When we have depression, we can sometimes experience really scary thoughts. We fear that our friends or family are going to be caught up in a life-changing accident. Or become unwell. We worry that we will be fired, or mugged, or our house will burn down. It’s terrifying.
We don’t like to talk about it because we fear that others might think there’s something really wrong with us, that we’re making it up, or are being stupid. They are horrible to live with and we may find that they affect what we do, and when we do it. But we are not alone. Lots of people experience similar scary thoughts.
When we say ‘scary thoughts’, it could encompass any number of things. Sometimes it can be that we catastrophize things. For example, we make a simple mistake at work, and immediately start thinking that we will lose our job, lose our house, and end up homeless.
We could worry about our family. If a relative is home five minutes late, by the time they walk through the door, we have been Googling to see there’s been an accident and imagined the policeman turning up.
Sometimes we think something has happened to a friend or family member and need to check. We worry that our child may not be breathing and have to rush up the stairs to check. We think a parent has collapsed and need to ring them to make sure they’re okay.
If we are walking down the street, we might imagine that we’re not safe, nor are those around us. If we are in a crowded place we imagine something terrible is about to happen. They’re not hallucinations – we don’t see them in front of us and think they have happened but we have a fear of something bad happening and there’s not always a logical reason for it.
We understand our scary thoughts are irrational on some level, but to us they feel incredibly real. So real that we often scare ourselves with them. So real that our bodies react as if we’re living the trauma: our hearts race, our chest tightens, we feel sick. The thoughts tap into our deepest, darkest fears.
Our Bodies Respond
Our body can have a ‘scary-thing’ response. We physically feel as though whatever we are imagining has happened, or is happening. We tense up. Our heart races. We can’t breathe. We can’t think straight. We sweat. We become dizzy. We get tunnel vision. Our bodies act as though we are facing an attack. This may cause us to have a panic attack.
Depression can result in sleep deprivation. Sometimes we can’t sleep. Sometimes we need so much sleep that we can’t keep up with it.
Poor sleep can worsen these scary thoughts. It can also reduce our ability to deal with them. It can cause us to feel low on emotional resilience and struggle for the brain power to rationalise our thoughts.
Once we start thinking these scary things, our thoughts can spiral. They become more and more extreme. They become darker, and scarier, until we feel completely overcome by them. When we start spiralling, it’s incredibly hard to stop it. Our bodies react, our brains keep spinning, we try and grasp onto reality and reason but our brains keep going.
When we have these scary thoughts, our breathing can quicken and it can make us dizzy. As our breathing shallows and quickens, our brains seem to run faster, which makes our breathing worse. It becomes a vicious circle.
Focussing on our breathing can help. It can give us something else to thinking about. It can help to slow things down.
Trying to breathe in through our nose for five, and out of our mouth for seven can be a good place to start. We could also try online breathing exercises, mindfulness apps, or podcasts.
Grounding ourselves can be a good way to try and stay in the present.
Different grounding techniques work for different people. Sometimes it can take a bit of trial and error to find what works for us.
Our five senses can be a great way to start. Usually, people will prefer to use one or two of their senses – it really depends on the person. Using strong smells, such as incense or diffusers. Strong tastes, such as mints or tea. Different textures and temperatures, such as multiple blankets, or cosy jumpers, and heat packs or ice packs. Sounds such as music, or the radio. Sights such as photographs or adjusting the light levels.
We could also try listing something, like countries, for each letter of the alphabet. Or listing five things we can currently identify for each sense. For example, we might be able to see a table, a chair, a teddy, a jumper, and a mug of tea. We might hear some birdsong, our neighbours moving around next door, a car outside, the dishwasher running. Listing five things for each sense can keep our heads in the room, rather than going to scary places.
Something we can try when anxiety strikes, is self-soothing. The idea behind this, is to soothe ourselves in the way we would an upset child. It could include things like having a hot milky drink, wrapping ourselves tightly in blankets, or cuddling a pet or heat pack. Anything that allows us to feel a little safer.
Write It Down
When our thoughts take us to places we don’t want to go, we could try writing them down. Sometimes writing them down can reduce the scariness of the situation. Sometimes writing them down can enable us to work through them. If we don’t feel able to work through them alone (which is absolutely okay!) then writing them down can give us something to work through with someone else.
Talk It Over
When the scary thoughts strike, we might have someone that we feel able to reach out to, in the moment. We might have someone who can help us to de-escalate the scary thoughts in our heads, either in person, over the phone, or by text.
We might not feel able to talk about it in the moment. But it could be helpful to talk about these thoughts with someone we trust at some point. They might even experience similar thoughts! Whether they do or not, they might be able to help us come up with a plan for managing these scary thoughts when they strike in future.
If our thoughts are getting to a point where they feel unmanageable, there is help available. We can speak to family, friends, our GP, or if we’re under them, our mental health team.
Scary thoughts are horrible. They can be incredibly distressing. But if we experience them, it doesn’t mean that we’re bad people, or there’s something dark or wrong about us.
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