One 1996 study by Dr. Eric Klinger asked volunteers to talk about what goes through their minds. They found that the average participant had about 500 unintentional thoughts each day, and about 30% were socially unacceptable or downright shocking.
You can learn to feel more at ease even when your mind takes a little dark turn. Discover how meditation and other self-help techniques can tame intrusive thoughts.
Meditating to Tame Intrusive Thoughts:
1. Let go of judgements. Most of your discomfort probably comes from resisting what’s on your mind rather than from the thought itself. With regular practice, mindfulness meditation can train you to observe and accept your thoughts.
2. Focus on your breath. Paying attention to your breath keeps you in the present moment. You learn to distinguish between you and your passing thoughts.
3. Slow down. Most intrusive thoughts last 14 seconds or less. Patiently waiting them out may make them pass even quicker.
Other DIY Methods for Taming Intrusive Thoughts:
1. Avoid suppression. Trying to avoid intrusive thoughts usually backfires. Remember the famous Harvard experiment that asked subjects to stop thinking about polar bears and wound up making it difficult to think about anything else.
2. Change your expectations. Dreading unwelcome thoughts also reinforces them. Try to view them as a routine part of daily life.
3. Change the script. If you tend to replay unpleasant events, give yourself something more pleasant and productive to think about. Forget about office politics and focus on what to eat for dinner.
4. Stay on task. Do you avoid certain activities because they trigger thoughts you find it difficult to manage? You may be able to free yourself from such limitations by planning more constructive approaches. Develop more compassion for someone you disagree with instead of shutting them out.
5. Try to disengage. Depending on your personality and preferences, you may want to minimize your involvement with involuntary thoughts. Consider them irrelevant and carry on with what you’re doing.
6. Think it through. On the other hand, you may feel more relief when you face things head on. Write your thoughts down or talk them over with someone you trust if you find that helpful and not distressing.
7. Rest and relax. It’s natural for your mind to wander, but you may feel like it’s getting too much exercise. In addition to meditation, use relaxation methods like listening to soft music and taking a long walk.
Professional Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts:
1. See your doctor. While involuntary thoughts usually have no significant effects, they may be more troubling for you. That’s especially true if you have certain conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, or depression. Let your physician know about any symptoms that are disrupting your life.
2. Talk with a therapist. Cognitive behavior and other talk therapies can be highly effective for dealing with intrusive thoughts. Ask your doctor for a referral or consult a directory such as the American Psychological Association’s Locator Service.
3. Take medication. In some cases, your doctor may also recommend medications to manage symptoms on a temporary or longer-term basis. These drugs may include antidepressants such as Anafranil or Prozac.
Intrusive thoughts will probably continue to pop into your head, but you can live more comfortably with them through meditation and other simple techniques. If you need more help, talk with your doctor to find the treatment and relief you need. Klinger, E. (1996). The contents of thoughts: Interference as the downside of adaptive normal mechanisms in thought flow. In I. G. Sarason, G. R. Pierce, & B. R. Sarason (Eds.), The LEA series in personality and clinical psychology. Cognitive interference: Theories, methods, and findings (pp. 3-23). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.  Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5-13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52