Intrusive Thoughts: 8 Ways To Stop Thinking About Something

Intrusive thoughts can be stopped using focused distraction, paradoxical therapy, acceptance, self-affirmation and more…

It’s one of the irritations of having a mind that sometimes it’s hard to get rid of negative, intrusive thoughts.

It could be a mistake at work, money worries or perhaps a nameless fear. Whatever the anxiety, fear or worry, it can prove very difficult to control.

The most intuitive method to get rid of intrusive thoughts is trying to suppress them by pushing it out of our minds.

Unfortunately, as many studies have shown, thought suppression doesn’t work. Ironically, trying to push thoughts out of mind only makes them come back stronger. It’s a very frustrating finding, but one that’s been replicated experimentally again and again.

So, what alternatives exist to get rid of intrusive thoughts we’d rather not have going around in our heads?

In an article for American Psychologist, the expert on thought suppression, Daniel Wegner, explains some potential methods to get rid of intrusive thoughts (Wegner, 2011). Here are my favourite:

1. Focused distraction from intrusive thoughts

The natural tendency when trying to get your mind off, say, a social gaff you made, is to try and think about something else: to distract yourself. The mind wanders around looking for new things to focus on, hopefully leaving you in peace.

Distraction does work but, oddly enough, studies suggest it is better to distract yourself with one thing, rather than letting the mind wander.

That’s because aimless mind wandering is associated with unhappiness; it’s better to concentrate on, say, a specific piece of music, a TV programme or a task.

2. Avoid stress

Another intuitive method for avoiding persistent thoughts is to put ourselves under stress. The thinking here is that the rush will leave little mental energy for the thoughts that are troubling us.

When tested scientifically, this turns out to be a bad approach. In fact, rather than being a distraction, stress makes the unwanted thoughts come back stronger, so it certainly should not be used as a way of avoiding intrusive thoughts.

3. Postpone the thought until later

While continuously trying to suppress a thought makes it come back stronger, postponing it until later can work.

Researchers have tried asking those with persistent intrusive thoughts to postpone their worrying until a designated 30-minute ‘worry period’. Some studies suggest that people find this works as a way of side-stepping thought suppression.

So save up all your worrying for a designated period and this may ease your mind the rest of the time.

4. Paradoxical therapy

What if, instead of trying to suppress a worrying repetitive thought about, say, death, you head straight for it and concentrate on it?

It seems paradoxical that focusing in on a thought might help it go away, but some research suggests this can work. It’s based on the long-established principle of ‘exposure therapy’: this is where, for example, arachnophobes are slowly but surely exposed to spiders, until the fear begins to fade.

This approach is not for the faint-hearted, but research suggests it can be useful to get rid of negative thoughts when used by those tackling obsessive thoughts and compulsive…

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The Most Obvious Barrier To Weight Loss

This major barrier to weight loss is easy to change.

A major barrier to weight loss is that dieters plan to eat foods they do not enjoy, like brussels sprouts.

Not only that, but they typically cut out all the foods they do enjoy, such as strawberries.

Naturally, this is a recipe for dieting failure because a lack of pleasure reduces motivation.

Instead, dieters should choose tasty and healthy foods that they enjoy eating.

An unhealthy treat from time-to-time probably does little harm.

The conclusions come from a study including 542 people whose dieting strategies were tested.

Dr Meredith David, the study’s first author, said:

“Our research shows that instead of creating rules to avoid one’s favorite treats, dieters should focus on eating healthy foods that they enjoy.

Dieters who restrict themselves from consuming the foods they love most may be setting themselves up for failure.

Instead, they may be better off by allowing occasional ‘treats’ and focusing attention on healthy foods that they enjoy and making it a point to include those tasty, but healthy foods in their diet.”

Dieting is particularly hard for people with low self-control.

Unfortunately, this type of people tend to restrict themselves from eating their favourite foods, when it might be better to allow an occasional treat.

People with low self-control are also more likely to choose healthy foods that they do not like eating, the study found.

Dr David said:

“In coming up with plans to enhance one’s health and well-being, low self-control individuals tend to set themselves up for a harder pathway to success by focusing on avoiding the very foods they find most tempting.

Our data reveals that individuals who are generally more successful at reaching their goals tend to develop more motivating plans regarding the inclusion of healthy, well-liked items and the exclusion of unhealthy items that are not one’s favorites.”

