How to Stop Irrational Thoughts

Thought patterns associated with panic disorder

Verywell / Laura Porter

Many people experience irrational thoughts that are often negative or upsetting. You may have heard terms that are related to irrational thinking, like ruminating, self-deprecating, or catastrophizing.

In order to change your thinking, it's helpful to first become aware of these thought patterns. Once you understand the way you think, you can learn to address and reframe your thoughts.

Types of Irrational Thoughts

The following categories are common types of irrational thoughts.

Forecasting

When you're forecasting, you're predicting a future event that hasn't happened. Predicting that the worst will happen is also known as catastrophic thinking.

For example, say you have a fear of flying. While on an airplane, you might think, "This turbulence feels scary, I know something is wrong with the plane."

The problem with forecasting is that it only feeds your anxiety, causing you to feel more afraid. As feelings of panic grow, your thought pattern only spirals further out of control.

Your outlook may escalate to beliefs such as, "I just know this plane is going to crash" or "If I have a panic attack in public, I'll go crazy."

Self-Defeat

People who are prone to anxiety or panic tend to use words like "should," "ought," or "must" when describing themselves and their situation.

You might hold beliefs such as, "I should be calm on planes," "I ought to be comfortable in public," or "I must be a failure." Such harsh self-judgments are not helpful in reducing your anxiety. All-or-nothing thinking leads to self-criticisms that simply feed anxiety.

As you become more anxious, you may also become overwhelmed with self-defeating thoughts. You may begin to blame yourself for being afraid, believing that it's some sort of flaw on your part. You may also use name-calling, such as telling yourself that you're "pathetic" or "weak."

You might begin to over-generalize, where you think that you "will never feel OK in public" or you "will always feel uneasy." All of these destructive thoughts add to feelings of helplessness.

Mind-Reading

Nervousness is often magnified when we believe that we're being judged by others. Another common type of irrational thinking is when a person consistently feels that others disapprove of them. This person will likely experience feelings of guilt and worry.

Even if there's no proof that others are critically evaluating you, you still believe that others have an aversion to you. You may be a people-pleaser, wanting to be liked and seen as perfect by others. You may also feel inferior to others, thinking that you just don’t measure up.

When you mind-read, you have thoughts like, "I can tell by the flight attendant’s face that there's a serious problem with the plane."

While out in public you might think, “That person can tell I’m nervous. He thinks I’m neurotic."

These inner statements only make your apprehension grow. Our own biases will lead us to assume someone is judging us simply by the look on their face; in reality, we likely have no idea what they are thinking or feeling.

What Causes Irrational Thoughts?

"There are a number of reasons for people to have irrational thoughts," says Daniel B. Block, MD, board-certified psychologist and Verywell Mind Review Board member. "Most often it is because of anxiety."

Most people experience unwanted thoughts, but how you deal with them affects your experience. For instance, if you choose to believe an irrational thought, it can cause more anxiety and worry. You will most likely have another irrational thought following the first one, and so on. The cycle can be endless if you don't manage your reactions to your thoughts.

Irrational thoughts can also be triggered by specific mental health conditions, especially anxiety disorders or psychotic disorders.

Who Experiences Irrational Thoughts?

Anyone can experience irrational thoughts, and most of us do from time to time. This is especially true for people who are prone to worrying, overthinking, and stress. Certain mental health conditions, such as those that cause paranoia or obsessive behavior, can cause irrational thoughts as well.

If you have any of the following mental health conditions, you may be more likely to experience irrational thoughts:

How to Manage

There are many ways to productively cope with irrational thoughts. Depending on what causes your irrational thoughts, there are different treatment types as well such as therapy and medication.

Accept Your Thoughts

In order to change the way you think, you must first recognize your irrational thoughts. When you find yourself having an irrational thought, first label it by saying to yourself or aloud, "This is an irrational thought."

Remember that you aren't a bad person for having these thoughts. You can't control every irrational thought that pops into your head.


Try not to "push" the thoughts out of your head or punish yourself for having them. Try not to argue with the thought or belief, either.

Simply notice the thought and accept that it is present. When you resist the thought, you give it more power. When you tell yourself not to think of something, for instance, you are much more likely to think of it.

