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Show Your Mind Who's Boss

Three healthier ways to deal with negative, destructive thoughts.

Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock
Source: Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock

Minds can be frustrating. Sometimes we have distracting or destructive thoughts when we’d like nothing more than to flip a switch and turn our minds off after a long day. I don’t care whose mind you’re referencing, the “greatest hits” of annoying thoughts seem to be about the same for everyone: Worry about an upcoming responsibility, or agonizing over what another person thinks about you, or criticizing yourself for feeling bad or not living up to a personal standard.

If your mind seems to be more of an adversary than an ally, perhaps you’ve tried some of these things to win the war:

  • Think about daisies and puppies or something else less threatening.
  • Invent new, tougher thoughts to defeat the thought bullies.
  • Eat cake, drink beer, take naps, or exercise until your legs fall off, and hope those thoughts go away.
  • Be a “positive” thinker—despite evidence to the contrary that not everything is so positive.

These techniques might help for a little while, but no matter which mental marathon you’re willing to run, the annoying thoughts will probably outlast you. The good news is that there are some evidence-based cognitive and behavioral strategies you can use to cope more effectively when your mind’s playing tricks on you.

Here are my three favorite options for dealing with annoying thoughts that have way too much power over how we feel and what we do:

1. Restructure exaggerations.

If you think that a project or an exam will be brutal, that everybody is mean, that you’re a failure if you’re not able to achieve something, or that you hate family functions, then congratulations—at least your thinking is economical.

The problem with this way of thinking is that by ignoring the subtler aspects of situations, you’re limiting your emotional and behavioral options. If you think in absolutes, predict the worst, and overstate the negative elements of your experiences, you’re likely to struggle with intense depression, anxiety, and anger. And this type of thinking might lead to predictable patterns of behavior—passivity, avoidance, or explosiveness.

If you can catch destructive thoughts, you might ask yourself a series of questions to promote cognitive flexibility: What’s the evidence for and against this idea? Is it possible that another perspective is more accurate? Am I exaggerating or predicting the worst? Is there a more realistic way of thinking? How do I feel when I think this way? How do I feel when I think in more realistic ways?

With regular practice, you may find that your thinking becomes more nuanced without even trying. And if your mind acts like a broken record and continues to throw destructive thoughts at you, you can show it who’s boss by responding with a more accurate belief that sets you up for better emotional and behavioral outcomes.

2. Solve problems.

If you’ve concluded that annoying beliefs are reality-based, that there’s no room for restructuring, and that you’re annoyed with me now, because I wasted your time by offering that suggestion, another option for responding to destructive thoughts is to take action.

Again, it might be helpful to ask yourself some questions to know how to proceed. If something is broken or distasteful, what can you do to fix it or make it better? If the future seems overwhelming or painful, how can you plan to make things more manageable? If your response is “nothing can be done,” or “it’s just going to be terrible,” revisit strategy #1 before you attempt to problem-solve.

The reality is that in most situations, even those that initially seem impossible to improve, there is something we can do to make things at least a little better. Examples include writing down talking points to prepare for a difficult conversation, outlining the steps involved in a huge project and making the commitment to get started with the first step, eliminating practical obstacles that prevent you from getting things done, or finally following through on commitments you made to yourself or others.

Taking action will make you feel better about yourself and give you a greater sense of personal control. When your mind tells you things are hopeless, or that the future will be catastrophic, you can show it who’s boss by solving problems.

3. Accept what you cannot change.

The previous strategies highlight the value of personal control, whether cognitive or behavioral, to counteract the spontaneous, irritating thoughts that lead to emotional distress or dysfunction.

But intense emotions are often related to maladaptive beliefs about control itself. When we’re depressed, we believe we’ve lost control. When we’re anxious, we believe things are intolerable if we can’t control them. When we’re angry, we believe that others have too much control.

So what can you do when you’ve modified your thoughts to be more accurate and useful, and addressed practical obstacles by taking action, but you’re still struggling with destructive thoughts that fight back when you attempt to stand up for yourself?

Acceptance-based responding is one way to change your relationship to potentially upsetting thoughts. By allowing rather than manipulating your thoughts, you’re demonstrating to yourself that if I think this way, I accept it—even if I’d prefer not to—and I can tolerate it. I can also get on with my life and engage in activities that truly matter, without allowing my ideas to control me.

If you typically respond to negative beliefs by criticizing yourself or telling yourself to stop, you may be giving your thoughts more power than they deserve. People who are able to attend to their thoughts, acknowledge that they exist, allow them to remain, and redirect their attention to whatever’s more meaningful in the moment often find it easier to lead satisfying lives.

For example, in a recent series of studies, Ford and colleagues (2017) found that college students who habitually practiced nonjudgmental acceptance experienced better mental health outcomes than their peers who did not; that use of acceptance led to fewer negative emotions among students exposed to a laboratory-induced stressor; and that, among members of a community sample, acceptance predicted better emotional outcomes over a six-month period.

Practicing basic acceptance gives you a break from trying to control the thoughts you don’t like. When your mind tries to show you who’s boss, you can show it who’s boss by not fighting back. Sometimes our best response is to let the mind do its baffling, mysterious work and devote our attention instead to the aspects of our lives that we truly value.

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Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2017). The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.