Ever had a nagging thought that won’t go away? Lost sleep because your mind won’t give you a rest?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone!
We asked 19 experts “How to stop thinking about something?”
Learn from their insights below.
Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC
Therapist | Blogger | Podcaster | Owner, Progression Counseling
When you have a hard time turning off our thinking mind it’s usually because you’re worrying over something.
Read related article: The Best Books about The Brain and Mind
Maybe you have a huge to-do list, or maybe you said something you regret or made a mistake at work or a maybe it’s a combination of things.
When those worries feel overwhelming your brain reacts the way it did way back in the day. It thinks there’s a threat.
Your brain and body think they need to fight or flee from the potential danger (as if there’s a lion or tiger attacking you). And once you’re in that place it’s hard to stop the worrying and over-thinking.
Here are some tips that can help:
Get outside and move
Walk your dog, or walk yourself if you don’t have a dog. Research shows that being in nature, and movement can soothe your nervous system, and when your nervous system calms down it’s easier to place your focus someplace other than your worries.
Sometimes the over-thinking gets generated or fueled by our self-criticism.
When you blame and shame yourself for your actions or decisions you feel worse and worry more. Practicing kindness and compassion for self can break that negative loop and get you out of your head.
When you practice self-compassion instead of being critical about your worries and thoughts you consider what you might say to support a friend who’s struggling. Then try offering those same words of support to yourself.
When you notice that you’re stuck in your thoughts instead of telling yourself to stop worrying try just noticing that that’s where you are and bring your attention to the things you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
Each time you notice that you’re stuck in your thoughts and you bring your awareness back to your five senses you’re being mindful!
Brooke Sprowl, LCSW
Founder, CEO, and Clinical Director, My LA Therapy
Use a paradoxical intervention called “prescribing the symptom”
The more you try to stop thinking about something, typically, the more it rears its head and torments you. So the best way to stop thinking about something is by using a paradoxical intervention called “prescribing the symptom.”
Try to designate time every day in which you are required to think about the thing you want to stop thinking about.
Quite often, this can alleviate the problem because trying to stop yourself from thinking about something creates anxiety, which can fuel the obsessive thinking.
Any time you’re dealing with anxiety, the temptation is to avoid the anxiety-provoking stimulus. But the invitation of anxiety is actually to face the source of your anxiety.
If avoidance fuels anxiety, exposure is the antidote to anxiety.
Christi Garner, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
There are many things that trigger us to have obsessive and repetitive thoughts, they can be about positive or negative experiences, people, future or past-oriented.
Our thoughts lead to feelings and then actions – so addressing our thought patterns are imperative to feeling good.
First, ask yourself if the thought is making you feel good or bad. We want to foster thinking that brings us peace, calmness and a sense of hope.
If your thoughts are making you feel bad, you can ask yourself if this thought is absolutely true- is it about a past event where you made a mistake or a future event you’re nervous about?
If it’s past or future- ask if it’s helpful. If you decide these thoughts are not helpful or giving you a sense of hope, you can literally remind yourself to STOP thinking and then turn your thoughts toward something you have control over.
Imagine something going well in your future, think of something or someone that brings you joy, puts a smile on your face or makes you feel calm.
When we ruminate on the negative things in our lives we bring more stress to ourselves, our work and our families. Focusing on things we are grateful for brings us more in line with what we want in life, and what we want to feel. What you focus on expands.
Karen Whitehead, MS, LCSW, CCH
Psychotherapist | Clinical Hypnotherapist | Owner, Karen Whitehead Counseling
Use a distraction
Maybe it’s a past situation that didn’t go as planned, a concern about yourself or a family member, such as will cancer come back, a worry about an upcoming event, a difficult relationship, or just a persistent thought that gets in the way of enjoying life.
One option that is often suggested to get rid of negative thoughts is to use a distraction.
This means trying to think about or engage in doing something else to get your mind off the thought. Unfortunately, this often backfires.
It sends the message that the thought is not important or worthy of attention. The more we push away an unwanted or unpleasant thought, the bigger, stronger and more intense it gets.
I use the image of a shark in the ocean. The more we might try to run away from or fight with a shark, the more likely it chases us, fights with us and doesn’t end well.
Instead, either being a curious observer of our thoughts or gently turning toward our thoughts instead of away, lessens the intensity and frequency of them.
