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What to Do When You Can’t Stop Thinking

Have you ever had a thought you just couldn’t get out of your head? A topic you were stuck on? A problem you stayed up half the night trying to solve? Of course you have. We all have. We’re apes that grew a bit of extra brain a few hundred thousand years ago, and it hasn’t shut up since. However, our thoughts (annoying as they are) don’t mean to cause us problems. As a species, thought has served us well. While we don’t have the physical strength or defensive abilities of many other animals, we’ve been able to think ourselves into clothes, shelter, and even onto the moon. The human cognitive system is incredibly powerful, but it’s also very new in the evolutionary scheme of things—and the bugs haven’t quite been worked out.


Why we get stuck on a thought

Thinking is a pretty astounding act. We can invent whole worlds in our heads and conceptualize ideas that extend beyond the boundaries of our physical universe. It’s really impressive just what we can think of. That said, we’re actually really bad at not thinking about something. This is often demonstrated with the Purple Zebra example (or purple elephant, or purple monkey, bear, turnip, etc..). It goes like this—I’m going to tell you not to think of a purple zebra. Ready?

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Don’t think of a purple zebra.

What happened? You probably thought of a purple zebra. That’s because, when you hear or read the phrase,”purple zebra,” it acts as a cue for your mind to produce the thought “purple zebra” and usually the imagery to go along with it. To our brains, the “purple zebra” part of the sentence, “Don’t think of a purple zebra,” is just as important as the “don’t think of” part. This is why it’s difficult to simply “stop thinking about” something. When we attempt to stop thinking a thought, that very attempt acts as cue to produce the thought again. This leaves us in an awkward position. We want to stop thinking about whatever we’re stuck on so that we can focus on what’s important to us at that moment, but all of our attempts to stop the thought end up reproducing it. So, what are our alternatives?



Scheduling the thought

Our unwanted thoughts often revolve around challenges, dilemmas, and difficulties in our lives. Unfortunately, these patterns of repetitive thinking often occur when there are no immediate actions we can take to remedy the situation. This can be really frustrating. On the one hand, we know that it’s useless to spend our mental energy on something that we can’t do anything about. On the other hand, our thoughts seem to demand action, and won’t let us shift our focus until something is done to address what’s bugging us. Instead of chastising ourselves to “stop thinking about it,” we can assure ourselves that we’ll allot some time in the near future to devote our attention to it. By actually scheduling time to think about what’s bothering us, we’re indulging the urge to act. We’re saying, “Okay, mind, you want me to do something? We’ll here’s a specific time that I’ve designated to sit down and think this out.” This can temporarily satisfy the urge to solve the problem, as it demonstrates to the worried part of the mind that something is being done to tackle the issue. Furthermore, this strategy counters the disorderly nature of racing thought with the order of planned action, which can serve to facilitate a sense of calm and security.


Talking it out

One advantage of talking to someone about a worry, problem, or other unwanted thought is that they might have some perspective on the matter that helps put us at ease. What’s more, putting thoughts into words can actually help us see an issue from a different vantage point on our own. Sometimes, we’ll tell someone a worry we’re having, and as we hear our own words, we’ll realize how unlikely or unthreatening the feared scenario sounds. Likewise, the answer to some problem we’ve been turning over in our heads may make itself clear before we even finish explaining. Another benefit of vocalizing our troubling thoughts is it gives us some distance from them. Often, we fail to experience our thoughts as separate from our immediate experience. We react as if anxiety-provoking thoughts were real life events occurring before us. This phenomenon is known as cognitive fusion, called so because when we experience this, we operate as though we are fused to our thoughts (or cognitions). When we don’t have proper distance from our thoughts, we act as though they are real, objective threats to our wellbeing. This limits our behavior, as we focus needlessly on neutralizing a non-existent danger. Cognitive fusion can be eased through cognitive defusion exercises. Cognitive defusion helps us experience our thoughts as thoughts, rather than the distressing events they present as. For more information about cognitive defusion, please check out our video on the subject: Defusing Anxious Thoughts



Taking thoughts along for the ride

One of the best things we can do with unwelcome thoughts is to turn them into welcome companions. They’re going to stick around? Well then, we can choose to take them along while we attend to the things that are important to us. Maybe, they’ll bug us while we try to watch a movie, eat dinner with our significant other, or mow the lawn, but we’ll be living on our own terms. We’re making it clear to our mind that we won’t be governed by whatever provocative thought it decides to produce while we’re doing our thing. We’ll make room for the thoughts, but we’re not taking orders. Certainly, this is no easy task—but as we practice accepting our thoughts without buying into them, it will become easier, and our ability to engage with what is meaningful to us will increase.


Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy in Poughkeepsie, New York. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. Thomas is a member of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science and the International OCD Foundation. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at thomas@resolutionpsychotherapy.com.



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