Intrusive thoughts are a classic benzo withdrawal symptom.
I hated most of my benzo withdrawal symptoms—they were all tortuous, painful, and frightening. But I really, really, hated my intrusive thoughts. Not only were they vile, twisted and ugly, they were also frightening. I thought for sure that they were evidence that I’d lost my mind. Completely. Worse, I thought they were an indication that I’d never, ever, be normal again. I was convinced that I had fallen into something that was beyond the reach of any help. I thought my life was over.
I am not sure what causes intrusive thoughts, but it is clear that they come hand-in-hand with having down-regulated GABA receptors. They are a part of the constellation of symptoms we get from having had a chemical brain injury from the benzo that we took. Even short-term benzo users can experience intrusive thoughts. They don’t discriminate.
What are intrusive thoughts, exactly?
Intrusive thoughts are exactly as they sound. They are thoughts that are intrusive—unwanted. Most of the time we are aware that we are thinking a thought. We make the effort to have the thought. But with intrusive thoughts, they just pop into our mind, without any conscious effort on our part to think them. In benzo withdrawal, intrusive thoughts are often dark, violent, sexual, grotesque, shaming, etc. Intrusive thoughts can also take the form of suicide ideation, which is very frightening. They have such a powerful presence that they can feel real; as if they are telling us the truth. (The aren’t!) It can be hard to remember that they are just another benzo withdrawal symptom due to a hyper-excitable nervous system.
How to cope with intrusive thoughts in benzo withdrawal.
It’s not easy to cope with intrusive thoughts, I know. They defile our private, innermost part of our being. They take over with their ugliness, eviscerating our sense of who we are. I felt that I was being driven mad by my intrusive thoughts until I learned how to ignore them. That’s right. I stopped fearing them, arguing with them, or giving them any energy at all. I ignored them. I stopped telling people about them, sharing with them how crazy they made me feel. I remember standing next to my neighbor in her backyard while she was telling me about her flower garden. The ugliness that was going on in my head was awful! It took every ounce of strength I had, but I ignored the thoughts and stayed present to her and what she was talking about. Of course, when I first started ignoring my thoughts, they seemed to come roaring in even stronger and even more grotesque. Apparently, they didn’t like me not giving them any attention. But over time, they eventually faded away. Not giving them any energy (and certainly not acting out on them!) is a coping skill that helps reduce their hold on our lives.
Another tool that I used was to just neutrally observe myself having the thoughts. Being a neutral observer helped me distance myself from the feelings the thoughts generated. It also helped me to keep a healthier perspective; I knew I wasn’t my thoughts, I was the observer of my thoughts. I am more powerful than my thoughts, no matter how pervasive they might be.
I used to remind myself that intrusive thoughts were normal for benzo withdrawal. I did my best to remind myself that they were not an indication that I had developed some mental illness or personality disorder. They were due to benzo withdrawal and they would leave when my nervous system recovered. And they did.
It’s hard for others to understand how frightening intrusive thoughts can be.
I did my best to explain to family and friends just how terrifying it was to be bombarded daily, every minute at times, with intrusive thoughts. Only people going through benzo withdrawal could feel true compassion for me. I used to be angry over the suggestions I received from well-meaning people on how to cope with intrusive thoughts. Suggestions such as “Think happy thoughts,” (I would if I could have!!) or “Tell the devil the leave you alone! (The devil had nothing to do with it, Intrusive thoughts are not demonic, even though they may feel that way at times!), and, “Eat purple foods.” (I swear, someone told me that purple foods had a vibration that would soothe my body and mind. I am not kidding you!) I came to realize that people who hadn’t gone through benzo withdrawal couldn’t begin to know what intrusive thoughts were like so I stopped looking to them for comfort.
Also, I had to be mindful that if I shared too much about my intrusive thoughts, people who had not experienced benzo withdrawal could possibly think I’d lost my mind. I didn’t need that to cope with. I was so paranoid that I’d be locked up, that I didn’t always share my thoughts with others, which looking back, wasn’t a bad strategy.
Time is the best healer.
I saw a handful of doctors the first year after I cold-turkeyed the clonazepam I had taken as prescribed for close to 18 years. All of them suggested that I take other psych meds to address the intrusive thoughts; they were clearly uneducated about benzo withdrawal. I am so grateful that I didn’t allow myself to follow their suggestions for any length of time. (I did try several antidepressants and even two antipsychotics for a day or two, but they all made me feel worse and didn’t come close to helping the thoughts.) I am glad that I gave my brain the time to recover and repair itself. (If you are taking an adjunct medication and it is helping you, I’m glad for you. Everyone has to find what works for them. Meds aren’t for me.)
Living with intrusive thoughts is challenging, to say the least. It isn’t easy to ignore them, but we do better if we at least try to not give them any more energy than need be. We do better if we rise above the thoughts, neutrally observe ourselves having the thoughts, and we get on with our day or night as best as we can. Remember, if you didn’t have intrusive thoughts before you went on a benzo (they appeared in tolerance withdrawal, during your taper, or once off) you won’t have them once your receptors are healed. If you didn’t have it pre-benzo, you won’t have it post-recovery!