How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts
Have you ever had a thought that shocked you, upset you, or maybe even made you doubt yourself? If so, you may have noticed that the more you tried to banish the thought, the more persistent the thought became, the more the thought floated to the surface and demanded attention like a bright balloon full of helium.
No matter who we are, where we live, or what we do, every day we are accompanied by an endless array of thoughts. The majority of these thoughts are harmless, and many are quite helpful. Most of our thoughts are focused on our daily concerns. However, a small percentage of thoughts may be disturbing and out of character or focused on traumatic experiences or negative emotions and ideas.
We all have unwanted thoughts. Once they materialize, some of these thoughts consist of ideas or even images that can be upsetting or frightening. You may feel that you need to analyze these thoughts to try to discover the origins or a possible meaning. You may worry that there is truth to the thought or thoughts. However, not all thoughts are worthy of so much consideration.
All thoughts are not created equal. It is important to understand that not all thoughts accurately reflect who we are, what we believe, or what we might do.
Since we know that unwanted thoughts can materialize without warning and threaten our peace, it is important to recognize these thoughts when they form. By identifying these thoughts, we can prevent them from overwhelming us and taking control.
What do we Know About Thoughts?
Before we delve into some of the more common types of unwanted thoughts, we should probably take a look at thought itself and the act of thinking. Of all of the rapidly diminishing, uncharted and undiscovered territory left in the world, did you know that thoughts and the human mind still puzzle scientists?
Define thought. It’s not as easy a task as it sounds. In fact, scientists have come up with various theories and definitions to try to pinpoint an exact description or set of characteristics to adequately describe thought.
From Aristotle’s time to now, scientists in various disciplines are beginning to believe that in order to properly define thought and understand how thoughts emerge, it involves combining ideas that join psychology, neuroscience and biology. Thinking crosses those boundaries and is so involved that it cannot be encompassed by one discipline or one process.
This more recent hypothesis, proposed by a group led by Dr. Paul Badcock is called the Hierarchically Mechanistic Mind (HMM) and suggests that thoughts are the result of the mind making predictions to reduce uncertainty. This theory proposes that human thoughts and behaviors are likely adaptive, and some scientists believe these thoughts are influenced by past experiences that may even go beyond the individual. There are also different types of thoughts. Some thoughts concern immediate needs and surroundings, yet there are other more abstract thoughts that are much harder to understand.
In a Psychology Today article by Ralph Lewis, M.D., thoughts are compared to a map of sorts and also described as energy signals. The article states, “Since thoughts are energy signals, the energy transmitting a thought therefore has mass. The ions and molecules encoding the energetic signal have mass too. But can we actually calculate the weight of a single thought? Certainly, it would be an infinitesimally tiny number. But not zero.”
Even if we have difficulty understanding or measuring the weight of thoughts from a scientific perspective, we do need to recognize that our thoughts are shaping our perception of reality. The philosopher René Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” but one could also argue, “I think therefore it is.”
Some of the more harmful thought patterns consist of powerful thoughts capable of capturing attention. Once that attention is obtained, those thoughts certainly don’t want to let go.
The following are a few types of thoughts that could interfere with your life. Like comic book villains hiding among us and blending in when they are not wearing costumes, these thoughts might masquerade as normal, harmless ideas. However, once you can recognize these thoughts for what they are, you are one step closer to defeating them and freeing your mind.
Are you known as a pessimist? Is the glass perpetually half empty instead of half full? There is a thin line between what you might think of as being realistic but what someone else might recognize as a person engaging in an abundance of negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts are tricky. These thoughts may seem like you are just mentally preparing yourself. After all, no one wants to be disappointed. However, this sort of thinking is not based on reality at all.
If you automatically expect the worst possible outcome, your negative thoughts may have become habitual and taken up residence in your mind. If you think about it logically, not everything turns out for the worst, so these thoughts aren’t helping you in any way. Once present, these thoughts may be causing you other negativity like depression, anxiety or OCD.
