Have you ever had a seemingly irrational thought or worry get stuck in your head no matter how hard you tried to ignore it?
Humans, on average, have over 20,000 thoughts on any given day. Most of these come and go with little effort from the thinker. But sometimes a thought can take hold in our heads – and trying to ignore it only seems to increase our misery.
Let’s Try An Experiment
For the next 60 seconds, think about anything that you want to think about. You can reflect on your new favorite podcast, that funny TikTok video, a conversation you had with your best friend, or what you’re having for lunch (that’s probably what I’m thinking about). But whatever you do, DON’T think about a POLAR BEAR.
Get the timer set and no cheating!
How long did you make it? Most people don’t make it past 15 seconds. I bet you’re wondering how that happened. I mean, when is the last time you’ve thought about polar bears?
In psychology, this phenomenon is known as “ironic process theory,” whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts actually make them more likely to surface. This is because when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, BUT another part of our brain “checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up—therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind.
Unfortunately, the inability to inhibit certain thoughts seems to be worsened during times of stress and in people who are prone to anxiety or obsessive thoughts. Inadvertent thoughts about polar bears aren’t such a big deal, but if you or a loved one’s thoughts center around something more distressing (like moral failings or past mistakes), learning tools to shift your thinking is important.
Common advice that friends and family give to someone with a propensity to ruminate or worry is to just stop thinking about it. But after the “polar bear” experiment, you can see just how hard it can be to avoid an intrusive thought.
How do you stop thinking about an intrusive thought?
There are many strategies to help shift and refocus thinking. A great book that I often recommend to clients dealing with intrusive thoughts or compulsions is “What To Do When You Worry Too Much.” It’s written for kids, but I tell adults to read it too. It’s an easy, quick read about obsessive thoughts and helpful strategies for letting them go.
But if you don’t want to wait two days for Amazon to ship you the book, here are some strategies that you can implement now:
Emotions like anxiety or guilt are often directing us towards action. Is the emotion you’re experiencing trying to tell you something? Are you thinking about your bills because you need to pay them? If so, take actionable steps to ensure that you are making progress towards a solution to your problem. If there isn’t something that you need to be doing (if the thought is irrational or out of your control), keep reading.
Find A Distraction:
Just telling yourself not to think about something won’t work, but giving yourself something else to do instead can be an especially effective strategy. The more involved the task is the better because your brain will be more engaged. Play a game of Scrabble, join a game of dodgeball (pay attention, or you’ll get hit in the face), or practice that piano that’s gathering dust in the corner.
Think The Thought Through:
Ironically, just like trying not to think about the thought can make it worse, actively trying to think about the thought can seep it of its power. This can be especially useful for disturbing thoughts. Often people will tell me that they are surprised and upset that their minds can generate such distressing ideas. I remind them that this made Alfred Hitchcock and Steven King rich and famous.
Each of us is capable of horrific thoughts and will find them flashing through our minds from time to time. It does not mean that the majority of people are capable of horrific actions. The very fact that a person finds these thoughts distressing signals to me that they are not actually sociopath psycho killers.
Instead of repeatedly trying to avoid a particular thought, try scheduling a time to think through the thought. Walk it through to the end. Consider several possibilities, and give weight to both negative and positive scenarios. If the thought is related to a future situation, identify the most likely outcome.
Some people find it helpful to write these thoughts out in a journal, dictate into a notes app, or talk through it with a trusted confidant. Verbalizing the thought can unleash some of its hold.
Challenge the thought:
Thoughts sometimes are just thoughts. In the last two hours, I’ve thought about how to write useful blog articles, what to make for dinner, the best compression socks for running injuries, and what I would do if I won a million dollars (I’ve also thought about polar bears more than I typically would on a given day). If I gave equal weight to each of those thoughts, or too much weight to any one of those thoughts, I would find myself much less productive (and potentially really hungry).
If you find yourself obsessing about a certain thought, ask yourself if the thought is meaningful, valid, true, and/or necessary. If the answer is “no,” work to replace the thought with another thought that is more useful.
Change the thought:
For people who tend to think in pictures, I suggest mentally changing the picture. Making the image look ridiculous in one’s mind can also reduce the image’s power. A great example of this comes from Harry Potter and his “Riddikulus” spell used against the “boggarts.” The boggarts were creatures that would turn into the viewers’ most feared image. The Hogwarts’ students were taught to “dress” their fear up into something ridiculous to reduce the power of the image.
Remember: Thoughts are just thoughts. And thoughts can and do change. What you do with them is stronger evidence of who you actually are! Now go forth and leave the polar bears in the Arctic!