How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts About My Partner Cheating

It’s super common to have intrusive thoughts after you discover that your partner has cheated. You may find yourself obsessing over details that you don’t really want to know about, but you just can’t stop yourself.

It’s like you’re on that horrible Gravitron ride at the fair. Your thoughts just keep spinning and spinning and spinning until you’re exhausted and covered in vomit.

Grounding Techniques for PTSD-Related Intrusive Thoughts

If it’s early in your healing or you’re experiencing some hardcore PTSD symptoms, you probably need to focus on grounding techniques first. PTSD can cause seemingly unstoppable intrusive thoughts because your brain is literally not firing on all cylinders. It’s got you stuck in fight-flight-freeze mode because it is certain that you are not safe.

If you truly aren’t safe, like you’re in physical danger or you’re feeling suicidal, please get help immediately. If you’re physically safe, but your brain keeps freaking out, you’ve got to bring the rational, logical region of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) back online. That region shuts down when we encounter a threat to survival (whether it’s being chased by a saber-tooth tiger or getting your world flipped upside-down) because it’s more important to gtfo than to sit and consider things.

Grounding techniques are designed to bring your prefrontal cortex back online. You probably already know some grounding techniques like breathing exercises and meditation. Those two are cool, but they didn’t work for me when I was really freaking out. Don’t give up if that’s the case for you. There are a lot more options out there. Here’s a great list to get you started.

What Causes Obsessive Thinking?

Remember on Star Trek when the Borg or whoever would fire on the Enterprise and Captain Picard would be like, “Shields up! Red alert!”?

Yeah, that’s basically your brain after you go through a traumatic situation. You know, like being cheated on, betrayed, lied to, having your life destroyed, etc. Your brain is like, “Oh shit, we’re about to get destroyed by the Borg! Shields up, bitches!”

What the hell does this have to do with intrusive thoughts? Well, when you have PTSD from betrayal trauma (or from whatever), your brain goes into red alert ALL THE DAMN TIME. Hear a triggering song? Red alert. Drive by a triggering place? Red alert. See your partner’s triggering face? Red alert. Your heart starts racing, your palms get sweaty, you get tunnel vision, your body feels like it’s going to explode, all that fun stuff.

Red alert is your brain putting you into fight-flight-freeze mode in order to protect you from being destroyed by the Borg. Or the man you love(d). Whichever.

So, why does your brain keep bringing up these intrusive thoughts and putting you into red alert over and over and over? Because it still feels unsafe. Even months after the Borg first fired on you (or you first discovered your partner’s infidelity), you will likely still be suffering from the after-effects of that traumatic event.

Since your brain is entrusted with your survival, it wants to make damn sure that you are prepared and ready to do battle if those stupid Borg come back or your stupid partner runs over you with a truck again. So it basically runs drills to make sure you’re ready.

Oh, you’re brushing your teeth? How about we ruminate over what he was really doing when he was working late. Oh, are you gonna buy that cereal? Let’s think about what he was doing the whole time we were buying him sustenance to nourish his dumb body. Oh, were you about to go to sleep? Nope. Let’s ponder what the other women might have looked like and how they compare to us.

Stupid wet brain. It’s trying to keep you safe, but really it’s destroying your damn life.

Do Intrusive Thoughts Ever Go Away?

You know the eggy chemical smell of a new perm? If you were alive during the 80s you do.

It was the 80s. Everyone was jacked up on MTV and consumerism.

My grandma used to perm my hair every few months because I guess that’s what you did when you were bored before the internet. She would sit me down at the kitchen counter, yank my hair around and roll it up really damn tight in those rollers while putting who knows what kind of smelly, cancer-causing chemicals all over my tender little head.

But that wasn’t the worst part. No, the worst part was that since you can’t get your hair wet after a perm, I wouldn’t be allowed to go swimming for like TWO WHOLE DAYS. That’s pretty much a lifetime when you’re nine years old and it’s summertime in Florida and all your cousins and aunts and uncles are splashing around in the pool, having a grand old time.

Anyway, for years after my grandma stopped torturing my hair, any time I would smell that chemical perm odor (like while trying to get a nice haircut at the salon or visiting friends whose mothers still wanted that mega huge frizzy-curly hair of the 80s), a wave of loneliness would crash over me and I would suddenly feel utterly and completely alone, ignored, and forgotten. Weeee!

But now, I pretty much never smell that odor because people prefer to damage their hair with flat irons instead of chemicals nowadays. (I think that’s the case. I don’t do a great job of keeping up with current hair trends.) And that pain isn’t so fresh anymore, so I can look back and think, “Damn, that was pretty sad” and then pretty much instantly move on with my day.

So I guess the intrusive thoughts and feelings don’t ever officially go away, but their impact is extremely reduced. Years from now, certain smells or songs or words or whatever might cause shitty thoughts to pop into your brain again. But instead of your brain being like, RUNRUNRUNRUN!” it’ll be more like, “Oh yeah, that shit sucked. Anyway…”

How Can I Sleep With Intrusive Thoughts?