Dr David said pleasure is important:

“Frequent attention is given to health advice surrounding well-intentioned lists of ‘magical’ foods that everyone should eat or practically ‘poisonous’ foods that people should avoid consuming.

The next time you decide to go on a diet or seek to improve your health by altering your food consumption, opt for strategies that focus on including healthy foods in your diet, and focus specifically on those healthy foods that you really enjoy eating.”

The study was published in the journal Psychology & Marketing (David & Haws, 2016).

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2 Personality Traits That Indicate High IQ

The personality traits that suggest you have higher intelligence.

The personality traits of being open to experience and having stable emotions both indicate a higher IQ, research finds.

People who are open to experience are more interested in things that are complex, new and unconventional.

Emotional stability is linked to being better at dealing with stress and minor frustrations.

People who are emotionally stable usually find it easier to control their urges and are mostly unselfconscious.

Both stable emotions and being open to experience are linked to better general knowledge, which are two aspect of intelligence.

Psychologists call general knowledge ‘crystallised intelligence’ is one of the two main types of intelligence.

Crystallised intelligence becomes more important as people get older as acquired information and skills predict their success in life.

The other type is called ‘fluid intelligence’, and refers to abstract reasoning and the speed at which the brain works.

The study included 201 university students in the UK who were given tests of personality and general knowledge questions, including:

  • Who wrote Anna Karenina?
  • Who discovered penicillin?
  • Which Beatle was shot in New York?

(See the end of the article for the answers.)

The results showed that people got more answers correct if their personalities were more emotionally stable and they were more open to experience.

Openness to experience is particularly important for general knowledge because it makes people more curious and motivates them to learn new things.

Another personality trait the researchers found was linked to greater general knowledge was introversion.

Signs of introversion include preferring to be in a quiet, relaxing environment and having a rich mental life.

Having a rich mental life likely encourages people with this personality trait to pick up more information about the world.

(The answers are: Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Fleming and John Lennon, respectively.)

The study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (Chamorro-Premuzic et al., 2006).

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Impact Bias: Why We Overestimate Our Emotional Reactions

The impact bias is our tendency to overestimate how good (and bad) we will feel in the future — things are never as good (or bad) as we imagine.

The impact bias is our tendency to overestimate our emotional reaction to future events.

Research shows that most of the time we don’t feel as bad as we expect to when things go wrong.

Similarly we usually don’t get quite the high we expect when things go right for us.

There are exceptions – such as being in a bad mood will tend to make us more realistic about future positive events – but these are far from the norm.


The impact bias pervades our lives, with studies finding that:

  • Two months after a relationship finishes people are generally not as unhappy as they expect.
  • Sports fans are generally not as happy as they expect when their team wins.
  • Academics overestimate how happy they will be when given tenure, and also overestimate their unhappiness at being denied tenure.

This research also show that people overestimate both the initial intensity of their emotional reaction, and also how long it will go on for.

The impact bias helps explain why almost anything that happened more than three months ago has no effect on our current levels of happiness.

Causes of the impact bias

The impact bias is a pretty reliable finding, so why does it happen?

Wilson and Gilbert (2005) find two main reasons:

  • Focalism: when people think about the impact of future events they tend to forget about all the other things that are going on in their lives. In reality the one event we are imagining will likely be overshadowed by all sorts of other events that happen at the same time. We conveniently forget that the future will always contain many other events we can’t predict, some positive and some negative.
  • Sense-making: people have a natural tendency to rationalise what happens to them. When something bad happens we initially feel unhappy but immediately start searching for the underlying reasons. Once when we’ve decided on the cause(s) of this bad event, we start to feel better. For us bad events that are predictable and which submit to rational explanation are not as scary as random unexplained bad events. Unfortunately the same process also works for positive events – when we rationalise them we reduce their impact on us (read more on this in my post on how to feel more pleasure).

Both making sense of an event as well as our tendency for focalism probably happen either completely unconsciously or at least partially unconsciously.

Consequently we often don’t realise we’re doing it.

How to avoid the impact bias

Considering that these processes are probably unconscious it may be difficult.

But evidence does suggest two options.

When considering how a future event will affect you:

  • Think about all the other events that will happen in the future; consciously widen your future focus.
  • Remember that you will usually quickly rationalise any event, thereby reducing its emotional impact on you. This is good news for negative events, but less good for positive events. To feel…

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Absent-Mindedness: 2 Factors That Cause Forgetfulness

Absent-mindedness is inattentive or forgetful behaviour that can result from distractions, vagueness, blankness or zoning out.

