As a metacognitive therapist, I meet people who try to control their thoughts and feelings in various, sometimes creative, ways. People who try to get rid of certain thoughts, people who try to suppress their anxious feelings, people who try to get piece of mind by seeking answers that can bring their minds to peace.
As a therapist, I am preoccupied with all aspects of overthinking, such as the process of rumination and worry. I also pay attention to different thought control strategies. This post explores the idea of thought control and how it can backfire in a self-reinforcing manner.
I tend to believe that most people want to have some piece of mind, and this is actually the tricky part. The process of seeking answers seems to be an interesting paradox as thinking in itself can raise more questions so that the thinking process results in a never-ending and self-reinforcing circle.
When do we know when we have thought enough about something? What is the stop signal for a worry process? In regard to the mental world, there is no clear-cut stop signal – we just leave the thoughts alone at some point or choose to engage in a different kind of activity.
In this sense, the mental world is very different from the physical world, as the physical world provides external and obvious stop signals. For example, I know when to stop clicking a light switch when I see that the light turns on. Since there is no visible light that turns on inside the mind, I can either keep thinking or I can do something else.
Let me illustrate how thinking can be self-reinforcing with two examples. In the first example, we see depressive content, and in the second example, we see more anxious content.
- Why am I feeling this way? Why do I think in this way? What is wrong with me since I think like this? Is my brain broken? Will I ever get better?
- What if that happens, what will I do then? What if that is not enough – what will I do then? Am I going to cope with that situation if things go wrong? What if I feel so bad that I have to leave and where can I go then? What do people think if I leave?
In both examples, we get the impression that we need to answer those questions to achieve some piece of mind. But, what if the thinking process in itself prevents a person to get better? What if the need for answers increases proportionally with the amount of questions that we ask ourselves?
On the surface, it may seem like a good solution to control thoughts in terms of suppressing thoughts, distracting oneself from thoughts, replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts, or checking different things to remove doubt. Thought control strategies can provide a brief effect.
However, thought control strategies can really backfire. What if the thoughts keep coming even when I try to control them? What if my checking actually makes me more anxious in the long run? What if my search for answers produce even more questions?
Thinking more is not always better and it can even be detrimental to mental health (read my other post about it, Think Less to Overcome Depression, New Treatment Paradigm Suggests).
My goal here is to point out how thought control strategies can backfire and turn into separate problems with overthinking, such as extensive worry, rumination, or even different kind of compulsions.
This post is number 6 of the series “Inside the Mind of a Metacognitive Therapist”. You might want to catch up on the other parts as well.
The next post that I am going to write is about an alternative to thought control called Detached Mindfulness, and I am going to show you what detachment looks like behind the doors. See you around.