It could be about a big mistake you’ve made at work or a break-up. Whatever the case may be, when something bad or upsetting happens, do you try to forget about it by forcefully shooing that thought away? Of course, forgetting and blocking out the thought helps relieve stress. Unfortunately, the human brain is not quite so simple that we can just wipe things off our memory.
“Not Thinking” causes Counterproductive ThoughtsStudies have shown that the harder people try to “forget” or “avoid thinking” about something, the more it sticks to the mind. This makes it more difficult to suppress our thoughts. This is called the paradoxical effect of thought suppression. One could also categorize it as “counterproductive thoughts“.
For example, when people who quit smoking constantly focus on the idea, “don’t think about smoking,” their minds will actually fill with thoughts of smoking. Every visit to a corner store, they’ll be checking the cigarette shelf or unintentionally staring at others who are smoking. In another scenario, when someone asks us to keep a secret, we end up thinking about it all day and night, racked with the temptation of telling a friend. In these ways, counterproductive thoughts can be detrimental to our process of healing and self-improvement. We can fall into a self-loathing trap by thinking about the things we shouldn’t and conclude that we’re weak-willed. However, it all comes down to the mechanism of our thought processing than about will.
How to Better Deal with Counterproductive Thoughts
The more we try not to think, the more we end up thinking. We become overwhelmed by things we don’t want to think about, stressing our hearts away. What can we do to break this negative cycle? Here are a few ways to naturally avoid counterproductive thoughts.
1. Weaken the Need to Forcefully Shut Down
As mentioned, the more we force the mentality of ‘trying not to think,’ the more it lingers in our minds. We need to weaken the idea that we ‘should not think’ about something. To achieve this, we can carefully monitor our thoughts. The conscious choice of “not thinking” implies our effort to avoid a certain thought, yet as a result, ending up with more attention towards the thought. It’s time-consuming and difficult to completely cut off our counterproductive thoughts that cause stress. Try not to impose yourself with the strenuous task of “not thinking”, as this may be counterproductive. In other words, try not to stress about it too much.
One way to reduce stress and clear your mind is through meditation and mindfulness.
2. Analyze Your Thought Process in Detail
When we feel frustrated, we tend to only focus on events that left the strongest impression. In this case, this would be the frustrating incident. Try to look back on your actions before the incident. What were you doing and what was your state of mind? What triggered your frustration? Analyze your experience and sentiment from an objective point of view. What kind of action should you have taken in hindsight? This practice will help organize your thoughts and calm you down. Moreover, this type of thinking is much more helpful compared to counterproductive thoughts.
Repeating this approach helps gradual focus on the positive aspects of the matter, thus allowing our minds to accept. The process of detailed analysis may seem counterproductive, but this actually helps faster for the disperse and release of unpleasant feelings.
3. Introduce Alternative Thinking
It’s not easy to focus on many things at the same time. Instead of thinking what you’d rather avoid, introduce an alternative thought. When negative thoughts start filling your head, shift your focus and attention to something fun and joyful. This should naturally get rid of those negative thoughts. If you can make alternative thinking a habit, you’ll gain the capabilities to subconsciously avoid focus on the matters that stress you out. As opposed to an unwanted, counterproductive thought, voluntary alternative thoughts will likely not cause you any stress.
Cast Your Mind Into Words
An effective way to practice the three steps above is to “disclose” your feelings and thoughts. Many studies show significant positive effects on mental health when experiences, feelings, and incidents are shared. “Disclosure” mentioned here doesn’t necessarily have to be towards others. Our deepest thoughts and feelings can be expressed through writing or speaking out loud alone. A diary that no one can see or self-talking at home is sufficient enough for it to be effective.
Forget That You Want to Forget
When you repeatedly remember an event you want to forget, or when your mind is full of negative thoughts, please don’t force yourself to forget. This causes counterproductive thoughts to fill your mind, and will not help you. Instead, try changing your experience into words and let them out. Facing yourself head-on may actually be the shortcut to getting rid of your negative memories.
Kimura, H. (2003). Effects of thought suppression and effective strategies of mental control. Japanese Psychological Review, 46(4), 584–596. https://doi.org/10.24602/sjpr.46.4_584