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How significant are disturbing thoughts?

Q: I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not “normal” in terms of my thoughts. The most bizarre, bothersome things pop into my head. I consider myself a good person, and an intelligent person. I’ve never struggled with mental health issues. But sometimes I think my mind is trying to get at me, and wonder if this is the beginning of something worrisome.

A: Determining the significance of upsetting thoughts is kind of like scrubbing a frying pan – it’s not what the gunk’s made of, but how sticky and caked-on it is. All of us have disturbing thoughts. What separates those who become obsessive, compulsive, depressed or anxious from those who don’t is whether the thoughts pull up a chair and stay a while.

Are they affecting your overall mood or behavior? Is your self-image eroding because you think the thoughts reflect something awful about who you are? Without knowing how intrusive the thoughts are (Repeated urges to hurt someone? Simply imagining your boss in his undies?) it’s tough for me to say what’s going on here. A cognitive behavioral therapist could help.

Q: My husband and I have had a rough first year of marriage. He had major health issues, I’m also caring for my mother with early-onset dementia and his father has declared bankruptcy and is relying on us for support. We will get through it, but it’s been among the hardest times of my life. How do I respond to people asking about our “honeymoon” phase?

A: I’m sorry for what you’ve been facing. But you can place these people on a spectrum, from the few you could get support from by confiding how things have been, to that lady at the bank who need not hear any of it – and most others, in between.

Realize that the ritual of “How’s married life?” serves a conversational purpose. For some, it’s pure filler, but for others, it’s a true attempt to connect. Once you look at what people are getting at in the moment, you can decide how much you want to give – and how else to satisfy that conversational need. It could be anything from “It’s all right! So, did you bring those TPS reports?” to “I’d love to tell you more – how about margaritas next Tuesday?”

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