How to Banish Intrusive Thoughts For Good
One of the most challenging tasks a person can undertake is figuring out how to stop thinking about something. When a thought invades our head, especially when it’s a negative thought, it takes up residence there and doesn’t leave willingly.
For example, imagine that you just started at a new job. You went into it confidently and felt thrilled to be contributing to your family by providing income. But at the end of the first week, your supervisor tells you that you need to work overtime during the weekend.
You have ironclad plans that you can’t cancel, so you tell the supervisor you can’t do it. The supervisor says okay, but try to be available next weekend.
Reading this scenario may make you think that it’s not such a big deal. But what if it was you in the situation? Would you obsess over the exchange?
It’s only your first week at the job, and you should probably be trying to make a good impression with your coworkers and your boss. Did this exchange ruin that? Would you worry that your supervisor thinks you won’t take your job seriously now?
You think about the words you chose to use. You imagine hearing what you said coming from someone else. Would you consider it rude? Should you have lied and said that the event you needed to attend was more important than it is?
All of these questions and hypothetical scenarios are lodged in your head now, and you can’t get them out. It doesn’t take much to make overthinking like this a bad habit.
These unwanted thoughts can cause severe anxiety and make life hard to enjoy. This article will give advice on how to stop unwanted thoughts, so that you can get back to living your best life. Learning how to stop thinking about something can lead to a much happier life.
When We Can’t Stop Thinking About Something
Each of our minds is a private place, and we engage in obsessive thinking more often than most of us would like to admit. The worst-case scenario of the situation we are thinking about gets stuck in our heads.
We replay it repeatedly in a desperate attempt to cope with the possible outcome of the negative thoughts. We know that it drains our mental energy, but we can’t seem to stop doing it.
So how do we stop thinking negative thoughts? How do we stop obsessing? Is there a way to kick the thoughts to the curb and get on with life so that we aren’t so anxious? Can we restart our thought cycle or stop thinking altogether?
The following will attempt to answer all of these questions.
Don’t Think About a White Bear
If someone told you not to think about a white bear, what would you think about? I doubt it would be a giraffe. If someone told you not to think about a giraffe, I doubt you’d think about a wolf. By the way, don’t think about a wolf.
What are you thinking about?
The Science Behind It
Psychologist Daniel Wegner was intrigued by the fact that all of us seem to obsess over thoughts, even when there is no benefit in doing so. When we tell ourselves to stop thinking about something, often, the exact opposite thing happens, and we can’t help but focus on the thought we were trying to stop.
Wegner completed an experiment in which he asked a lot of people not to think about that bear we discussed before. He then asked them each to narrate what popped into their heads over the course of a set time.
His research shows a trend of thinking about something you’re told not to think about, and often. Most of the people who were subjects of the experiment thought about what he told them not to think about at least once per minute.
In 1987, he published his theory, called the theory of ironic processes. It is now covered in most high school and college psychology classes and accepted as truth.
He theorizes that the portion of the brain in charge of dismissing a thought we tell ourselves not to think of often checks back to make sure we’re still not thinking about it. This obviously makes us think about it.
So basically, your brain tells itself to forget something, and a little while later tells us, “Hey, you know how you told me to stop thinking about such and such? Well, I did.” And…now you’re thinking about it all over again.
Things to Try to Stop Thinking About Something
We may not be able to pulverize the thought and get it completely out of our mind, but we can try a few things to help quiet the voice in our head that keeps repeating the negative thoughts on a loop. The following are a few methods you can employ to get some peace.
1. Get Busy
One of the worst things you could possibly do when you’re trying to stop thinking unwanted thoughts is to sit around and do nothing. Sedentary behavior encourages thought because you have nothing else to do.
Negative thoughts can make you freeze up and kill your motivation to do anything but think about the thing causing you stress, but you’re only hurting yourself by not forcing yourself to get up and distract yourself. You’ll end up with anxiety, or at the very least, a state of constant worry.
Get up, and get moving. Busy yourself as a distraction. Upsetting thoughts have less of a chance of getting through to us if we are busy or entertaining ourselves.
Call a family member or friend and make plans, or just talk on the phone. Go outside and get some fresh air, take a long walk or listen to some music.
It doesn’t really matter what the activity is, as long as you’re busy. The negative thoughts you have can’t take control if you have engaged in another activity and are putting mental energy into it.
2. Distract Yourself with Other Thoughts
If you can’t banish the stressful thought by getting up and moving around, start thinking about something else. Think about your next vacation. Start planning it in your mind. Visualize it. Imagine hearing the waves crashing on the beach.
Trading out an upsetting thought for a positive thought will help you feel more relaxed and help you get out of your head.
You probably won’t be able to stop that stressful thought from popping into your head every now and then, but you’re counterattacking by thinking about positive things, and that will help.
3. Purge the Thought
Write it All Down
Another tactic to stop thinking unwanted thoughts is to get them out of your head by writing them down on some paper.
For example, if you were having a tough time with a friend and knew that you needed to confront them about it, the thoughts of that confrontation could be something you might obsess over.
Rather than playing it through your mind a million times and getting yourself worked up, get it written down.
