was unbearable. Even something as simple as pulling weeds in the garden could set me off if I happened to realize that I was actually destroying the weeds I was uprooting. You are right, it gets better, and even more right that doctors can lead you very wrongly. I likely would’ve been treated for a compulsive disorder during this period, given some of past experiences. Guess what though: the thoughts eventually went away.

Jennifer Leigh

Jennifer Leigh on February 18, 2019 at 6:15 am

Thank you for sharing. You made me remember how I couldn’t weed my garden for months! I couldn’t bear to kill anything. Now I’m so aware of how precious life is that I always thank the plants I’m removing from the ground—whether they are weeds or spent annuals. I celebrate life, knowing that death is a part of it. Hope all is well with you.



Pardner on February 18, 2019 at 8:41 am

Dr Jen, your comments are always so spot on and well written. It is hard to believe the terrible pain that these thoughts can generate and soothing to know others also have

survived this horrible torture.



Krista on February 18, 2019 at 11:59 am

Lol, I can SO relate. I had a moment last summer where I was weeding around my raised beds and I moved a worm so it wouldn’t get chewed up by the weedwhacker…and then I fell apart because I was afraid I had separated the worm from its family and it would never see them again.

I can kind of laugh now, but the intrusive thoughts and just existential thoughts about everything are just draining. I don’t like killing things under normal circumstances, but I wasn’t this bonkers before. I look forward to feeling calmer and more in my right mind.

Jennifer Leigh

Jennifer Leigh on February 18, 2019 at 12:15 pm

I’m loling with you. I can’t tell you how many times I had a melt down over things like that. Keep healing. The batshit crazy funhouse reality does fade into a nice sweet normal life.

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