In counselling sessions, people regularly ask me for strategies to help them manage unwanted, unhelpful, negative or intrusive thoughts.
It is important to understand these thoughts first. Is it part of an underlying condition such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (where people can get unwanted, intrusive thoughts), ADHD (where the mind is much more active and restless, creating a larger volume of thoughts and focuses), or perhaps another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression?
Seeing a mental health professional is a good idea, as they can help you do that assessment first and gain understanding of your unique thought patterns.
In this article I will talk about the more common unhelpful thoughts most people have from time to time. I call certain thoughts ‘unhelpful’ because they do not help us solve a problem, but tend to go in circles and drain our energy.
What are Thoughts?
Very simply defined, thoughts are electrical signals passing through our brain, creating a neural connection.
Once a neural connection is made (ie when we think a thought once), it is like a tiny path is created in the brain. This path is then known to the brain and most likely will fire up again in similar circumstances.
This structure helps us function in the world and make sense of it. It saves us time and energy, so we do not have to concentrate and create new thoughts (ie neural connections) for every situation in life. Instead, we can just trigger previously made neural connections in situations that seem similar to ones we have already been in. So, our brain is trying to help us; it’s a very practical and efficient way of handling information.
But what happens when the thoughts we created were painful or even inaccurate?
The brain will just repeat the same process and trigger the same neural network / thought pattern of other situations in life, that look similar but may actually be very different.
For example, take a situation in which a child plays soccer for the first time with friends. After kicking a ball she hears the comment, “That was an awful kick, you missed”. The child may feel ashamed and embarrassed, leading to a possible thought of “I don’t want to do this again”. So next time she is invited to play a ball game, with a different group of friends, it is very likely that a thought may be triggered in her mind: “I don’t want to do this again”. As you can appreciate, this thought may not be helpful.
So What Can We Do About It?
We first must learn that thoughts are just thoughts.
Thoughts do not have inner intelligence, and they may not reflect your current reality. They are old imprints in your brain of everything that happened to you before this moment. It is actually very rare to have new thoughts in our brain each day. The vast majority of our thoughts are just thoughts going on repeat each day.
This is different if you live a stimulating life, putting yourself in novel situations, dealing with new challenges, actively focusing on new ideas. Then your brain is forced to create new neural connections, new interpretations of your reality based on who you are now and what you believe in.
Some Strategies for Managing Unhelpful Thoughts
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is one of the most efficient ways to manage thoughts, as it changes the relationship you have with your thoughts. Mindfulness invites you to take the role of an observer. In this role you allow all your thoughts to come, recognising that you cannot stop yourself from having thoughts. Remember, these are just electrical impulses activated in your brain, based on past experiences. There is no “off” button.
Therefore, what we can do is observe thoughts running through our brain, without getting attached to them or taking them too seriously.
One suggested way in mindfulness is treating thoughts as clouds. Imagine yourself looking from your window up at the sky and observing the clouds, just watching them come and go. You can watch even the biggest, darkest clouds (ie fearful, scary thoughts) in that way, treating them as just another passing cloud. You realise then that thoughts cannot hurt you, and you do not need to be scared of, affected or act on any of your thoughts.
Externalisation: It can be helpful to externalise thoughts, which means, to take them out of your mind and put them somewhere else outside. One such way is through talking therapy where you talk about your thoughts and take them out of your brain, air them out, look at them, understand them better if needed, and sort them out. This sorting can help you recognise what thoughts are helpful and which ones are not.
Another externalisation technique is writing your thoughts down. You can have a diary in which you write all your thoughts at the beginning and/or end of the day for example, and in this way release some of the pressure they cause in your mind when they are bottled up.
Grounding techniques: Grounding strategies use our senses to reset/reboot the brain and help break the thought patterns some people get stuck in, when they just seem to go on repeat.
