Common Types of Unwanted Thoughts
How about you? Do you experience thoughts you don’t want?
Like me, do you ruminate on beliefs about yourself, the world, or God that feel true even though you know they are not? Like many people I meet, do you feel tormented by depressed, anxious, or intrusive thinking? Like everyone, are you uncertain about what to do with some of the thoughts that enter your mind?
For some people, unwanted thoughts feel like a mere annoyance. Other people experience them as problematic daily interruptions, and still others would describe them as a brutal and invisible form of torture. No matter the level of your distress, unwanted thoughts of all kinds often seem better kept inside. Perhaps you have the feeling that if you opened up about what went on in your head, no one would understand. Perhaps people would judge you or even think you are crazy.
No matter how stubborn your thoughts may feel, you are not alone. We all walk around with thoughts we just can’t get out of our heads. Consider some of the most common categories of unwanted thoughts people experience:
- Worried and Anxious Thoughts
- Self-Deprecating Thoughts That Assign a False Identity
- Depressed and Hopeless Thoughts
- Racing Thoughts and Incessant Mental Chatter
- Daydreams, Fantasies, and Mental Pictures of Past and Future Events
- Irrational Thoughts That Don’t Match Reality
- Sinful Thoughts
- Thoughts That Contradict Professed Theology
- Intrusive Thoughts and Images
- Thoughts Related to Traumatic Experiences
- Unwanted Thoughts about Unwanted Thoughts
Which category resonates with you the most? Many of these categories overlap, and you may find yourself struggling with more than one category at the same time. No matter the type of thoughts you tend toward, it’s likely your efforts to find relief haven’t been completely successful. As hard as you try, you can’t stop thinking, feeling, or believing the unwanted thoughts that cross your mind. What should you do next?
A Multifaceted Approach
There is no single magic solution to changing our thoughts. When unwanted thoughts linger, we need a multifaceted approach that draws on a range of biblically faithful strategies. I hope to offer such an approach in this book. While considering these strategies, I have found it important to keep the following principles in mind.
First, our approach to thought change should be faithful to Scripture. All of Scripture. Instead of relying on a handful of isolated passages, we should attempt to understand how thought change fits into the overall biblical narrative. This broader perspective compels us to look at our thoughts in light of who God is, what he says about us, and how he relates to us. It opens our eyes to see our thoughts in light of God’s love for us and his plan of redemption for all parts of ourselves, including our minds.
Second, not all unwanted thoughts are the same, which means they should not all be treated the same. Strategies that work for mild anxiety likely won’t be sufficient for thoughts connected to a serious trauma. If you treat intrusive thoughts with biblical guidance meant for sinful thoughts, you will get worse, not better. When painful thinking clouds our minds, we need a variety of strategies that address the varying causes and consequences of our thoughts. These strategies should take into account the influence of our bodies, minds, souls, and relationships.
Third, as we engage this process of change, we should be patient with ourselves. If you have struggled with unwanted thinking for a long time, it can be easy to berate yourself for not getting or doing better. Instead, I encourage you to curiously consider some of the reasons why you may be struggling to make progress. You don’t need to fast-track your way to healing or relief. Getting upset when you are unable to change your thoughts builds up anxiety and frustration. These emotions then feed back into your thoughts, fueling greater levels of distress. As you read on, I will help you to consider some of the common reasons people get stuck. I will remind you over and over again of Jesus’s love for you, which remains faithful before, during, and after your attempts to change.
Finally, as you continue reading, it’s important to remember that none of the strategies in this book will change your thoughts on their own. Romans 12:2 teaches that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. This renewal does not happen through willpower or even by replacing our thoughts with Scriptures. This renewal is a work God does in us as we are united with him and receive from him the grace and energy we need to change (see 1 Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:12–13).
We are transformed when we stand in God’s presence with unveiled faces—with intimacy and vulnerability (see 2 Cor. 3:18). As we encounter his glory, we are transformed into God’s image, and this transformation “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Our thoughts are changed as we enter the presence of a good and loving Father who helps us believe the truth found in Scripture and who does the work of transformation for us. You will find that many of the strategies in this book are tools to help you enter God’s presence. There, the Holy Spirit can take over the transformational work you have struggled to achieve on your own.
Twelve Strategies for Changing Unwanted Thoughts
Each chapter in this book will offer a strategy to help you with the process of changing your thoughts. We will start by looking at some general approaches to changing thoughts that focus on your relationship with yourself, God, the world, and other people. You will examine your thoughts through self-reflection (chapter 1), pray your thoughts to God (chapter 2), rest your thoughts in God’s creation (chapter 3), and disentangle your thoughts in community (chapter 4).
The middle chapters will look at a series of holistic approaches to changing thoughts that focus on your mind, heart, body, and life story. You will learn to focus your thoughts on God’s Word (chapter 5), capture your thoughts and heart with a right knowledge of God (chapter 6), calm your thoughts by using strategies that address the body (chapter 7), and repair your thoughts by inviting God’s presence and God’s Word into your story (chapter 8).
Toward the end of the book, we will discuss more specialized approaches to dealing with thoughts that can be especially problematic. We will discuss how to set aside your thoughts when they are connected to trauma (chapter 9), dismiss your thoughts when they are intrusive and obsessive (chapter 10), and determine those times when medicating your thoughts may be a good option (chapter 11). In the final chapter, you will consider how to sit with your thoughts when they linger far longer than it seems they should (chapter 12).
This book offers hope to all who struggle to one degree or another with unwanted thoughts. They do not rule over us, for we have been given the mind of Christ.
Esther Smith is a licensed counselor who specializes in helping people who experience trauma, anxiety, and physical illness. She is the author of A Still and Quiet Mind and Chronic Illness: Walking by Faith and coauthor of The Whole Life.
This article is excerpted and adapted from Esther Smith’s most recent book, A Still and Quiet Mind, and is used here with permission.