Refocus: How to Lose Those Negative Repetitive Thoughts for Good

Always the Fight Ministries: Displaying compassion for those fighting mental illness, addiction, or abuse. (c)2019Nancy Virden

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The statement, “Unwanted thoughts keep running through my mind and I try to stop them but can’t” is so common, and people sound hopeless to find an answer.  It’s a tricky problem for sure.

As stated at the end of every one of these blog posts, I am not a mental health professional. Opinions and ideas here come from my experience, observations, or things professionals have said. With that in mind,  I want to share with you a strategy for defeating unwanted thoughts that works for me.

It is not positive thinking that wipes out worry and repetitive self-defeating memories. Positive thoughts such as “It will be ok” have very little power. Trying to remember, “That was in the past” also is of minimal help. Distractions such as going to work each morning offer relief at the moment. Then we come home with not much else with which to keep our brains occupied. 

All three of the above ideas have their merits. If it is a long-term change we want most, the answer I’m proposing is refocusing. 

As long as we are fighting unwanted thoughts we are, well, indeed thinking about them. This is why distractions work in the short-term  –  our minds are on something else. 

With refocusing we change the foundation under all those unwanted thoughts. Distracting ourselves with TV, substance use, work, or anything else becomes unnecessary. Instead, we change unwanted thoughts at their core.

Two examples

Patty struggles with unhappy memories. In quiet moments and when she lays down at night, they come rushing in like a horror film. 

In my experience, if Patty concentrates on making new memories the old ones will fade. No one else can do this for her.  She can choose ahead of time what is her goal, then fill her quiet moments with a healthy and life-giving purpose. 

Possible actions might include using calm minutes to plan ways of letting her co-workers know she appreciates them, or to keep in touch with old friends.  The same goes for longer downtimes.  Refocusing is choosing something to think about (not TV only) by making happier memories.  Patty might create something, make calls to family members, or spread cheer through volunteering.  As she falls asleep at night,  prayers for other people, praise to God, writing a comforting song or poem … these types of things will change how Patty perceives bedtime.      

2. Ryan cannot seem to shake the lie he believed as a child that he is less-than. Even as he rises up the success ladder, thoughts that he is insufficient follow him everywhere. These doubts are like a bad habit.  They show up in public spaces, when he is about to embark on new adventures, and when he is alone. 

As creatures of habit, we may unwittingly nurture negative thought patterns. Through refocusing, Ryan can change his mental environment.

Instead of arguing against those thoughts or simply accepting them,  he can take note of those situations that seem to most dramatically draw them out.  He can use alone time to build up an arsenal of evidence that he is not less-than.  Keeping a journal of affirmations is helpful too. Then as he is about to enter a public space or begin a new challenge, he can quote these to himself.  If they are on his phone he can read them or have them read aloud. By regularly using alone time to add to his lists, eventually, his thought habit will change.  

Refocusing is based on reality, not magical thinking. That is why, with practice, it can become the permanent solution to unwanted thoughts. What refocusing ideas do you think will work for you?

Today’s Helpful Word

Psalm 94:18-19 

“When the cares of my heart are many, [God,] your consolations cheer my soul.”


NOTE:  I am not a doctor or mental health professional, and speak only from personal experiences and observations. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental or behavioral health care.

If you are feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, in the U.S. call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or for a list of international suicide hotlines, go here.

If you are suicidal with a plan, immediately call 911 in the U.S. or go to your nearest emergency room. (for international emergency numbers, go here ). Hope and help are yours!






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