Grounding strategies can be practiced in many different ways, as long as you are using at least one sense:
- Sight – Stimulating your sense of sight by looking at something interesting or stimulating. For example, looking at a burning candle, fireplace, textured picture etc while focusing on the detail of what your eyes are seeing. Watching TV does not count.
- Touch – Stimulating your sense of touch by repetitively touching a textured surface. For example, petting your pet, stroking your sleeve, scarf or the sofa you are sitting on etc. Your fingers transfer the input to your brain, requiring it to process this sensation which will help to break the thought process it is stuck in.
- Hearing – Stimulating your sense of hearing by listening to pleasant sounds such as the sound of waves, chimes, preferred instrument, music, voices etc while focusing on the sound you are hearing.
- Smell – Stimulating your sense of smell by breathing in an oil, perfume, shampoo or even your pet or the clothes of a loved one.
- Taste – Stimulating your sense of taste by mindfully eating or drinking your favourite food or drink items. The intent here is to taste, not to eat, so you do it more slowly, sipping or chewing every bite while focusing on the texture, flavour and sensation in your mouth.
Self-Talk: Self-talk can be a very powerful tool in your ‘coping mechanisms tool belt’.
Self-talk can be used for many things, such as improving your motivation and mood, reducing anxiety, and even changing thoughts. As a strategy to manage negative, unwanted, unhelpful thoughts, self-talk can be used in the following ways:
- ‘Best friend’ voice – You start creating a narrative that sounds like the one your best friend (or another person who cares for you) would use when they see you in distress and confusion. It is a good idea to think about that narrative before you get to a situation when you experience the unhelpful thinking (because chances are, that once your mind gets stuck in unwanted thoughts, you will not be able to come up with a new way of thinking to replace it).
Therefore, spend some time thinking about a couple of sentences you would hear from your friend and repeat them to yourself a few times over a few days. Next time you notice the unhelpful thinking in your mind, start repeating the sentences you rehearsed to talk to yourself and provide yourself with that caring support, to break the cycle of the negative thoughts. To give a personal example, my ‘best friend’ voice sounds something like this: “It is just a bad moment, it will pass…”; “Just hang in there, this is just the mind doing its thing, you are ok”; or “You are doing well, it is ok, just go through today and tomorrow will be better”.
- ‘The wiser one’ voice (or ‘The teacher’ voice) – This self-talk voice uses a more rational / practical / evidence-based / educated approach to unwanted, repetitive and unhelpful thoughts that are wasting your time and draining your energy.
This self-talk involves explaining to yourself what is happening right now, reminding yourself about the nature of thoughts and offering practical solutions.
In a similar manner, you would come up with statements and sentences upfront, and practice them when you are calm. The example of my ‘wiser one’ self-talk sounds like this: “I must just be tired and overwhelmed .. I did miss my quiet time this week, I just need to rest”; “These are just my thoughts, I don’t need to believe them, just unplug, disconnect, don’t listen to them, see if they are still there tomorrow then address them”.
- ‘Let’s not take it seriously’ voice – This self-talk brings humour and light-heartedness to the thinking pattern you find yourself in. For example, you can sing about your thoughts to your favourite tune. Just replace the words in your favourite song with the content of your thoughts. Alternatively, you can add silly/funny comments as a response to your unhelpful thoughts (eg “Here is the circus again, welcome them ladies and gentlemen, my fears and self-doubts, magnificent show as always!”).
I hope you find this helpful and practical. If you need further help I am happy to be of assistance, so please feel free to book an appointment with me.
Author: Ilana Gorovoy, B.Arts (Psych), B. Arts (Hons.)(Psychology), MPsych (Couns.)
With a Master’s in Counselling, Brisbane Psychologist Ilana Gorovoy draws on therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Existential and Strengths-based approaches, Person-Centred and Positive Psychology, to assist her clients to become conscious of their strengths and difficulties, design and reach their goals, live a life of meaning and purpose, and reach their full potential through empowerment.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Ilana Gorovoy, try Online Booking – Wishart. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology (Wishart) on (07) 3088 5422.