“The stream of thinking has enormous momentum that can easily drag you along with it. Every thought pretends that it matters so much. It wants to draw your attention in completely.” – E.Tolle
Thoughts are those subjective pictures, sounds and words — and the beliefs, associations, interpretations, opinions and meanings that pass through our mind or hold our attention. Thoughts arise of their own accord and everyday we experience thousands of thoughts and they are the background noise of our inner mental landscape. Whether positive or negative these thoughts clutter your minds, just like your house gets cluttered when you have too many possessions. Unfortunately clearing your mental clutter isn’t as simple as eliminating a possession. You cant throw away a thought. Your thoughts have a way of popping back up as you turn them down especially the disturbing ones.
When unwanted thoughts get your conscious attention, they manifest as moods, emotions, desires, impulses and influence your behaviour. Most of them are unhelpful that are intrusive, involuntary and negative in nature. Such random and problematic intrusive thoughts interfere with your clear thinking, distort your reality, control your moods or limit your potential self.
Being controlled by unpleasant or intrusive thoughts which pop into your mind can result in thought disturbances that are hard to manage. According to a research, most people are mind wavering 47% of their day. Mind wavering can be largely attributed to thought disturbances. However, struggling with, arguing with, trying to drown out or push away such unhelpful thoughts only amplifies them and you may find it difficult to get past such thoughts.
Why are some thoughts intrusive?
Some of our thoughts take the form of fear of the future, or negative memories of the past, or inappropriate that are unhelpful and unpleasant. They seem to appear out of almost no where and cause a great deal of anxiety. Intrusive thoughts are reinforced when you get entangled with them creating doubts about your decisions or your identity or safety. If not managed well, they can cause much distress and they may even lead to certain obsessive behaviours and can negatively impact your well-being.
Are intrusive thoughts normal?
You cannot will yourself not to think any such thoughts or to keep them out of your mind. Eventually thoughts like that drift back into your mind and rise to the surface. Having such thoughts is absolutely normal and many experience unwanted thoughts on a daily basis, but fixating or believing in them or getting controlled by them leads to problems and may cause unhealthy or dysfunctional behaviours. Because of the content of such thoughts is mostly alien or unacceptable and is at odds with who you are, they make you anxious. One of the common myth is that having such thoughts mean that you unconsciously want to do the things that come into your mind. This is not true and in fact trying to fight or avoiding them only ends up in reinforcing them. Knowing how to deal with invasive thoughts can be the key to prevent them from negatively impacting your normal functioning.
How to tame your intrusive thoughts…
Do you ever worry with your thoughts of such intrusive or obsessive nature? You would have noticed that the harder you try to suppress or to distract or substitute such thoughts, the more you tend to get caught up in them. Learning to deal with them effectively can reduce your fearful and negative reaction towards them but also reduces your over sensitivity towards such thoughts. Here is how you can tame your intrusive thoughts.
Accept your intrusive thoughts
Many of us avoid them because we are afraid of negative, fearful, unpleasant, disgusting thoughts; afraid of mental impulses. We tend to avoid intrusive thoughts because we don’t know how to deal with them. An emotional reaction to how you think just keeps them alive. This means that they will appear over and over until you do actually deal with them. Treating them real or avoiding them or trying to change your behaviour based on such thoughts only leads to a compulsive behaviour. You should learn the fact that sometimes the content of such thoughts is meaningless and irrelevant.
Instead of reacting to them as though they are real, Accept them and tell yourself the truth that they have no intrinsic reality and you aren’t purposefully thinking the thought and it doesn’t represent you. Accepting them stops you to react negatively to intrusive thoughts.
Practice ‘cognitive diffusion’
You have a choice in how you choose to respond to intrusive thoughts. This is possible when you are able to identify intrusive thought patterns that end up creating negative emotions or feelings. Here are certain patterns to help you recognise your unhelpful thoughts.
• Thoughts of imagined future or expecting bad things lead you to what-if scenarios causing fear, anxiety and worry.
• Focusing on your weaknesses or perceived flaws results in thoughts of not being good enough. Such patterns often increase your negative self-talk and self-criticism.
• Dwelling on your bad choices and wrong actions leads to thoughts of worthlessness and ruminating over your past mistakes creates thoughts of shame and guilt.
• Habit of lamenting in your sorrows and problems makes you fixate in thoughts based on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. This leads to frustration and wishing things were different.
Stepping back from your repetitive and unhelpful intrusive thoughts, by recognising and identifying them is the process of cognitive diffusion. When you are fused with your thoughts, you tend to believe and take them seriously as you buy into them, obey them and play them out. But by learning to see the thoughts simply as they are — as thoughts and not reality, you can step back into cognitive diffusion. You can hold on to them lightly and do not take your thoughts seriously. You only listen to them if you find them helpful or valuable. Being aware of unhelpful thought patterns when they arise will help you to not to get entangled in and they lose their power to generate unpleasant emotions.
Label your intrusive thoughts
In order not to get stuck in some of your negative thought patterns, it is important to name your thought. When an unhelpful thought pattern arises, simply labelling it mentally can reduce your reaction.
Intrusive thoughts are mostly repetitive and involve certain story lines. When an unhelpful thought comes up with a story line, try to label and let it go without giving much attention to it. It’s just a thought and not reality. Try and open your awareness to yourself and world around. As soon as you name your thought, you step back from being caught up in it and you stop being drawn into the negativity it creates. When you are mentally labelling your thoughts as ‘anxious’ or ‘fearful’ or ‘worrisome’, make sure you do so with compassion and not with aggression or frustration. This helps you to reflect on them with a positive perspective and respond to them peacefully.
Develop present moment awareness
Another effective way to deal with your intrusive thoughts is to bring back your awareness to the present moment. Paying attention to your present moment can get you out of your excessive unhelpful thinking and can ease you out of the internal noise so created. Bringing all your attention to your senses can calm your mind and grounds you in the present moment. In this way, little to no room is left in your attention for all that unwanted and unhelpful thoughts that are intrusive in nature. Being mindful of the present moment brings you back from mind wandering when you get lost in your old habits, beliefs, and negative reaction patterns. Through mindfulness, you build your capacity to change the contents of your thoughts to ‘present’ rather than about a remembered past or anticipated future.
Question your intrusive thoughts
As human beings, we have an inherent negativity bias, with our mental chatter being skewed more towards the negative rather than positive. So despite everything, certain intrusive thoughts can continue to have grip on you. In such cases, you can test reality of your thoughts by asking some helpful questions like ‘Am I creating negative interpretations?’ ‘Is my thought helpful?’ ‘What is the evidence for and against my thinking?’ ‘What is the best part of this situation or person?’ ‘Am I filtering out the positive and dwelling on the negative?’ This way, you can focus on constructive thoughts or actions and can try and find a positive. Doing a goal-directed thinking can also help you see things in a different perspective.
We cannot consistently think only positive thoughts because you cannot control your thoughts but only your response to them. In fact, despite all the efforts, intrusive thoughts float through your mind and rise to the surface. It is absolutely normal for you to experience unhelpful, or unpleasant thoughts from time to time. Even though they make you anxious and uncomfortable, there is no quick fix method to control or quite your thoughts in any lasting way. But by practicing above mentioned strategies, you can, however, tame them and redirect your attention towards positive by not letting them control or giving into them. With a little practice and persistence, you can untangle yourself from unhelpful intrusive thought patterns and can change your focus to more meaningful.
“You don’t have to control your thoughts, you just have to stop letting them control you.”