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Managing Intrusive Thoughts and Images Related to Infidelity

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Often, some of the most difficult parts of processing infidelity are the intrusive thoughts and images that pop into your head, typically at very inconvenient times. Images, in particular, can evoke strong emotions and leave a person feeling drained. Intrusive thoughts and images tend to come out of the blue and often feel disturbing, leaving you desperately trying to push them away and find a distraction. The problem is that the more you push the thoughts or images down, the more insistent they become, eventually popping up more and more. A normal reaction is to try and distract yourself; while that may feel helpful in the short-term, it generally only delays the inevitable. Distraction has its place, but there are a couple of useful steps to engage in beforehand that often help to break the vicious whack-a-mole cycle.

managing intrusive thoughts and images after discovering infidelity Rain Into Rainbows

Managing intrusive thoughts and images by staying with them:

The first thing I am going to suggest is often the hardest part for people. Let me begin by explaining that the intrusive thoughts and images are part of your brain's way of trying to make sense of something that has felt traumatizing. Your mind is trying to integrate the new information about the cheating into your understanding of the world. If you keep shutting it down, your brain will only try harder to make sense of this new information. Therefore, you need to allow your mind to stay on the imagery or follow out the intrusive thoughts one good time. While doing this may feel very difficult, it satisfies the brain's need to try and understand. So, lets go through a couple of examples.

  • Example 1: Lets say you keep getting an image in your head of your partner kissing another person. You do not want to picture this, but your brain is trying to integrate the information into it's schema of your partner. Next time the unwanted image pops into your head, instead of pushing it away as quickly as possible, I want you to try to stay with it for just a minute. Say to yourself, "Okay, brain, I know what you are trying to do here. We just need to process this. I find myself imagining the kissing would look like this." Then let your brain see where it takes the imagery for a minute. You do not have to dwell on it, but give yourself a minute or so. Then, you can take a deep breath and move on to something distracting.

  • Example 2: Lets walk through the process when it comes to an intrusive thought. Lets say the thought pops into your head, "What if my partner cheated on me in my own house and I'll never really know?" That is obviously not a fun thought to explore, but again, your brain is trying to understand, so follow it out one good time. What if the cheating did take place in your own house? What would that mean to you? Would it change anything about where you live? Would you want to move out? Would you want to replace bedding? Would it change how betrayed you felt? Explore the intrusive thought for a few minutes and see where you end up, and then switch into something distracting. Again, you don't need to dwell on the thoughts or images, but instead of immediately shoving them down, take a few moments to let your brain try to process the information it is stuck on. For some people, journaling about the image or thoughts can help as well.

What if the same thoughts or images keep coming back?

In the future, whether that is days later or 5 minutes later, if the same image or thought comes back to mind, this time you can say to yourself, "Okay, I have already gone there. I have already followed this out. I don't need to go down this path again. Brain, I understand that we are just trying to process this, but I already have and there is nothing new to add." Rather than engaging in any kind of self-criticism or frustration that the thoughts or images are returning, take a tone of acceptance and understanding with yourself. Your world has been rocked, you are hurting, you likely have some hard decisions to make, and your mind is just doing the best it can to try to integrate in the new information. While it may feel strange to "talk" to your brain this way at first, this kind of self-talk actually allows you to gain some distance from the strong emotions and to step back and observe the process of what is happening.

In summary, here are the steps to managing intrusive thoughts or images:

  1. An intrusive thought or image pops into your head.

  2. Take a few minutes to stay with the image or line of thinking and see where it takes you. Possibly engage in some journaling about it.

  3. Distract yourself once you have tried to understand what it is that your brain needs to process.

  4. If the same thought or image returns, remind yourself that you have already gone down that road and there is nothing new you need to do with it, and then go back to distracting. Do this each time the same thought or image returns.

  5. If a different image or thought starts popping into your head, repeat the process.

By practicing these steps and taking a tone of acceptance and understanding with yourself, you should start to notice that the same images/thoughts pop up less and less. There are many parts to process when infidelity is discovered, so you likely will have to engage in this repeatedly as you make sense of new pieces, but the more you practice, the smoother the process will become.

One additional tip:

Sometimes it helps to pair this experience with something that is calming to your nervous system. The intrusive image/thought can quickly trigger your sympathetic nervous system to go into stress mode and we don't want that; you are probably stressed out enough as it is. So, finding a distraction that is calming can help signal to your brain that you are okay. Some examples include doing a short meditation, taking a walk, using soothing tactile stimulation (drinking a warm beverage, sitting under a fuzzy blanket, running your hands under some warm water), turning on some calming music, petting your pet, coloring, etc.

The disturbing nature of intrusive thoughts and images are one of the hardest parts of processing the cheating. Have patience with yourself, take care of yourself, and trust that this will lessen with time. Remind yourself, "My thoughts are just thoughts," and make sure you turn to your support system during moments when you need to not feel alone. You will get through this and eventually those disturbing thoughts will get replaced with new, more hopeful thoughts of a future where you are on the other side of this. Take a moment to write down some calming distractions that you can turn to in the future after you have processed the upsetting thoughts/images.

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