To do this, notice your thoughts and try to label the emotion that arises, such as fear or sadness. Once you recognize what the emotion is, then you can decide what you need to tend to that emotion.
It’s easier to pay attention to and address an emotion in a way that makes you feel better. In doing this, you are being mindfully self-compassionate. You are showing yourself that your thoughts and emotions are important and matter so they don’t have to scream at you 24/7.
Jennifer L. Silvershein, LCSW
Psychotherapist | Owner, Manhattan Wellness Associates
Begin with awareness
Sometimes when we want to not think about something it becomes the only thing we can think about! A helpful way to begin adjusting your thought process is, to begin with, awareness. Rather than thinking about how much you don’t want to think about a topic, begin to count the amount of times the thought comes up.
This mindfulness/awareness will begin to strip away the impact or importance of the topic and will begin to make it more of a numbers game.
Once you’re able to realize how often it is coming up I’d recommend identifying something you’d rather be thinking about and every time the original thought comes up (the one you don’t want to think about) consciously tell yourself ‘I’m going to begin thinking about (something else) instead.’
The more you exercise implementing a replacement thought the quickly it will become automatic and the original thought will begin to wash away.
Another option is to recognize why the original thought is so consuming and how it is serving you to think about it.
Are you using the remembering as a form of punishment, reminder or something else?
If we’re able to begin identifying the purpose of the thought and realizing it is not serving us typically we’re able to dismiss the idea quicker.
Registered Psychotherapist, Empathic Counselling Centre
Try this – for the next 10 seconds, don’t think about a pink elephant. What’s happening? You’re thinking about a pink elephant, aren’t you?
It’s not easy to stop thinking about something because our brain is not wired to do so.
In very simplistic terms, our brain uses two mental processes when it comes to performing a task. One process is responsible for completing the task and the other is responsible for making sure we stay on track.
So, if you’re given the task “don’t think about a pink elephant”, the first process says, “ok I’m not going to think about a pink elephant. Done.” but then, the second process follows up and asks, “hey brain, are we doing that thing that we’re supposed to do?”
You are then forced to acknowledge what the task was and boom, you’re thinking about the pink elephant again.
In order to combat this, you’re encouraged to practice mindfulness.
That is, recognize that you are having this particular thought, and rather than shushing it away from your consciousness, let it be.
Let it linger for some time, acknowledge to yourself that it is lingering and it will eventually remove itself. Go ahead and think about the pink elephant. Pay lots of attention to it.
The more you acknowledge it, even though you know you don’t want to, it loses its power over you. The magnitude of this pink elephant eventually disappears.
This same technique can be used after a breakup. Rather than avoiding thinking about your ex-partner or the associated painful memories, acknowledge them.
Show your emotions that you’re not afraid. Over time, you’ll notice that the magnitude of these emotions eventually dies down and you can go back to your regular day to day functioning.
GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Psychpoint
Plan 15 minutes per day dedicated to thinking about the upsetting thoughts
Often people tend to say “distract yourself with something fun” when struggling to stop thinking about something, and sometimes it does work, but it can also lead to avoidance tendencies, that are actually detrimental to the process of stopping thoughts about something.
When we are thinking about something and cannot stop, it means that it is bothering us, which means we haven’t yet come to terms or accepted it.
Instead of distracting yourself with work or something fun, plan 15 minutes per day dedicated to thinking about the upsetting thoughts.
During these 15 minutes give your troubles the time and nurturing they need.
Work through it with your own process (talking to a mental health professional or journaling will significantly help this process) and work toward acceptance, not pushing the thoughts away.
Campaign Manager, Monk Manual
Don’t think about your left foot… Pretty hard to stop thinking about your left foot now, isn’t it?
Why is it so hard for us to ignore our left foot, yet athletes, military personnel, and top performers can completely ignore broken bones to complete their mission?
Just like any other muscle, your brain needs to be exercised every day.
Top performers know that they need to stop thinking about the pain, distractions, and obstacles in their way. They train their brains each day, so they can get in the zone and focus on goals and solutions.
If you want to forget about your left foot (or whatever else you’re trying to stop thinking about), replace the thoughts with something bigger and better.
Focus on your goals, solutions, and your dreams. Here are 4 practical tips for improving focus:
Identify and remove distractions from your surroundings
This includes things like clutter, TVs that are turned on, social media, etc.
