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Controlling My Intrusive Thoughts

Using the science of consciousness to control my intrusive thoughts.

Key points

  • It is impossible to completely control one’s thoughts. Trying to suppress a thought frequently leads that thought to keep returning.
  • Recent thoughts are particularly likely to return to consciousness if one isn't actually finished with the thought.
  • Writing ideas down can help them feel "finished."

I know I have little control over many things in my life, but I would like to control the contents of my mind. My thoughts seem to have their own ideas about who is in charge. My mind runs in unintended directions and unwanted thoughts intrude at the worst possible times. But I’m not giving up. I’ve been working on a few methods to take control of my intrusive thoughts.

My mind frequently runs away, often when I’m trying to focus on work or riding my bike home. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly thoughts come flying into my mind. I worry about money. I think about my sons and wonder how they’re doing. I ruminate over a conversation with a student. I think about all the papers I need to grade. I obsess over my latest aches and pains and imagine these are signs of my mortality. I imagine awful possible future catastrophes. Thoughts seem to run through my mind and I don’t seem to have control.

Psychologists know a lot about intrusive thoughts and memories. We know that people ruminate. Their minds wander and they have frequent involuntary memories. I’m not always wild about being my own case study, but I’m just like everyone else. My mind seems to be at the mercy of my involuntary thoughts. Since I would like better control of my thoughts, I’ve been trying some ideas based on the science of consciousness.

The first thing to know is that it is impossible to completely control one’s thoughts. The mind wanders, particularly when bored, doing a repetitive task, or when unable to succeed at one’s current task. Additionally, some ideas repetitively come back to mind—sometimes these thoughts and memories are particularly unpleasant. But even pleasant uncontrolled thoughts (such as daydreaming about an upcoming vacation) can distract me from what I think of as my current important focus.

The second thing is to realize that trying to banish thoughts isn’t effective. In fact, trying to suppress a thought frequently leads that thought to keep returning. Daniel Wagner and his colleagues have referred to this as the ironic effect of thought suppression—trying to keep something out of one’s head counter-intuitively leads that thought to keep returning (I’ve described this in more detail in this post).

But here’s the crucial tidbit for learning to control intrusive thoughts: Recent thoughts are likely to return to consciousness particularly if you aren’t actually finished with the thought.

My students and I have found this is the case with having a song stuck in one’s head (reported in our recent paper Going Gaga). If you get a song started in someone’s head, then it is likely to keep coming back repetitively for a while. We’ve used this finding to play tricks on each other. We remind each other of songs or walk past each other humming a song, knowing this might cue up the song on the other person’s internal jukebox. I found this could be rather painful if my students reminded me of a song I dislike just before I got on my bike for a long ride home. The song would keep mentally playing and replaying during my entire bike ride. It would sometimes still be playing in my head when I woke up the next morning. Clearly, this isn’t as horrific as an intrusive memory of a traumatic experience, but the cognitive processes seem to work in the same fashion with all forms of involuntary thoughts.

My insight was when I realized I if was going to have a song in my head for my bike rides, then I should choose which song. I started playing songs on my computer as I was getting ready to leave. I play songs I like, knowing that these will be the songs reverberating in my mind for my bike ride home. Much more pleasant, and often these songs help me keep the bike pedals turning. I couldn’t stop the music, but at least I could choose the record.

I then wondered if this would work with other involuntary thoughts. I’ve often found that the things that have worried me in my office follow me home by catching a ride in my thoughts. I continue to think about the problem student, the annoying meeting, or the overdue work project. I found the concern would return to my mind during my bike rides and still be in my awareness if I woke during the night. I worry. And whatever task ends my day can become my worry and my ruminating intrusive thought during my bike rides and evening activities.

To take control, I’ve changed the order in which I tackle work projects in my office. I end my day by working on something I don’t mind having return to my thoughts. Now I try to end every day by working on a writing task—these are long term tasks that are the creative, challenging, and fun part of my job. When these thoughts return during my bike rides, I often have interesting and useful insights. When I get home, I tend to write down some of my ideas (this helps me feel like the idea is finished).

In this fashion, I’ve started choosing my intrusive thoughts. I end my work day focused on concerns that I can productively continue thinking about. I no longer end my days worrying about some concern that doesn’t lead to productive thoughts. For example, worrying about some university committee seldom leads to productive intrusive thoughts but does lead to a constant sense of frustration (not a productive or happy line of thinking). Similarly, I don’t pay the bills just before going to sleep—that is guaranteed to bring financial worries to mind in dreams and when I wake in the middle of the night.

I wonder if this approach will work for other people as well. Acknowledge that you can’t completely eliminate intrusive thoughts. Instead schedule the time before transitions to choose which thoughts will keep coming back to mind. I haven’t stopped my mind from running off, but I’ve at least selected the pathways where it runs.

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