We’ve all done it: forgotten someone’s name, where we parked the car, or left the house without the front-door key.

These are all examples of Schacter’s (1999) second sin of memory: absent-mindedness.

While the first post in the series looked at the transience of memory, how memory degrades over time, absent-mindedness occurs when we’re not really concentrating in the first place.

There are two central factors in how and why we are absent-minded.

One is how deeply we encode a memory, the other is how much attention we’re paying at the crucial moment.

Let’s look at attention first.

Attentional absent-mindedness

One of the most striking experimental demonstrations of how central attention is to absent-mindedness is seen in psychology experiments on change-blindness.

In one well-known example, participants watch a video of people passing a basketball between each other, and they are asked to count the number of passes.

I’ve been a participant in this experiment, and it worked like a treat on me.

I sat watching the video, counting the passes.

Then, after the video was finished, I was asked if I noticed anything unusual.

I was completely bemused: “What do you mean anything ‘unusual’,” I said. “I’ve just seen people passing a basketball to each other. What are you talking about?”

The experimenter smiled and set the video clip running again, but this time with no instructions to count the passes.

I watched in amazement as after about 30 seconds of people passing the basketball, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks right through the centre of the scene, stops, turns, looks at the camera, then turns again and walks out of shot.

The gorilla is visible for fully 5 seconds.

I didn’t notice a thing.

And I’m not alone.

In the version carried out by Simons and Chabris (1999), on average around half the people who took part didn’t notice the gorilla.

The original version of this experiment was carried out more than 30 years ago, but it still has the power to amaze (Neisser & Becklen, 1975).

The door study

Another well-known demonstration of how absent-minded we can be is the ‘door study’.

Here unwitting students are asked by an experimenter for directions.

While they are talking, two men carrying a door walk between the experimenter and the student.

Also hiding behind the door is another person who swaps places with the original experimenter and carries on the conversation with the student.

The student is now continuing the conversation with someone completely different.

Do they notice?

Like the gorilla experiment, only about half the students notice that they were actually talking to a different person.

Another failure of attention.

Memory encoding: depth of processing

The second element vital to absent-mindedness is the depth at which we process information.

This is demonstrated by a classic experiment carried out by Craik and Tulving (1975).

They set about testing the strength of memory traces created using three different levels of processing:

  1. Shallow processing: participants were shown a word and asked to think about the font it was written in.
  2. Intermediate processing: participants were shown a word and asked…

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Humblebragging Study Finds It Is Worse Than Boasting

“Humblebragging” is wrapping up a brag in a complaint or false humility — unfortunately most can see through it.

People hate ‘humblebragging’ even more than unadorned boasting, a study finds.

Humble bragging is when a person brags about something, but wraps it up as a complaint or false humility to try and hide the brag.

Humblebraggers were less liked and less trusted than others, the research found.

Here are two examples of humblebragging culled by the researchers from social media:

“Hair’s not done, just rolled out of bed from a nap and still get hit on, so confusing!”


“Graduating from 2 universities means you get double the calls asking for money/donations.

So pushy and annoying!”

It is better to just boast, as the study’s authors explain:

“…humblebragging is less effective than simply complaining, because complainers are at least seen as sincere.

Despite people’s belief that combining bragging and complaining confers the benefits of both self-promotion strategies, humblebragging fails to pay off.”

The worst type of humblebragging

Humble bragging is common because people want to show off their achievements, but don’t want to appear full of themselves.

Unfortunately, across the nine studies the researchers carried out, people saw right through it.

The study looked at humblebragging on social media and in the real world.

The most irritating kind is when it involves false humility.

For example:

“Why do I always get asked to the dance by so many guys?”

However, most people admitted humblebragging at one time or another.

The study’s authors conclude:

“The proliferation of humblebragging in social media and everyday life suggests that people believe it an effective self-promotional strategy.

Yet, our results show, people readily denigrate humblebraggers.

Faced with the choice to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag, would-be self-promoters should choose the former – and at least reap the rewards of seeming

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Sezer et al., 2018).

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Episode 1407 Scott Adams: The Simultaneous Sip, Live From Santorini, Greece

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Episode 1408 Scott Adams: It’s a Lovely Day For an International Simultaneous Sip

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