Could There Really Be A Way To Control Unwanted And Intrusive Thoughts?

All of us experience unwanted thoughts at times. Whether we're stuck on that embarrassing thing we did in public yesterday or suddenly worrying about a presentation that's due in two weeks, intrusive thoughts are usually just a normal part of life. But this doesn't mean they're not distressing. So what can we do about them?

Thoughts are just thoughts, and we don't have to give meaning to them or act on them (via Healthline). Common intrusive thoughts can be about germs, self-doubt, aggression, doubts about doing something wrong, religion, or can even be sexual in nature. But while intrusive thoughts aren't necessarily harmful, they can still be concerning, especially if they start to interfere with your daily life.

If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. A 2014 study found that roughly 94% of participants had at least one intrusive thought in the previous three months. You might want to assign meaning to these thoughts or be tempted to try to control or stop them, especially if you're feeling ashamed or want to keep them a secret. But a new study published in Plos Computational Biology shows that trying to suppress unwanted thoughts might make it harder to stop them.

Getting out of the loop of unwanted thoughts

The study explored how people respond to unwanted thoughts (via Medical News Today). They had 80 paid volunteers free-associate a word with a verbal cue, like naming the word "clouds” when they heard the word "sky." There were 60 cue words that were presented five times, so participants would get repeat cues. A control group could associate the same word when they heard the cue again, but a second group was told they needed to think of a different word if they wanted to receive a monetary bonus for each repeated cue word.

Researchers discovered that when participants tried hard to avoid repeating the associated word (therefore focusing on it more), they took much longer to respond. However, once they had rejected the word once, they were much quicker to think of a new word in subsequent rounds, and were less likely to get stuck in a repetitive loop of the same association. This suggests that making a person think about something else helps to create entirely new associations.

Dr. Isaac Fradkin, lead author of the study, suggested that when unwanted thoughts come to mind, it may be more effective to just "let them be" without giving them too much of our brain power. He also said that the study shows that our brains have the natural ability to not give too much emphasis to intrusive thoughts, by simply recognizing that they're undesirable or incompatible with our goals. However, Fradkin suggests more research needs to be done to understand how best to implement these behaviors successfully.