Coping with Unwanted Thoughts
Has anyone ever given you the advice “just don’t think about it,” when you share worries, fears or concerns? For most worriers this advice can feel defeating and near impossible. While the advice may be well meaning, the truth is that “just not thinking about something” is not only ineffective, the act of trying to avoid thinking about something can actually make you think about it more! Fortunately, cognitive behavioral therapies offer several effective techniques that can help you manage these unwanted thoughts.
Why we can’t “just stop” thinking about our worries.
Would you be willing to try a quick experiment? If so, here is what I would like you to do: for the next minute, do not think about a white bear. Think of anything else, but not a white bear. Ready? Go!
How did it go? Impossible, right? See how just by trying not to think about something, its all you want to think about? Social psychologist Dr. Daniel Wegner, a professor at Harvard University, has been researching this idea of purposely avoiding certain thoughts for years. He has found that, in experiments such as the one above, people not only think about the thought they are trying to avoid, but also they think about it at a much higher frequency when told not to think about it. Here’s why:
“When we try not to think of something, one part of
our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part
“checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up
—therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind.” Winerman, L (2011).
So, what can help me manage my unwanted thoughts?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, an evidence-based treatment for anxiety, offers a variety of effective cognitive strategies to help individuals cope with unwanted thoughts. Here is one technique for you to try: Cognitive Reappraisal.
In order to understand how to reappraise a thought, its first necessary to understand how we come up with thoughts to begin with. Have you ever noticed how two people can experience the exact same situation but come up with totally different interpretations or “appraisals” about it? For instance, during a job interview, you may be focused on all the mistakes you are making while the interviewer is focusing on the ways you are a good fit for the job. As a result, you may walk out with the appraisal, “this interview did not go well” while the interviewer thinks, “this person has skills that are a good fit for the position;” it all depends on what you pay attention to when making your appraisals.
Because people with anxiety tend to focus on negative or threatening information to make their appraisals, it is more likely that their appraisals will be negative. The problem with this approach is that it makes it difficult to focus on other aspects of the situation. As a result, you may miss out on the things you did well which could help you feel less anxious. Learning how to encourage your brain to make a more balanced “reappraisal” that incorporates all available information can help you to challenge and even overcome this anxious appraisal style.
How to reappraise your thoughts.
Cognitive Reappraisal involves identifying your anxious thoughts, evaluating them for accuracy, and developing alternative, more balanced appraisals. To see if cognitive reappraisal can work for you, try these steps:
1) First, identify how you are initially appraising the situation. This might be the first thought that comes to mind or the thought that causes you the most anxiety. In the example above, the initial appraisal was “This interview did not go well.”
2) Next, check to see if there are any biases or errors in the thought. As previously stated, it is quite common to focus on the negative aspects of experiences when you are anxious and to base your interpretations on these factors. Over time, these anxious appraisals can become patterns of thinking, often called “Thinking Traps.” Examples of thinking traps include mind-reading, fortune telling and disqualifying the positives. Noticing when you are falling into a thinking trap can help you to change your appraisal. Another way to check for errors is to seek out evidence for and against the initial appraisal. Supporting evidence may be “I forgot to talk about all of my qualifications” while evidence against might be “I was able to answer all of her questions.” Evaluating the evidence can help you to see how accurate your appraisal may be.
3) Now it is time to come up with a reappraisal. Excluding the thinking traps you identified and integrating all the evidence you gathered, try to generate alternative, more balanced appraisals. An example of a reappraised thought might be, “Even I forgot to say a few things, I was able to communicate the most important aspects of my experience.” By coming up with reappraisals, you give yourself the opportunity to consider other possibilities that may be more accurate.With practice, this strategy can help you to be more flexible in how you interpret events and help to decrease your distress.
If you or someone you know is struggling with distressing, unwanted or painful thoughts as a part of their anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy can help. To find treatment options that incorporate strategies such as cognitive reappraisals, contact us to learn out more. You can also check out our CBT resource page to find books and other blogs posts that can help you to manage your anxiety.
Deborah Schleicher, Psy.D., Associate | Behavioral Associates Los Angeles
Behavioral Associates Los Angeles is a group of cognitive-behavioral therapists specializing in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. To find out more, contact us by phone at 310-205-0523 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also request an appointment with a Behavioral Associates LA psychologist by submitting a brief patient assessment form on our Website. Our clinical staff will follow up with you within 24 hours of submission.