How You Can Overcome Intrusive Thoughts

intrusive thoughts“Meditation, mindfulness and other tools can help us avoid unwanted thoughts,” says social psychologist Daniel Wegner in this month’s edition of Monitor on Psychology.

Have you ever wanted to avoid thinking about a particular experience or topic only to find that it continually intrudes into your thoughts and activities? And the more you try to suppress the thought the more intrusive it becomes? Wegner, a Harvard University Professor, terms these thoughts “white bears” and after encountering these thoughts 25 years ago, delved into research on thought suppression.

Through research over the course of a decade he found that when we try not to think of something part of the brain avoids the thought, but another part “checks in” to make sure the thought is not coming up. Ironically, this “checking in” to make sure the thought is not coming up, brings it to mind.

So what do you do, when your mind inevitably “checks in” with those thoughts you most want to keep out of your consciousness? In a presentation for the American Psychological Association, Wegner described several strategies to suppress thoughts that intrude even when you are trying not to think them.

The techniques he described include:

  • Pick an absorbing distraction and focus on that, instead. Try to find an engrossing activity to divert your attention, for example puzzles, emotional movies, an engrossing conversation or a favorite sport. If you like playing golf, you can get a portable launch monitor so you can practice more effectively.
  • Try to postpone the thought. According to Wegner, some research suggests that setting aside a half an hour to worry at a particular time during the day can decrease worry and intrusive thoughts the rest of the day.
  • Cut back on multi-tasking. In another study, people under increased mental load (say from trying to complete multiple tasks at once) show an increase in thoughts of death, which are a common intrusive and unwanted thought for many.
  • Expose yourself to the thought. Allowing yourself to think about unwanted topics in controlled ways can decrease the likelihood that they will pop up and intrude into your thoughts at unwanted times.
  • Meditation and mindfulness. In mindfulness exercises you practice focusing attention, noticing distractions, such as intrusive thoughts, and refocusing. Like with a sport, practice improves your skill level. Over time you can train your mind to notice distracting thoughts and quickly refocus.

Have you used any of these techniques to suppress unwanted thoughts?  How about other strategies?  What do you find most helpful when an unwanted thought intrudes into your mind?

Photo by Simon Music, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

10 Replies to “How You Can Overcome Intrusive Thoughts”

  1. Christy,

    Thanks for the great article. As a therapist who works with many clients who struggle with intrusive thoughts, I found this information extremely beneficial. I will use some of Dr. Wegner’s techniques with my caseload and report back on their effectiveness.


  2. Hi Christy,I don’t brand thoughts as intrusive or non-intrusive. I watch them flow without interfering. If one of them suggests action, I perform that action if my mind decides I should perform it.As a result I am in a state of great calm while being productive at the same time.Cheers,Lucky

  3. I battle with my thoughts every moment of the day. I avoid them with sleep, which keeps me from enjoying life. I’m very insecure an feel weak if I’m not acknowledged by my boyfriend. I hate this cycle, I feel like a prisoner.

  4. Instead of expending so much energy figuring how to overcome intrusive thoughts, shouldn’t we rather learn how to just accept these thoughts for what they are…….just thoughts? I think learning the right way to deal with intrusive thoughts is more beneficial than fighting their existence.

  5. Here’s my strategy:

    When I have a “thought” that keeps coming up and gives me an unresolved feeling, I focus on it and determine why I’m feeling that way.

    Then I figure out if there’s a way I can give myself what I’m wanting from the situation, or something to cause a shift in my perspective or relationship to the issue.

    Having an action plan gives me something positive and active to focus on.

  6. I think thoughts I’d rather not think. Then I thought, why not pray for a better thought. So the thought on thoughts evolved to: I want a God thought. Then, I thought more and asked myself, “When do I want this “God thought”. I am as impatient as the next as well as disturbed by the disturbing thoughts and figured the answer must be “now!” So, the replacement/challenging thought to the disturbing thoughts became, “God thought, now!” Then I thought some more, I figured it might be a good idea to be polite and add “Please” So then the thought to challenge the disturbing thought became “Please, God thought now!” I thought some more, and figured additional politeness never hurt and if one actually receives something the logical and polite response is “thank you” In addition to just being polite and logical, the idea of “thank you” brings to my mind the idea that the request has already been granted.
    So the final comforting/challenging thought became:”Please God thought now, thank you!” (you can add additional “thank you’s” as needed. You can’t ever be too thankful. I’ve run a marathon and several half marathons and used the words of this thought/prayer as company saying each word on each footfall when I had to challenge disturbing thoughts. Sometimes I would double or quadruple up on the word to footfall ratio to pass the time. “Please, please, (right, left) God, God (right, left) thought, thought, (right, left) now, now, (right, left) thank you (right, left) thank you (right left) thank you (right left) thank you (right, left) I also use it when the disturbing thoughts intrude in the middle of the night. It brings me some comfort. It might work for you. God luck!

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