The human brain processes numerous thoughts, feelings, and ideas at a dizzying speed. All kind of things may run into your head, often ones that are counter to your actual desires or what you know to be true. A lot of times, these unwanted thoughts simply pass by barely being noticed.
However, some people do experience intrusive thoughts, or unpleasant memories, fears, or urges that feel like they won’t go away. Whether thinking about some painful event in your past, worrying about your health or how other people are perceiving you, or imagining yourself acting violently or sexually towards a stranger, these thoughts produce a strong emotional reaction that makes it hard to ignore or forget.
You may try and try to push these unpleasant feelings away, but they come back stronger, and you may feel very frustrated, anxious, and stuck. This can easily become overwhelming, but it is possible to move on. Your thoughts are not facts; having a thought does not make you a bad or out of control person. What you choose to do with that thought is up to you. Here are some steps you can take to deal with unwanted thoughts in the best way possible.
Don’t Try Too Hard:
For many people, when they get an unwanted thought, their first impulse is to try to push it away. The thought it so repulsive and emotionally unpleasant to you that you focus all your energy on trying to make it go away, so that you can go back to feeling “normal.”
The problem is that such active suppression doesn’t work, and can often only make the thoughts “rebound” back stronger than they would be otherwise. Trying hard to not think about something keeps the thought in your brain, and it will come back.
Try it yourself – take a few moments and try to not think about a baby hippo. Almost invariably, the more effort you spend trying not to think about hippos, (or whatever) the more it will come back to your thoughts. Your perceived failure to make the thoughts will in turn bring on feelings of shame and fear.
Instead of feeling all-consumed by the worries of your thoughts, you can use mindful attention to be both accepting of yourself and your thoughts, and more detached from them, so that you realize that a thought is just one though, and doesn’t have to control you.
The thoughts that come into your head can be compared to busy traffic going by as you sit by the side of the road. With practice, you can learn how to calmly allow each thought to pass by, not judging or worrying about what having that thought means. Acknowledge your thought, and try to put into words what “message” the thought is giving you. Saying “I am having a thought that I am bad,” or “I am feeling worried about the future” helps you absorb how your thought is just one thought, and not necessarily a reflection of reality.
The goal is to put some distance between yourself and the thought, realizing that you don’t have to either identify with the thought or expend all your energy making it go away at all costs. In this way, you can learn how to feel calm and accepting of yourself, in a way that will make your brain feel more manageable.
If you have an annoying song stuck in your head, one of the best things to do is sing or listen to a song you like more, putting that in your brain instead. Likewise, you can “change the tune” on your thoughts, replacing the unwanted thought with something related, but comforting and encouraging.
If you are find yourself developing a thought you feel is “shameful,” say a quick phrase like “I am a good, loving person,” that feels comforting and affirming. Then, bring your attention to specific times that make you feel good about yourself. Remember times you have been kind, or brave, or generous, and allow that positive memory to seep in, overwhelming the worry with something that is more true.