Writing the issue down can help you focus on what the actual issue is, and it can make it seem less scary.
For example, in the situation mentioned earlier about the exchange at work in regards to overtime during the weekend, if you write everything down and analyze the situation, maybe you’ll realize that it’s not that you’re afraid of making a bad impression that bothers you.
Maybe it’s that if you turn down overtime now, maybe it won’t be given in the future if you find that you need the extra hours and income.
Put your feelings down in print, both negative and positive. Anxiety is a natural part of life, but we can move past it and start problem-solving instead of trying to stop unwanted thoughts by just sitting around.
4. Stay Calm and Start Talking
Reach out to someone and tell them what’s bothering you. Give them all of the information regarding the situation that you can, and ask them for advice or for their input and interpretation of the stressful thought.
Talk about possible outcomes of the situation and discuss the “what’s the worst that could happen?” of it.
In the example about the workplace discussion with the newly hired employee and the boss, it would be advantageous to discuss the worst possible outcome with a friend.
That the next time, you’re needed for overtime, and you can’t do it, you may get fired? Or that the next time overtime is available and you need the hours, you won’t be offered them?
Neither of these outcomes is life or death. And having talked out the possibilities of what could happen as a result of the exchange helps you to plan for both outcomes.
So you may end up fired if you say you can’t work overtime again. Now you know in advance that you should clear your schedule for the next several weekends because work seems to be busy, and you don’t want to end up fired.
So you may not get offered the overtime when you need the hours since you turned it down this time around. You now have a chance to start saving your money in case that is the result of the situation.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Clearing your mind is most likely to happen if you practice activities like meditation. Through meditation, you relax your body, control your breathing, and clear your mind to rejuvenate your mind and body. Yoga and pilates can also have a similar effect.
6. Accept That This is Short-Term
Whatever it is you can’t stop thinking about, stop for a moment to consider the fact that this situation will come to an end eventually, and you will have spent all of this time worrying and stressing over something that wasn’t long-term.
If you’re worried about a confrontation you are going to need to have with a friend, tell yourself that thinking about it constantly isn’t doing you any good, and once the confrontation occurs, it’s over with.
Why waste time obsessing over something that is going to be over with soon and behind you? No tension or situation lasts forever.
If you’re worried about not being able to work overtime on the first week of your new job, and you can’t stop thinking about what’s going to take place, accept the fact that this won’t go on forever.
You will either eventually be faced with negative consequences, or it will amount to worrying over nothing. Why waste time obsessing over it?
The next tip is worrying in and of itself, and it sounds like a daunting task. If you have the courage to try it, know that it probably won’t be as scary as it seems.
7. Face the Issue
Go to your boss on Monday and apologize again for not being able to work overtime during the weekend. Tell him or her that you are dedicated to contributing to the company’s success and ask if there’s any way that you can make it up.
Assure your supervisor that you only had to turn down the request for overtime because you already had plans, but now that you know that overtime occurs at this job, you’ll be sure to leave plenty of wiggle room in your weekend schedules when you can.
It’s like ripping off a band-aid. Just get it over with, and then you won’t have to think about it anymore. The weight will most likely lift from your mind as soon as you face the issue and tackle it head-on.
In the scenario about the confrontation with the friend, why wait until you happen to see or talk to them again? If you know you need to say something, just get it over with. Ask them to coffee and tell them that you need to have a talk with them. Once there, confront them with the issue.
Make sure that you tell them that you’re only confronting them about whatever the issue is because you care about them, care about your relationship with them, and want it to be a healthy and happy one.
Tell them that you didn’t want to put it off because you hate when there’s tension, and you didn’t want to spend another minute upset.
Even if the friend is upset with you over the confrontation, you didn’t have to spend countless hours worrying over it. You faced the issue, and you got it over with.
Now you can move on. The tension in your thoughts and mind will most likely melt like butter.
8. When the Problem is Extreme
Seek Professional Help
When overthinking and unwanted thoughts plague your life to the point that you can’t function properly, you need to consider seeking professional help.
If you have employed the other methods mentioned and find that you still cannot stop unwanted thoughts, you may have an underlying condition that is contributing to the problem.
Anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or one or more of many other conditions may be a large contributing factor to your issue, and talking to a therapist can help you.
A compassionate, licensed therapist can diagnose, treat, and write prescriptions as needed, as well as teaching you other problem-solving techniques to accomplish the goal of thought suppression, so that you can move forward and start living your best life.
Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so there is no reason not to address your issues with a therapist, psychologist, or counselor when things are too heavy for you to handle by yourself. Take advantage of the resources available to you.
Your Feelings Are Normal
If you didn’t worry about things at least some of the time, that would set off other alarm bells. Someone who never has worries over difficult situations is someone who may be a bit overly flippant in life and may not be overly concerned about their future.
You can learn to control the way you think, and there have been helpful tactics shared in this article to help you achieve that goal.
You may not always be able to stop thinking about something, but you will definitely be able to banish some stressful thoughts. The next time you feel anxious, try some of these tactics out.
Oh, and don’t think about a white bear.