Casting “Riddikulus” on intrusive thoughts

I have recurring images of what I’ve heard called “horrific temptations*,” what my mom used to call “dreadful thought syndrome” and what are more generally called “intrusive thoughts.” For over a year, my pattern has been to get nervous as I cross the street or am careful not to slip down the stairs, etc. Then, when I have any downtime, my brain helplessly loops the same video of getting hit by a car at the intersection or trying to do a cartwheel down my stairs and breaking my wrist over and over and over.

There’s something that feels very urgent about these thoughts, like they will come true unless I can figure out how to prevent them right now. Reassuring myself that I take all reasonable precautions does not help; it only makes me feel more vulnerable. The answer my brain wants is that I’ll ratchet up safety vigilance even further or avoid anxiety-provoking situations altogether, but obviously that would be an unworkable and merely temporary solution. My brain would just keep wanting more and more safety in a world that cannot be bubble-wrapped, and I would only be more fearful in the end.

But I have found a great antidote! The solution I’ve hit on is so much like casting the Riddikulus spell on a boggart that 1) I think J K Rowling must do this, too, and 2) I must have subconsciously gotten this idea from Harry Potter. What I do is rewind the tape of the feared event a little and creatively tweak the situation. For instance, with the staircase, I imagine I’m actually cartwheeling into a pool of Jello. The car that hits me is either made of smoke or I’m dressed up in padding like the Michelin man and I have a fun time bouncing around.

I think this works best when you still go through some fear and anticipation in the imagined scenario, but those feelings are able to be resolved in a safe way. In my experience, low-level anxiety can be felt as fear or excitement depending on whether you have faith you can handle the feelings and what’s coming. Like, I would not enjoy cartwheeling down a slope into a pool of Jello or being bounced around in an airsuit in real life, but that’s just about the scary sensations those things would create, not physical harm. So in my amended visions, I go through real trepidation, but I also get to feel exhilaration from coming out okay.

This “spell” helps me to separate the emotions attached to intrusive thoughts, which shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed, from the storylines that usually get the attention. By casting “Riddikulus” on the thoughts, I’m able to break through the superstituous mindset and see that the intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. My instinct is to try to satisfy the thoughts on their terms, by buying into their narrative of iminent danger and becoming more vigilant. But changing the storyline a bit allows me to challenge the assertions of the thoughts– “this is an urgent threat and you can’t settle for anything less than a guarantee of safety”– in a way that doesn’t suppress or deny the emotions involved while also allowing a measure of emotional resolution.

I hope you find it useful, too!


*First heard this phrase here and it seemed right. It’s not very common in the psych literature, though, and seems to come up only in relation to OCD, where it something in between an obsession and and a compulsion.

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