Ugh, this is a big issue. You’re already feeling a bit crazy (or maybe more than a bit) because of these intrusive thoughts. Adding a lack of sleep on top of that will literally drive you insane.

So it’s super important that you find a way to get at least a few hours of quality sleep each night. But since your brain keeps jumping into fight-flight-freeze mode, that can be pretty tough.

I initially tried a bunch of over the counter stuff (melatonin, Bananadryl, Nyquil, etc.), but it didn’t do a damn thing for me. So I talked to my doctor and she prescribed a couple of different things, but still nothing. I finally got a prescription for Ambien and it saved my sanity. My point is, keep trying until you find something that works for you.

If you’re not down with medication, that’s cool. You do you. But remember, you’re not you when you’re a sleep-deprived zombie.

I just need a nap.

Sleep hygiene is super important, too. Even now, getting a good night’s sleep is so important to me that I protect my nighttime routine with my LIFE. Okay, maybe not my life. But I do protect it pretty fiercely. Soft lights, a quiet environment, and some time with a good book in the evening go a long way toward making me a decent human. So find the things that make you feel cozy-sleepy and then make them into your bedtime routine.

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Okay, down to the nitty gritty. I’ve got a few thoughts here.

First, it’s important to identify what triggers your intrusive thoughts. What are the sights, sounds, smells, whatever that make your brain go into red alert? Make a list of everything that triggered you each day for a whole week (or maybe two).

Now, look through your list and see what your top two or three triggers were – the things that appeared on your lists over and over again. Think about what you can do to manage or even avoid these things.

If you get triggered by that hotel you drive by on your way to work every day, take a different route. If you get triggered by sex scenes on TV shows, either stop watching shows with that stuff or get something like VidAngel.

This is a short term solution to help you cope while you’re in the depths of PTSD. You will eventually need to process the shit behind these triggers, but for now, just do what you gotta do to take care of yourself.

How to Manage Unavoidable Intrusive Thoughts

But what if your trigger is something you can’t avoid or control. What if you’re triggered by like, all humans or your bedroom or your own body?

Our first instinct with intrusive thoughts is to banish them as quickly as possible. It’s simply our biological impulse to avoid pain and discomfort. But you already know that your brain is just going to keep shoving those thoughts back in your face. So you have to face them at some point when you’re ready. Key phrase: When you’re ready.

You can start doing this by paying attention to your body next time you go into red alert. What’s the first thing your body does? Do your palms start to sweat first or does your heart start to race? For me, my feet would get this pins and needles feeling first.

Once you identify that, you have a signal that is your brain telling you, “Something isn’t right here and I’m starting to freak out.” There are a couple of things you can do at that moment to reassure your brain that you are safe. That, while you might be a little scared, you don’t need to go into full blown red alert.

We may be scared, but we are safe.

First, you can recognize that what you’re feeling in your body is totally normal. I would get that pins and needles feeling in my feet and think, “Hello, feet. I see you are getting that weird pokey feeling. That’s okay, I’m here for you.” It sounds dumb, but it can actually be really helpful.

The second thing you can do is to recognize that the anxiety these physical symptoms signify is totally normal too. So after I said what’s up to my feet, I would tell myself, “Hey, self. You’re feeling pretty freaked out right now and that’s okay. It’s perfectly normal for you to feel freaked out after everything you’ve been through.”

Next, you can do what’s known as resourcing. There are a lot of different ways to do resourcing, but what I typically did was a combination of the nurturing figure and the safe/calm place. I had a boyfriend in college whose mom was a very nurturing woman. So I would imagine sitting on her back porch with her and my old dog, Jade. I would hug my dog and hug my resource mom and just allow them to envelope me in love and peace.

Jade in her Easter hat.

Your Intrusive Thoughts Aren’t Really Happening

Another thing that helps stop intrusive thoughts is to recognize that thoughts are just electrical impulses zooming around in your brain. They’re not real, so they can’t really hurt you. I mean, your thoughts are real and you can feel hurt by them. But they have no consequences until you choose to make them important. Thoughts are just fleeting mental images, like clouds drifting across the sky.

Thoreau once said, “It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see.” This is similar. It’s not what you think, it’s the meaning you attach to what you think. That is what causes suffering.

If that’s not helpful for you, see if you can take a step back and recognize that whatever you’re thinking is not happening in real time. Reorient yourself to the present by looking around and identifying what’s different in your environment from what’s going on in your brain.

If that’s still not helpful, I offer you this picture of a cat wearing a lion’s mane:

Intrusive thoughts are really hard to deal with. It takes time and a lot of practice to get them under control. But you can do it. You can become the diamond in the litter box your life has become. Fist to chest, friend.

If you’d like to schedule a session with me to talk more about intrusive thoughts, cats wearing lion’s manes, or anything else, head over to my contact page. I get it.