Do one thing at a time
Discipline yourself to focus on just one job at a time, and you’ll burn better neural paths in your brain. The better you get at focusing on one job at a time, the easier it will be to push unwanted thoughts out of your mind.
Practice meditating for twenty minutes each day
During this time, clear unneeded thoughts and simply focus on the deep breaths passing in and out of your body.
Train your willpower
Just like a muscle, your willpower needs to be exercised every day.
Challenge yourself by incorporating or culling one new habit each month. Track your progress. Practice self-discipline and stick to your habit for 30 days. You’ll be shocked how quickly it becomes a natural part of your day.
In a world filled with distraction, focus is our biggest asset, so take the time to cultivate the ability to focus. And remember the goal is progress, not perfection, so be kind to yourself.
Professional Organizer | Owner, All Right Moves™
Writing things down is always a great way to get them out of your head
For years I had trouble sleeping because I would lie awake and ruminate about…everything: things I needed to get done, what I didn’t get done, what appointments I needed to make, ideas I had for new projects, upcoming holiday plans, worrying about the kids in school, etc.
The best solution I came up with was to keep a notepad and pen in my nightstand. When I found myself awake and ruminating, I would grab it (even in the dark) and list whatever came into my mind.
As soon as I wrote down everything on my mind, I was able to go right to sleep. Capturing my thoughts on paper reassured me that they would not be forgotten and I didn’t need to keep thinking about them.
Thoughts that linger in the mind can linger for many reasons: concern/worry, innovative/creative ideas, responsibilities/to-do’s, regrets….etc.
Writing things down is always a great way to get them out of your head while still making sure the ideas are not being lost.
This, however, is a small part of the bigger answer which is to take action.
Writing is ONE action that can be taken. Working as a professional organizer has taught me that people can obsess and stress when they are feeling out of control – of their own personal lives, environments, agendas.
Taking action, even if the action is not related to the thing you are ruminating about, – like organizing your desk, kitchen, closet, catching up on bills or phone calls – will give you a feeling of control.
This can help to manage the one-track thinking and put the thought into the perspective of being one thing among the rest – shrinking it to a more manageable size.
Musician | Author
Of course, it’s like the old game: “Try not to think about a pink elephant.”
Whenever you make an effort to do something, the effort can prevent the intent. Focusing on the thing you don’t want to think about is the surest way to be stuck with it.
The quickest way out is to become so occupied with something else that you no longer have room in your head for the thing you want to stop thinking about.
A little like finding a new crush to banish the old crush, or a new pain to make you forget the old pain. Unfortunately, very often in these situations, the thing you want to stop thinking about is too potent and nothing can compete.
In that case, it’s vital to understand exactly what it is you’re thinking about.
Many times it’s only the surface aspects of the thing that occupy you, and the reason it won’t go away is that your mind is yearning to explore the entire issue.
You may be afraid to explore it for any number of reasons, and the conflict is what’s keeping the thing stuck in your head.
So ask yourself why you’re afraid or unwilling to think more about this subject. If you can get past that fear or unwillingness, go into it whole hog…write it out, take it apart, analyze it, even for just five minutes.
Tired? You can always take a break from this analysis. Which is what you wanted to do in the first place!
To summarize, persistent, intrusive thoughts are often just the surface of a more complicated issue that you must resolve to move forward.
If distraction does not work, immersion towards a deeper understanding may help. Certainly doing nothing will not help.
Related: How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts
Blogger, This Online World
Dive full speed into a passion project
It doesn’t matter if it’s relationship issues, financial worries, or that embarrassing and haunting memory that just refuses to go away: having unpleasant thoughts on your mind can be exhausting.
As we all know, it can sometimes be immensely difficult to willfully stop thinking about a specific event or concern. Most often, trying to get one’s mind off of a topic only pushes that same topic to the surface.
Whenever I have a nagging thought or worry I need to get rid of, my tried and true tactic is to divert all of my energy and attention into a project or hobby I am passionate about.
From going on a quick run around the neighborhood to working on website development (nerdy, I know), it doesn’t matter as long as the new task at hand can capture your complete attention.
This is a great method to have in one’s arsenal because it is immensely productive. You would be amazed at how much work you can accomplish or how quickly you can forget a nasty thought when you throw yourself into your work or hobby.
