Coping with Unwanted, Negative Thoughts

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  • January 15, 2020
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By Teresa Pitt Green

In cultivating a well life, the struggle with unwanted and negative thoughts is real.

We took a look at 25 articles that offered ways to win that battle and highlight a few of the best ideas and articles to help readers add coping tactics to their current toolbox.

Central Paradox 

Most writers mentioned a central paradox in coping with unwanted thoughts, with three framing the key point most clearly.

Tali Shenfield, PhD, a Canadian psychologist who works with children, highlighted the paradox of fighting off negative thoughts in her article “Advice on Dealing with Unwanted Thoughts” (Hive Health Media, March 21, 2013).  She described it best here: “fighting the thought can actually make it stronger” and reminded readers of “the old adage that you get what you resist.”

Patricia Harteneck, who promotes awareness about mental health care for family issues (such as pregnancy, miscarriage, and child loss), published “Seven Ways to Deal with Negative Thoughts: Learn How to Tap into the Positive and Manage the Negative” (Psychology Today, May 2, 2019). Her list pointed to the same central paradox and how, by learning not to judge the thought we learn not to engage the thought. The thinking is that by judging we focus on thoughts and end up super-charging our attention by attaching sometimes a great deal of feeling. However, when we don’t judge we focus less, depriving thoughts from prime space in our minds – and hearts.

British psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD, wrote “How to Get Rid of Negative Thoughts” as part of a series which he published on PsyBlog.com about rest, relaxation and well-being. His approach to the central paradox is quite the opposite, but targets the same end. Dean suggested that we dive into the paradox, look at it squarely, and focus on every detail until it has been drained of its power. Dean’s idea reads like a challenge to render the negativity so utterly boring that it holds no appeal; the downside is that, with certain personalities and illnesses, this kind of focus fuels the power of its target and doesn’t tire of overthinking.

Same paradox, different approaches. Different people will succeed using different approaches. Coping with unwanted thoughts is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and if practical tactics like these don’t help it’s a good indication you may need professional help.

Basic Ideas

There were a variety of suggestions for keeping negative thoughts from undermining well-being.

Dean, for example, quoted research from other clinicians to describe ways to shift the focus from the negative thought onto other topics. He described ways to consciously shift from a darkly thinking place into a self-affirming state. He encouraged people to try writing about the thought in a journaling process that can make it easier to understand the thoughts, pulling them out of hiding, even looking at their deeper genesis.

Shenfield outlined good practical ways to deal with unwanted thoughts rather than ignoring them until they assert themselves again, quite possibly much more strongly. Shenfield listed mostly direct approaches, e.g., (a) postponing the thought for just a few moments, and eventually for longer intervals, to build some mastery over it; or, (b) scheduling time to repeat the thought aloud multiple times at different intervals to rob some of its power. She field also suggested indirect approaches; e.g., doing things to build self-confidence and, so, alleviate underlying fears and anxieties that drive negative thoughts.

Harteneck offered ideas that involved more agency, e.g., choosing to shift the focus from negative to positive ideas, refraining from judging feelings or having feelings to reduce their staying power, and interrupting the thought to make a list of things for which one is grateful. Her suggestions seemed, to me, to be easier for people who were the least mentally wounded and in a high-functioning phase of life. I would not recommend them to any survivor friend who is struggling with thoughts about (or impulses for) self-harm or despair.

The Eastern writer Sen posted an article entitled “Five Simple Ways to Get Rid of Unwanted Thoughts” (CalmDownMind.com, February 11, 2011, updated June 19, 2019) that approached the topic of coping with unwanted thoughts with a slightly nuanced difference: freedom from unwanted and negative thoughts requires bringing underlying cause to full consciousness. His ideas for doing so had a unique spin, and came closest what happens in healthy therapy when the underlying causes of thoughts and behaviors are gently and slowly unpacked.

Big Picture

There were many different ideas in the many articles about coping with unwanted thoughts, but this selection of articles covers the most common and some of the most unique. Most importantly, in the big picture, there is no one right way to cope with unwanted thoughts.

Not all tactics are created equal. What works for one person will not work for another. Coping is defined by individuals. Gathering ideas from diverse sources is a great way to develop your own toolbox, and nothing helps create an effective toolbox like practice and experience.

It is crucial to understand, too, that unwanted thoughts are not equally manageable. For some people, such thoughts will reflect obsessions or compulsions that do prove impossible to control – without help; e.g., thinking about suicide or self-harm precedes taking steps to follow theough, so when someone is “just” thinking about such acts without acting, it is still an emergency.

Relief from unwanted or negative thinking is sometimes not possible without medical care from experienced mental health care professionals. Certain obsessive-compulsive disorders and a range of other illnesses need to receive similar treatment. Other people may be staggered by such fear or grief or memories that mental health care is crucial.

Anyone with unwanted or negative thoughts that recur still needs a toolbox of tried-and-true approaches for coping. This is true for people struggling with a lighter fare of negative or unwanted thoughts that undermine their ability to function, and it is equally true for anyone in counseling or on medications. At the end of the day, with all the best professional care and personal support from people around us, we survivors are the ones left with the responsibility to manage and (where possible) to overcome the impact of abuse on our lives.

Cognitive-Behavioral Focus

These suggestions and tactics were from a cognitive-behavioral point of view, which focuses on the mind-body continuum as a way to help both mind and body overcome the undermining effect of negative thinking that follows trauma and abuse. In this view there is an appreciation based on fairly new research for how the body and mind interact in the experience of trauma, and in the healing after trauma.

Cognitive-behavioral work has helped many survivors, but that does not mean we have only the dimensions of mind and body which it defines to help us. For example, faith was not mentioned in any articles reviewed. After 2000, few mentioned the spiritual wound or spiritual treasury in coping with unwanted thoughts. Elsewhere in The Healing Voices we have and will continue to examine the spiritual component, which our own experience tells us is crucial in recovery, including coping with unwanted thoughts. And, which our experience as survivors, particularly of clergy as abusers, has a unique and irreplaceable treasury of wisdom, faith, and hope to offer.

For now, readers may find insights for incorporating faith into the cognitive-behavioral approach to recovery in Veronica’s Veil: A Christ-centered Guide to Spiritual Companionship for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, which I co-authored with Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS. It features the 75 topics (e.g., fear, negative thinking, self harm) most common in recovery literature, and describes ways that faith in Jesus Christ can reach the full dimension of harm with the full dimension of grace. (Our boom won the Mother Cabrini award for its role as a mainstay in spiritual recovery and pastoral care.)

Hope

A common theme in every article reviewed is the belief that, with proper care and with personal practice, unwanted and negative thoughts can be overcome and lose the power to keep us from functioning well and from enjoying the blessings of our lives. I hope the ideas in this article help you think of some new ideas for your own recovery.

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