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What are Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive Thoughts are unwanted, involuntary thoughts or memories that can suddenly enter a person’s mind, often causing distress or discomfort.
Intrusive thoughts can take a couple of forms after a narcissistic relationship; they can be either positive or negative. In this article, I’m going to focus on the negative intrusive thoughts. These are the painful, distressing, involuntary memories associated with the trauma of the relationship.
I find intrusive thoughts particularly tough, because they do not require any triggers for them to occur. You could be watching a funny movie, reading a book, completing reports at work – and all of a sudden a painful memory takes over your thoughts and emotions.
John’s Battle with Post-Traumatic Intrusive Thoughts
John, a 42-year-old teacher, experienced a challenging journey that is emblematic of the struggles faced by many survivors of narcissistic abuse. He was in a long-term relationship characterized by emotional manipulation, rageful jealousy, and control.
When John sought help, he was struggling with symptoms that are familiar to those who have endured similar abuse. He frequently experienced excruciating emotional pain along with intrusive thoughts about the abusive incidents. These experiences severely impacted his ability to manage his everyday responsibilities.
In his pursuit of healing, John found specialists and engaged in a range of therapeutic approaches, including neurofeedback, cognitive training, and trauma-informed therapy. His doctors carefully selected these treatments to address the particular difficulties and symptoms he was experiencing.
As he progressed through his treatment, there was a noticeable transformation. The once persistent and intense intrusive thoughts began to lessen in frequency and severity. More importantly, John reported a significant improvement in his overall sense of well-being.
John’s story highlights the complex nature of recovering from narcissistic abuse and the importance of personalized treatment approaches. His journey from deep psychological distress to a state of healing reflects not only the challenges faced by survivors but also their potential for recovery and growth.
Let’s go into a bit of the science behind intrusive thoughts that stem from traumatic experiences.
Watch this 60" neuroscience clip
Trauma & Intrusive Thoughts
Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. In this context, it refers to the emotional and psychological impact of narcissistic abuse.
As discussed in the clip, traumatic experiences causes our brain to shift into an imbalanced state. We no longer feel like ourselves.
Suddenly, components of various emotional systems take the lead. For a brain to function optimally, the regulation system (e.g., prefrontal cortex) should take lead or work with the other systems.
A traumatized brain (e.g., PTSD) has an emotional system that is within a highly overactive state (for some matters) and an underactive state in other matters (e.g., numbness; reduced intensity of positive emotions).
Unfortunately, we cannot ‘think‘ this system back into balance. We cannot say, “Alright, enough of this; I need to get back to my normal self.”
Why? Because a brain changed by trauma now has a powerful emotional system that reacts to the world around it. It also has a powerful generator of involuntary thoughts and feelings that suddenly seem to take over (i.e., intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, intense pain, bad dreams).
The brain is both reacting to stimuli from outside and inside (generating its own distress).
A traumatized brain cannot simply bounce back to the way it was before the narcissistic relationship. Some survivors refer to this as “brain damage.”
My choice of words would be different; it is a traumatized brain that has dysregulation of several key neural networks. These neural networks, when operating properly, allow our brain to function in a harmonious manner.
Trauma, abuse, and betrayal, throws those systems out of balance. And they can remain out of balance until addressed through a healing process.
Brain Regions Associated with Intrusive Thoughts
- Anterior Cingulate Cortex
- Anterior Cingulate Cortex
- Prefrontal Cortex (several areas)
The above areas are involved in the brain’s creation of intrusive thoughts. Some of those brain areas are on a low responsive level (e.g., prefrontal cortex). While some of those regions are on overdrive (e.g., amygdala).
- Prefrontal Cortex is an area of the brain that is responsible for higher-level thinking, decision-making, and regulating our emotions. When it’s underactive, as can happen after trauma, individuals may struggle with controlling emotions and thoughts.
- Amygdala is a part of the brain that plays a key role in processing emotions, especially fear and pleasure. In the context of trauma, an overactive amygdala can lead to heightened emotional responses.
You’ll notice the anterior cingulate appears under both the hypo and hyper-responsive columns. That is because different regions (sections) of the anterior cingulate responds in different ways. Anterior Cingulate Cortex is an area of the brain that is important for emotional regulation, decision-making, and empathy.
But what’s also important to the neuroscience of intrusive thoughts are the
1) neural pathways or neurocircuitry involved in the communication of those brain regions and
2) the neurochemistry.
What Can We Do About Traumatic Intrusive Thoughts?
- Consult with a psychiatrist (e.g., medication | Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation TMS)
- Consult with a psychologist (e.g., Cognitive behavioral Therapy, EMDR).
- Consult with a neuropsychologist (e.g., Brain training | Neurofeedback)
- Boost Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA)* GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter within the brain. It can inhibit and calm neurons.
- Executive function brain training games.
- Mindfulness Exercises
The Bottom Line with Neuroscience
We have a memory suppression system primarily run by a portion of the prefrontal cortex. It is our inhibitory control system. It functions automatically in the background to prevent unwanted, painful thoughts or feelings from taking over.
This system ceases to function optimally for those who are suffering from daily intrusive thoughts or a trauma-related condition.
Be Patient & Make a Plan to Tackle Your Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are one of the most difficult symptoms of trauma to manage because they are usually not ‘triggered memories‘, but rather can appear out of nowhere.
Traumatic intrusive thoughts reflect systems (neurocircuitry / chemistry) and regions of the brain that are responding in a dysregulated manner.
For this particular symptom of trauma (intrusive thoughts), it is my opinion that you have to develop a plan. It is possible for intrusive thoughts to remain for quite a while, even after you are feeling ‘healed’ from the narcissistic relationship.
That plan for you might include a mixture of the approaches I listed in the Professional / Self Care table.
Get professional help if you need it. This is one of those symptoms that tends to warrant specialized assistance.
Be wise in choosing a mental health professional. Make sure they know what they are doing and understand that PTSD and trauma symptoms are a heterogeneous set of symptoms. You can be re-traumatized if the psychologist or therapist uses the wrong approach with you. ♡
🌱 Looking to find actionable strategies, deepen your understanding, and work with me? I created a course just for that!
Click here to learn more and see if it’s the right fit for you. 🌱
Best ♡ Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Neuropsychologist
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