Invasive or Intrusive Thoughts
Invasive or intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that seem to materialize out of thin air. You may be wondering how to identify these types of thoughts. These mysterious, negative and often distressing thoughts appear without warning and are usually inappropriate. These thoughts may be violent, sexual, or based on fear. They are completely out of character and typically produce feelings of revulsion and shame.
These types of thoughts are unintentional and do not reflect reality or what a person is capable of doing. They do not reflect a person’s actual desires. People do not act on these thoughts, and find them shocking and unacceptable. Examples of these thoughts might include sexually harming someone, fears about religion and ending up in hell, violent thoughts about harming loved ones, and other thoughts that are at odds with who you are and what you want to do.
While these thoughts are upsetting for the individual experiencing them, they usually aren’t a sign of an underlying problem, unless they are severe or obsessive enough to impair normal daily activities. Since these thoughts are inappropriate and often incessant, they can cause an immense amount of distress.
The subject matter of these thoughts may even cause enough shame to prevent someone from getting help. However, an experienced therapist will know that these thoughts are not a reflection of who you are or what you will do.
Ruminating is defined as pondering something in a repetitive and analytic manner. In psychology, ruminating thoughts are often dark, sad, and very persistent. A person may ruminate over traumatic events, failed relationships or other losses, stressful events or thoughts of failure that originate from low self-esteem.
Ruminating thoughts coincide with some mental health conditions that seem to influence the nature of the ruminating thoughts. For instance, depression can lead to ruminating thoughts about failure. Anxiety can lead to ruminating thoughts about fears or what might go wrong.
Everyone experiences these thoughts, but for most, it is temporary. However, ruminating thoughts are capable of taking hold and making a person feel guilt or shame similar to that of intrusive thoughts.
Lifestyle changes can help with rumination and the corresponding symptoms. However, if ruminating thoughts become overwhelming, seek help because you should not have to engage in a constant battle with your own thoughts.
Distorted thoughts are exactly what they sound like. These thoughts distort reality, usually in a negative manner. Distorted thoughts can cause great anxiety, stress, and depression. These thoughts may negatively impact your ability to make rational decisions.
There are many examples of distorted thoughts, and many overlap with negative thoughts. Some examples include thinking of things in black and white like you need to be perfect or risk being a failure, overgeneralization such as one negative event sets the course for all other events you experience, personalization where you literally take things extremely personal, and other similar thought patterns.
Like the other types of thoughts previously mentioned, distorted thoughts can lead to anxiety, stress and depression, so seek help if these thoughts feel like they are difficult to manage.
What Can We Do to Cope with These Thoughts?
The first line of defense is to recognize these thoughts. Identify these thoughts when they emerge and remind yourself that they are not a reflection of you or reality. These thoughts are irrelevant.
Although the nature of these unwanted thoughts is upsetting and unpleasant, it is our reaction to them that causes us the most harm. These thought patterns can be difficult to overcome, and often the more we try to rid ourselves of them, the more they keep coming back, like a form of evil in a Stephen King novel. In fact, our reaction to these thoughts can lead to obsessive behaviors designed to prevent these thoughts.
Attempting to push these thoughts aside or bury them will only make them worse. Accept that these thoughts are present, but do not try to analyze what they mean. These thoughts don’t deserve your attention. Go about your normal activities and try techniques of mindfulness and meditation.
Our reality is shaped by our thoughts. We live in a strange time where we are vastly overstimulated and often by unpleasant ideas or images. Social media, the news, and even the content displayed by our friends are all constantly influencing our thoughts. We need to be more discerning about what we allow access to our minds.
Spending more time in nature, getting more exercise, adequate sleep, eating nourishing food, spending time meditating and learning to quiet your mind, and real, human interaction can all help prevent unwanted, harmful thoughts. When we are able to alter our thoughts, we can also change our reality, our mental health, and our very destiny.
If you recognize any of these thought patterns and find yourself struggling to suppress unwanted thoughts, please reach out for help. These thoughts can be difficult to manage on your own. Our therapists at the Jacksonville Center for Counseling can help you identify these thoughts and find healthy ways to cope.