Learning to Cope With Unwanted Thoughts Through Proactive Thinking

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Key Takeaways

  • New research suggests that proactive control might be better than reactive control in managing intrusive or unwanted thoughts.
  • Sitting with or thinking about these thoughts could be more effective than changing your focus straight away.
  • Most of us deal with unwanted thoughts from time to time, and they may have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

According to a recent study, we might be dealing with intrusive or unwanted thoughts the wrong way. Intrusive thinking affects people dealing with multiple mental health conditions including depression, OCD, and anxiety.

Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that proactive control is better than reactive control in managing intrusive thoughts. In other words, it might be better, in the long run, to sit with intrusive or unwanted thoughts rather than to change your focus to another thought.

Free Association and Proactive Thinking

As part of the study, researchers gave 80 volunteers 60 word cues on a computer screen. The volunteers then had to write an associated word for each cue. For example, for ‘table’ they might write ‘chair’.

Each of the words was presented to the volunteers five times, in random order. Participants in the control group could reuse the same associated word when a cue word was repeated, while participants in the test group had to think of a different associated word each time. Participants also ranked on a scale of 0 to 10 the extent to which each word reminded them of the cue word.

Hannah Martin, psychotherapist

Reactive thinking is not empowering...we’re trying to mask them with a coping mechanism. Proactive thinking enables us to recognize and change habits, which empowers us.

— Hannah Martin, psychotherapist

Isaac Fradkin, PhD, lead author of the study, explained that the repeated associations are acting as the unwanted thoughts in this case, distracting the volunteer from the goal of thinking of a new association. As researchers thought, it took longer for volunteers to come up with a new associated word.

They discounted the associated words that the participants felt had the strongest associations with the cue words, and focused on the response times for the cues and associations that were judged to be weaker.

They found that, with the test group, weaker associations increased reaction time, while they also gave faster reaction times compared to when the associations were strong—showing that proactive rather than reactive response can be effective.

“Usually, after a person writes ‘chair’ as an association for the first time, it becomes stronger and thus is even more likely to come to mind in the future,” explained Dr. Fradkin, “We found that participants were able to reduce this self-reinforcing effect of thoughts. This type of control can be described as ‘proactive’ because it makes the unwanted thought not as likely to come to mind in the first place.”

Managing Intrusive Thoughts

“When we have a reactive response, such as replacing the thought with a more desirable one, we are simply trying to fool our brain, almost like a sleight of hand trick,” says Hannah Martin, a psychotherapist and founder of Talented Ladies Club, “But what we aren’t doing is interrupting and eliminating the habit.”

She explains that being proactive isn’t about giving the unwanted thought free rein, but “making it conscious, challenging its validity, and whether or not it serves us” so that we choose how we want to feel and think. 

“Reactive thinking is not empowering,” she says, “We aren’t ridding ourselves of our habitual, intrusive thoughts. Instead, we’re trying to mask them with a coping mechanism. Proactive thinking enables us to recognize and change habits, which empowers us.”

Martin describes intrusive thoughts as “mental habits”, with the thoughts sometimes coming from our subconscious, stemming from things we believe about ourselves or how we think we’re perceived by others, or related to fear. 

“If you often have a recurring intrusive thought, or you notice a similar theme, ask yourself what it might be rooted in,” she says, “Does it tie back to how you felt about yourself when you were younger, or things other people may have said to or about you? This can give you a clue to where it may originate, and can take some of the power out of it.

“When you can see it has an origin, and that origin may not be based on a truth, you can stop accepting it as inevitable or a fact, and see it for the illusion it really is,” says Martin.

Kendall Roach, MA, LPC

I often encourage my patients to utilize a little humor to help them stop intrusive thoughts and replace them.

— Kendall Roach, MA, LPC

“I often encourage my patients to utilize a little humor to help them stop intrusive thoughts and replace them,” says Kendall Roach, MA LPC, therapist at Babylon, while Martin supports the idea of challenging intrusive and unwanted thoughts: “If your thoughts make you feel uncomfortable, and you believe there is some truth to them, what positive action can you take to make a change?” she says.

“If there is no truth to them, why are you allowing them to intrude in your day? How would you LIKE to think and feel instead? And what can help you achieve that? What needs to change in how you live your life or how you think to enable you to feel differently?” she continues, “When you have more conscious awareness of the thoughts that come into your mind, you can start to choose whether or not to allow it in.”

Intrusive Thoughts and the Pandemic

The impact of the pandemic on our mental health has been well-documented, and for some people could have prompted an increase in intrusive thoughts. Researchers in Canada spoke of a “COVID Stress Syndrome” developed by some individuals over the last couple of years, and this can involve COVID-related intrusive thoughts among other symptoms, like fear of infection or fear of touching surfaces that could be contaminated.

As Martin puts it, “When we are under any kind of stress we will naturally devolve to any poor coping mechanisms that are unaddressed, which means we are more likely to experience more intrusive thoughts…And like any habit, the more we think it, the stronger and more frequent those thoughts will become.” 

“Many of us were forced to sit in our homes in the quiet without the outside distractions we previously used to utilize to drown out intrusive thoughts, ignore trauma or mental health issues and help us overcome our addictions by replacing them with other things,” adds Roach, “In some situations, it was good because it forced us to address the things we weren't addressing. In other situations, it was bad because it took away the good distractions needed to help us get better.”

Intrusive thoughts can be seriously debilitating, even taking the pandemic out of the equation. They'll never go away entirely, but perhaps we're gradually understanding how to manage them more effectively.

What This Means For You

Intrusive or unwanted thoughts can be around a range of different issues and topics, and can have a real impact on our mental health. Our instinct might be to suppress these thoughts as soon as we get them, but this might be counterproductive. Challenging your intrusive thoughts might feel difficult, but could benefit you in the longer term.

2 Sources
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  1. Fradkin I, Eldar E. If you don’t let it in, you don’t have to get it out: Thought preemption as a method to control unwanted thoughtsPLOS Computational Biology. 2022;18(7). doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010285

  2. Taylor S, Asmundson G. Life in a post-pandemic world: What to expect of anxiety-related conditions and their treatmentJ Anxiety Disord. 2020;72. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102231