Psychologist Advice on Dealing with Unwanted Thoughts

by Dr. Tali Shenfield, Child Psychologist


We have all had the experience of thoughts intruding into our minds. Often, these thoughts can be quite persistent. If ignored, unwanted negative thoughts can lead to anxiety and depression. At this stage, your only help will be a psychotherapy treatment by a psychologist or psychiatrist.  Unwanted thoughts usually center around some sort of fear. Money worries, work problems and relationship problems are all major sources of unwanted thoughts.

Perhaps the most common way that we all try to handle unwanted thoughts is to simply push them out of our minds. Unfortunately, research has shown that this doesn’t work. Suppressing thoughts only makes them return stronger. So, there is truth in the old adage that you get what you resist. The more we push thoughts away, the more we are thinking about them in order to push them away.

Another common method for handling unwanted thoughts is to go into action, particularly stressful action. The idea is that all that action will drive unwanted thoughts out of our heads. While this may work temporarily, it’s ultimately self-defeating. Stress may be a momentary distraction, but it cannot be kept up for very long. And the unwanted thoughts come back as soon as we go out of action. Often, they come back stronger because we are tired and stressed out.

So is there a way to deal with repeated unwanted thoughts without help from a psychologist? The solution may seem counter-intuitive. The paradox is that fighting the thought actually makes it stronger.

The most successful approach is to postpone an unwanted thought for later. When the thought pops up, acknowledge it and just say “I’ll think about that later” to yourself and move on. Later on, schedule exactly five minutes to focus on this thought. When five minutes is over, switch to activity that is guaranteed to take your mind of this thought e.g. reading a book or watching a movie. While initially it will be hard to avoid unwanted thoughts outside allocated 5 minutes a day, you will develop a habit and at some point you will be entirely in control of your thoughts.

Another approach is to engage in activities that build self-confidence. Sports, taking on a new project or anything that increases and builds a sense of confidence will work. The reason it works is that unwanted thoughts are often related to fears and threats to survival. Increasing confidence lowers the “fear factor” and discharges the emotional force behind the unwanted thought.

Repetition is another good way of getting rid of unwanted thoughts. This strategy requires a person to voluntarily repeat the unwanted thought at specific time intervals. By doing so, the words get detached from their threatening meaning and the thought loses its emotional effect on a person. The person gets a sense of control as they feel in charge of the thought and not the other way around. This exercise should be done while watching your mind in a detached way as if you were observing someone else. Otherwise, repeating the thought may seem like surrender and agreement with the thought. Meditation can also be helpful. It builds a sense of control over the mind and a compassionate attitude towards oneself and others.

Psychologists consider unwanted thoughts as an expression of the mind out of control. That doesn’t mean you are crazy. Everyone has unwanted thoughts and, until recently, the mental health professionals had little understanding of the phenomena. Fortunately, new studies are placing more and more tools in the hands of ordinary people and more knowledge in the hands of professionals. The day may come when a simple training course taught to school children can handle unwanted thoughts.

[box]About the Author: Dr. Tali Shenfield is a Child Psychologist and a Clinical Director of Richmond Hill Psychology Center. She has first-hand experience with patients who went from having occasional unwanted thoughts to severe anxiety and depression.[/box]


Tali Shenfield

Dr. Tali Shenfield is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Richmond Hill Psychology Center. She holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Toronto and is a member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario, Canadian Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, and Canadian Psychological Association. When she has free time from psychological assessments and psychotherapy, Dr. Shenfield enjoys writing articles for her psychology and parenting blog at You are welcome to visit her blog and follow Dr. Tali Shenfield on Twitter at @DrShenfield.

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