Every one of us knows what it’s like to be plagued by an unpleasant or unwanted thought. It could be a nagging self-doubt, a disturbing story from the evening news, the humiliation of being recently rejected by a potential love interest. Try as you might to block it out, the image or feeling pops up over and over again. It makes you miserable, and leaves you feeling very much a virtual prisoner of your own cruel mind…
For a long time, psychologists believed that allowing yourself to go ahead and think about white bears was the only solution – eventually, since your brain wasn’t on the lookout for these thoughts and actively trying to block them anymore, they would fade. But thoughts can be blocked, without rebounding. To do this, there are two things you need to know.
How to Stop Thinking about Problems
1) First, remember that blocking a thought is always a bit difficult, no matter what the thought is. But just because it’s hard, that does not mean that, on some level, you need to think that particular thought. Your brain doesn’t necessarily have a hidden agenda. The real irony is that believing that it does is actually what creates rebound! In other words, you will continue to be haunted by a thought if you give the difficulty you have blocking it out more meaning and importance than it deserves.
2) Second, you need a strategy for handling the thought when it does come. A good if-then plan is just what the doctor ordered for coping with unwanted thoughts and disruptive feelings (see my previous post, Be Careful What You Plan For, for more on planning).
The key is to plan out, in advance what you will do when the thought pops up in your mind. It can be as simple as saying to yourself, “If the thought comes, then I will ignore it.” Some may prefer to replace the unwanted thought or feeling with a more positive one. In one study, tennis players who were plagued by pre-match anxiety and self-doubt conquered these thoughts with the plan “If I doubt myself, then I will remember all the times I’ve won in the past.”