We’re bombarded by thousands of thoughts each day. Most of them are neutral and tend to fade in the background. Others are positive thoughts that we welcome with open arms. However, some of our thoughts are negative and repetitive. These are unwanted thoughts; thoughts that we’d rather not think about. These unwanted thoughts can cause us to feel overwhelmed and burned out. Imagine if we could “suppress” these unwanted thoughts and lessen our emotional stress…
What are Unwanted Thoughts?
Unwanted thoughts are spontaneous thoughts that aren’t driven by you. These can include thoughts about events that have happened in your past or might refer to future events. They can also be thoughts unlikely to happen, such as aliens taking over the world.
On average, research shows that we think 4,000 individual thoughts each day, and about a third of these thoughts occur out of nowhere. These thoughts are a result of the subconscious mind expressing itself consciously. Occasionally, negative cues have an uncanny way of bringing up unwanted thoughts. Furthermore, negative emotions like anxiety can lead to unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are directed at threats, both real and perceived.
Everyone has unwanted thoughts, it’s part of the human experience. So, you can breathe a sigh of relief. However, it’s also important to note unwanted thoughts are more common with any type of anxiety disorder, in particular obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unwanted thoughts reported by the general popular are actually similar in content and form to those with anxiety disorders. However, unwanted thoughts experienced by individuals with anxiety disorders tend to be more frequent, intense, and crippling than those of the general population.
The Paradox of Thought Suppression
It’s quite natural to want to suppress unwanted thoughts. However, doing this can backfire.
That’s because several studies have shown the more you try not to think of something, the more you end up thinking about it. This occurs because the brain doesn’t want you to forget something. As a result, the very act of trying to forget an unwanted thought makes the unwanted thought stay top of mind.
About 40 years ago, Daniel Wagner’s research proved this very point. He led a series of experiments where he told participants not to think of a white bear – but if the thought of a white bear came up, to ring a bell. He found that the harder participants tried not to think of a white bear, the greater the frequency of the bell ringing. That’s because the thought of a white bear popped up more frequently.
So instead of trying to suppress unwanted thoughts by trying to avoid them, it makes more sense to take a mindfulness approach like mindful framing. The purpose of mindful framing, a mindfulness practice is not to meditate, to try to empty your mind and suppress or observe unwanted thoughts. It’s about getting into a flow, a defined sequence of thoughts that creates a frame of mind that guide your thinking.
Instead of trying to run away from unwanted thoughts, you frame them in your mind. You observe and organize the unwanted thoughts in your mind without any judgment. You then modulate your wanted and unwanted thoughts using a visualization practice including ‘the anxiety bus.’
This visualization practice enables you to release the stronghold that circular, repetitive unwanted thoughts have on your mind, resulting in the dampening of the thoughts.
How Mindful Framing Works
Mindful framing is a visualization practice. It’s all about creating images in your mind of how you want to frame your thinking. Your brain actually can’t decipher the difference between real action and mental action. When you visualize something happening, you engage the same neural circuits as if you were actually experiencing it.
To optimize the visualization process, it’s essential that what you imagine is as real as possible in order to engage all your senses. You want to visualize what you can hear, see, smell, and even taste.
An example, if your unwanted thought is that you’ll fail an exam, try and focus on how the exam hall looks like, how your desk smells like, how your pen will feel in your hands, the rustle of the paper in your ears, etc. The more realistic your visualization, the better prepared you will be. And focus on a positive outcome: passing the exam with flying colors.
You also need to be consistent in your visualization practice. You can’t just practice visualizing once and expect your unwanted thoughts to dissipate. You need to work your mind often, just like a muscle. Find a time and commit to your visualization practice regularly.
How Maximum Flow Works
Aside from focus and regularity, there’s another element that will supercharge visualization in mindful framing: maximum flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as “The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” When you’re in a state of flow, everything is seamless, and you feel like you’re “in the zone.”
To get into a state of flow, you need to minimize distraction. This can include, for instance, having a dedicated study space as you’re preparing for your exam, and putting the notifications on your phone on silent.
You also want to eradicate multi-tasking. That’s because flow depends on one being laser-focused on one task. Contrary to popular wisdom, our brains aren’t designed to multitask. Actually, when we multitask, we encounter cognitive switching penalty. This means there is a lag time that our brains require when we switch from one task to another.
It’s also helpful to engage in a ritual. This could include preparing yourself a warm cup of tea. By having a routine, you’re preparing your brain to gear up for your visualization practice and get in the flow.
Having healthy routines also maximizes flow. When you’ve had a good night’s sleep, your concentration is at its peak. To ensure you get a good night’s sleep, create a relaxing and soothing sleep environment/bedtime routine.
Life can be challenging, triggering unwanted thoughts that are negative and repetitive. However, by practicing mindful framing and going with the flow, you can gain dominance over those unwanted thoughts.