A psychologist's reflections on mental health studies for inspiration and hope
Getting Thoughts is Different from Thinking
Getting Thoughts is Different from Thinking

Getting Thoughts is Different from Thinking

This article is about how your metacognitive beliefs control your thinking. Let me show you this example: How many thoughts have you had today? And how many of those thoughts did you deal with? I mean deal with in terms of analyzing, planning, worrying or ruminating?

Now, the topic of this article is about thoughts, but try to consider this case as well “getting impulses is different from responding on those impulses”. Whether it is a thought or an impulse that pop up in the mind, we behave or respond in different ways as human beings, and the reasons for this have been well-established in psychological research (Capobianco and Nordahl, 2021).

Our response depends on our metacognitive belief system, which we are often unaware of, as it governs our thinking at a higher level cognitive state.

Is it possible not to respond? (uncontrollability) – e.g. If worry is uncontrollable, I don’t have any other option than to worry

Is it helpful not to respond? (usefulness) – e.g. If worry makes me more prepared, I will choose to engage in it to perform better

is it safe not to respond? (danger) – e.g. If worry keeps me safe, I will choose to engage in it

Metacognition is defined as thinking about thinking. In metacognitive therapy, we work with challenging metacognitive beliefs. Challenging metacognitive beliefs (beliefs about thinking) is different from challenging thoughts (content).

You might want to read my previous articles about metacognitive therapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety, and how well it works “Think Less to Overcome Depression” and “Thinking Too Much About the Future?“.

From a metacognitive perspective, I might ask you, in relation to self-critical thoughts: Can you choose not to analyze that thought and just leave it alone for now? Could you evaluate yourself later? How much time do you want to spend on that thought? Would it help you to spend less time on that thought? How much do you believe that you control that thinking?

So, as you can see, I would challenge your beliefs about your thinking (specifically, the uncontrollability and the usefulness) instead of the content itself.

The aim of doing this would be to rediscover control over the thinking style, and not control over the thousands of thoughts that we have each day. Consider this; is it the thoughts or the thinking that maintain emotional states? For example, what happens to thoughts that you leave alone? Negative or unwanted thoughts might come and go as clouds in the sky – like any other thoughts – depending on how we respond to them.

So, working with metacognitive beliefs is like going into the machinery behind all the thinking. What you believe about your thinking determines what your thinking looks like. The first step in changing metacognitive beliefs is to examine those beliefs and begin separating the thinking from the thought itself. Am I dealing with the thought now or leaving it alone? Can I choose to postpone this worry until I get home?

Consider this: Thinking has no stopsignal. It is always possible to think more about things. But would it be helpful not to engage in too much thinking?

A Norwegian study from 2022 found that “ruminating about ruminating can reinforce depression“, and another study found that co-rumination (defined as excessively discussing personal problems within a relationship) may lead to more depressive and anxious symptoms in young people (Rose, Carlson, Waller, 2007). Finally, I want to mention another Norwegian study, “Metacognitions and brooding predict depressive symptoms in a community adolescent sample” (Pedersen et al., 2022).

Many people seek help when the thinking has gotten too many negative effects in the form of too much time and energy spent on thinking, which correlates with emotional disorders or difficulties performing in various situations personally as well as professionally.

I hope that you realize how getting thoughts is different from thinking and how that could possibly help you. Thoughts can trigger our thinking but they are separate from it, in the same way as feelings are separate from actions. That said, we often tend to mix the two, but it can be helpful not to.

I hope this article inspired you somehow on your metacognitive way through life.

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