Have you ever had a thought that you just couldn’t get rid of, no matter how hard you try?
A friend once told me that he would like to put a seat belt on his brain because he couldn’t stop it from thinking and was worn out because of it.
For some of us, our thoughts can be our worst enemy at times. When we are experiencing stress in our lives, we wonder when or if it will ever get better. Our minds can feel like they are stuck on a hamster wheel, circling around and around thinking about the same things over and over and over. It can be exhausting and irritating to feel trapped inside our own minds.
Up until recently, one of the most popular methods used to try to control this was called “thought stopping,” in which people with intrusive thoughts would practice telling themselves to stop thinking about something. For those thoughts that continued to persist, clients were encouraged to wear a rubber band on their wrist and snap themselves whenever they noticed they were thinking about it. The goal of thought stopping is to forcibly remove your attention from the thing that you can’t seem to stop thinking about.
As anyone who has ever dealt with intrusive thoughts will tell you, simply trying to make yourself stop thinking about these thoughts generally doesn’t work. Research on thought stopping has also backed up these notions.
While some people might be able to successfully stop their thoughts, most people either cannot or experience only a momentary break from their intrusive thoughts before they come rushing back, often even stronger than before.
So if thought stopping doesn’t work, what exactly can we do about our intrusive thoughts?
It seems that the best way to work on controlling our thoughts is to allow our brain to do the thing it keeps trying to do: think about whatever is bothering us rather than avoid it. When you address your intrusive thoughts head on, work on being non-judgmental of them. This can be difficult, because we tend to dislike those thoughts. Much of what causes our angst, however, is our own frustration that we are having the thoughts.
In addition to working on being accepting of your thoughts, practice thinking about what your biggest fear is about the thought — but focus on two particular things when you do this.
First, give yourself an exhaustive list of why it won’t happen. Our brains can do mental gymnastics to make us certain that a catastrophe could easily happen. Practice doing the opposite, where you list off the reasons why it won’t.
Second, think about the reasons that you would still be alright even if the worst thing did happen. Once you’ve addressed these things, focus on the things that you can control in the present. Many times we live in a “what will happen if” mindset. When we do this, we are living in the future world that we have no control over. After doing these things, be intentional to do something that will focus your attention, such as exercising or talking with a friend. If it’s late at night when you’re experiencing these intrusive thoughts, find a book to read or practice mindfulness, which is when you observe your thoughts and body in a non-judgmental way.
When we have intrusive thoughts, it’s important to recognize that this is our body’s way of telling us that something isn’t sitting right with us. If you are struggling to deal with your thoughts and can’t seem to quiet them on your own, seek out the help of a friend or find someone, such as your pastor or a counselor, who can help you sort out what is underneath the surface. Talking it out can help you gain a deeper understanding of what is upsetting you and give you an idea of how to begin to take back control of your thoughts.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to firstname.lastname@example.org.