It may be difficult, but try to let some time pass. Don't let your irrational thought disrupt what you were doing. Let yourself feel your worry, stress, or anxiety, but try to observe your feelings instead of reacting to them right away.

Reframe Your Thoughts

Try keeping a notebook and a pen with you—throughout the day, jot down every harmful, irrational thought you notice. At the end of the day, you may be surprised by how many times you had an irrational thought.

Now that you have them down on paper, spend some time writing down a more constructive statement. For example, let’s say you wrote down "I should be less of a worrier and get a grip."

Try replacing that negative thought with a statement like, "Some days are better than others, but I know I'm doing my best to overcome anxiety and panic."

Irrational Thought
  • The store employee is looking at me right now because they think I'm sad and pathetic.

  • There is turbulence on this plane. The pilot hasn't said anything yet which probably means we're going to crash.


  • I'm going to have a panic attack in public and people will think I'm crazy.


Reframed Thought
  • The store employee just glanced at me because I entered the store. I can continue shopping here.

  • Turbulence is normal on an airplane. I'll follow the flight attendant's instructions and stay in my seat until it passes.


  • I'll practice some deep breathing until I feel better. If I need to, I can go home early.


The more you become aware of your thought process, the easier it will become to change it. Over time, your views about yourself and the world around you will transform into a more optimistic picture.

Lifestyle Choices

Dr. Block advises, "Developing healthy habits such as exercise, yoga, meditation, and hobbies can help a person gain some distance from irrational thinking and encourage self-reflection."

Yoga and meditation practices have reduced stress in people struggling with anxiety disorders, OCD, and PTSD—several of the conditions linked with irrational and intrusive thinking.

Participants in one study had higher serotonin levels after meditating than they did before meditating. (Serotonin is a hormone that promotes our feelings of well-being and happiness.)

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle—including exercise and a nutritious diet—is also proven to decrease stress. You will be better able to handle irrational thoughts when you are taking care of your mental health in the long term. Even a quick walk can help boost your mood and reduce anxiety.

Therapy

"Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) confronts the distorted thinking," Dr. Block says, "and helps the person develop healthier ways of interpreting events in their lives to help prevent catastrophizing."

CBT can help you address the irrational thoughts you're having. With help from a qualified therapist, you may learn what's underneath these thoughts, such as specific fears and concerns. Sometimes, our thoughts reveal deeply rooted beliefs we hold about ourselves and our world.

For instance, if your irrational thoughts center around death, a therapist may help you uncover what lies beneath the fear. Perhaps you have developed a fixation with death as the result of a traumatic experience.

Or, perhaps a common theme of your irrational thoughts is the fear of being rejected. You might unconsciously believe you are unworthy or undeserving of acceptance.

No matter what your story is, a therapist can help you learn healthy coping mechanisms to interrupt the cycle of irrational thoughts, develop a more positive outlook on life, and improve your self-esteem to challenge negative beliefs.

Medication

If you are coping with a mental health condition, medication might help manage the symptoms—like anxiety or paranoia—that lead to irrational thinking.

Dr. Block notes, "In psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia), antipsychotic medications are typically going to be more effective in controlling the core thought disorder. Medications are also necessary in mania (in bipolar disorder). In substance use disorders, addressing the underlying addiction is necessary."

For anxiety disorders, panic disorder, or specific phobias, your doctor might recommend selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which are antidepressants. Antidepressants can improve anxiety by increasing the amount of serotonin absorbed by the brain.

There are side effects to these medications such as jitteriness, nausea, constipation, tremors, and more. Be sure to tell your doctor about medications you are currently taking and inform them of the side effects of any new medications.

A Word From Verywell

It can feel overwhelming when an irrational thought pops into your head. You might feel like your thoughts take away from your ability to relax and stay present. Remember, you're not alone if you cope with irrational thoughts.

If your irrational thoughts are affecting your everyday life, talk to your doctor. They can refer you to a mental health professional who can address your thoughts and give you healthy suggestions for overcoming them when they arise.

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Additional Reading
  • Bourne, E. J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 4th ed, 2005.
  • Burns, D. D. When Panic Attacks, 2006.
  • Ellis, A. The Myth of Self-esteem: How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life Forever, 2006.