Additionally, this method is also effective because oftentimes, you will be left with a feeling of deep satisfaction once you have finished working that completely outshines any negativity.
Author, | Podcaster | International Speaker
The mind can run us, or we can learn to run our mind.
Like developing and strengthening our physical body with routine exercise, we can do the following to exercise our mind for results we want.
Here’s what I’ve learned to do over the decades:
#1 I will always first ask myself the key question: Am I seeing myself as a victim or as a beneficiary in this situation?
The more I “choose” to see myself as a beneficiary in whatever supposed negative/ daunting/draining / etc. situation or thought, the more my mind becomes free to “see” and anticipate the possibilities of things turning around; of working together for good; of previously unimagined positive outcomes.
The more I’ve done this, the more “uplift” and hope I feel and, over time, I have literally seen the outcomes surprise me in very beneficial ways!
#2 I change my focus.
When the mind is constantly worrying or obsessing over one thing, it’s necessary to take active – and often repeated – steps to change the focus to something else.
For one, I will ask myself, “What positive thing can I focus on now that I DO have, rather than something I don’t?“
Other things I’ll do is change my location (step out of the room, the house, the “same” atmosphere where the thought permeates and dominates); engage in a different activity (like going out for a walk, gardening, painting, getting into the fresh air for a bike ride, or even doing some mundane but therapeutic chore like washing dishes or the floor!); and, finally, I BREATHE IN new air.
It’s also an active move, but the breathing in of air — and even holding it in big — creates a new space for mental fresh air!
Whatever you do, remember that your mind is your mind. Only you can decide to be its master.
Unless you decide to tame it and make it work for you, it will remain in default mode from lack of discipline!
Miguel A. Suro
Lawyer |Personal Finance and Lifestyle blogger, The Rich Miser
My best tip to stop thinking about something is to do something that requires your full attention.
I like activities that force you to focus on them, such as:
- Riding a bike.
- Playing a captivating video game.
To progress in any of these activities, you need to devote your full conscious attention to them.
You don’t want to hit a tree when skiing, fall off your bike, or lose in your video game. Therefore, you’ll be forced to stop thinking about other things.
Creator, Mindful Searching
The approach to “stop” these thoughts is key.
If you try to stop thinking about purple frogs, naturally, you’ll start thinking about purple frogs. It’s more efficient to let the thoughts come in, acknowledge them, and let them pass.
If it’s a negative or anxiety-producing thought, provide a thoughtful explanation or answer to the “what if” type questions.
You can’t control your unconscious mind but you can control your conscious mind. For example, you have the thought, “I’ve never done this before, I’m going to screw it up.”
Quiet this thought with a response such as “I haven’t don’t this before, but all my skills and training got me this new opportunity at work. I’ll use all the information I have and make the best decisions possible. I can always learn more as I go.”
You’ll likely have to repeat this exercise a few times before the unwanted thoughts melt away.
With this technique, you’re rewiring your brain to accept the upcoming thought(s). This approach is commonly recommended for those struggling with anxiety and panic disorders.
Health & Wellness Expert, Maple Holistics
As humans, we tend to fixate on people or things. It’s something we can’t really control.
The best way to stop thinking about an unwanted thought is to start thinking about something better and more welcoming in its place. If you feel guilty about something, but you know you shouldn’t, you can tell yourself to think of a positive aspect of that same situation.
Over time, the feeling of guilt will fade away and all you’ll think of are the positives. You can also keep yourself busy, which will prevent you from having an opportunity to think of whatever you’re trying to block out.
Sometimes reflection is a good thing, but if the thought is causing you pain, it’s a good idea to get it off your mind as soon as possible.
For me, this is the simplest and most helpful way to stop thinking about something. If you resist a feeling (or a thought), it will persist.
It is very important to process whatever it is you are feeling and thinking, in order to let it pass.
Allow yourself to fully feel and express whatever it is you’re thinking about. Journal, write a song, scream, do a painting, talk out loud. Anything to get it OUT. You will continue to think about things if you keep them inside your body.
Find a means of expression, use it to get the thoughts out of your head, take a breath, and you will find that your mind is much clearer.
It is very hard to find clarify when your thoughts live only in your mind. You can run something over and over in your head and seemingly never get anywhere; the thought cycle never ends.
Solutions often arise when we express our thoughts through writing or vocalizing. Writing, singing or talking aloud might help you to find the answer you’ve been looking for.
Personally, if something is on my mind, I will improvise singing on the topic or journal. Almost always, I am left with multiple solutions to the problem, a deeper understanding of what was really going on, and a weight lifted from my body as the heavy emotion or thoughts no longer live inside me.
Having given the thoughts their turn to speak, listening to them, talking with them, understanding them, answers become apparent, and then I can move forward with action.
I am no longer stuck in the cycle, and the thoughts, having been heard and thought out properly, begin to fade.
CEO and Co-founder, GloriaFood
The best way to stop thinking about something: my answer is actually two-folded: if you’re thinking about a task, then start working on it and make sure you finish it too.
It’s like playing a song in your head on repeat. You won’t be able to stop thinking about it until you mentally sing the entire song.
If you’re thinking about people, experiences or something else, then make sure you focus on keeping yourself busy with a tight deadline.
It’s like switching one focus for another. And it works, because it forces you to become overly-productive.
Kerry Alison Wekelo
Coach | Yoga instructor | Author
As a busy single mom and a corporate executive, my mind tends to constantly swirl. To ensure I stay grounded and focused on the tasks at hand and not spin about one aspect, I use my 3 P Method of pausing to pivot to a positive.
I used to spend too much time focused on the negative and now I quickly pivot to a positive possibility or lesson learned.
Yoga teacher | Writer, You Choose the Way
Train your mind to be conscious of the thoughts that it has
The best way to stop thinking about something is to train your mind to be conscious of the thoughts that it has. By having a regular meditation or mindfulness practice, you can get your mind used to recognizing when it’s having negative or unbeneficial thoughts and natural bring your attention back to the present moment.
Developing the habit of bringing your awareness continuously back to the present moment helps you be more in control of the thoughts that you have and their impact on you.
More instantaneous solutions include getting outside and being active or throwing your attention into an artistic hobby that you love, like painting, playing music or dancing.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if I can’t shake a negative thought?
If a negative thought keeps reoccurring, it may be a sign that you need to process it further. Try the following:
• Challenge the thought: Ask yourself if the thought is really true and if there’s evidence to support it.
• Reframe the thought: Try to look at the situation in a more positive light.
• Practice self-compassion: Be kind and understanding to yourself. Remind yourself that everyone has negative thoughts from time to time.
Is it normal to have negative thoughts from time to time?
Yes, it’s completely normal to have negative thoughts from time to time. It’s a normal part of the human experience to have negative, stressful, or unpleasant thoughts. Everyone has moments of self-doubt, worry, or sadness, and it’s important to remember that these feelings are a normal part of life and not a permanent state.
However, if they’re interfering with your daily life and causing distress, it might be a sign of a mental health condition. If you’re struggling with repetitive thoughts, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional.
How can I stay positive even when negative thoughts are present?
Staying positive when negative thoughts are present can be a challenge, but there are some techniques you can try:
• Practice positive self-talk: Replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations. Remind yourself of your strengths, accomplishments, and things you’re grateful for.
• Engage in activities that bring joy: Do things that you love and that bring you happiness, like spending time with loved ones, reading a book, or going for a walk.
• Surround yourself with positivity: Surround yourself with positive people and activities, and limit your exposure to negative news and social media.
• Volunteer or help others: This can give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment and can help shift your focus from negative thoughts to positive ones.
What are some common causes of negative thoughts?
Negative thoughts can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
• Life experiences: Traumatic events, loss, and other life challenges can lead to negative thought patterns.
• Mental health conditions: Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can cause negative thoughts and feelings.
• Negative self-talk: Engaging in repetitive negative self-talk can lead to negative thoughts and feelings.
• Substance abuse: Substance abuse can alter brain chemistry and lead to negative thoughts.
• Physical health issues: Chronic pain, illness, and other physical health problems can contribute to negative thoughts and feelings.
• Hormonal changes: Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during menopause or PMS, can trigger negative thoughts.
• Lack of sleep: Sleep deprivation can lead to increased feelings of stress and negative thoughts.
• Social isolation: Loneliness and isolation can contribute to negative thoughts and feelings.
Can medication help with negative thoughts?
In some cases, medication can be helpful in managing negative thoughts. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help reduce the intensity and frequency of negative thoughts.
However, medication should only be used under the guidance of a mental health professional, and it’s important to understand that medication is only one part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
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