Browsing through podcasts, influencers, and self-help books, you’ll encounter a lot of promises about what you can do with your mind. Control your thoughts. Master your mind. Rule your subconscious.
Each one centers around the same thing: By influencing your thoughts, you can change the way you live—and change your life. It’s biohacking the mind.
While that sounds like a nice and rather efficient plan, in reality, it’s not how things shake out. You have far less control over your thoughts than you might assume.
Case in point: thoughts can pop into your head with no warning, seemingly out of nowhere. What else could explain why you’ll be struck by a memory of something embarrassing you did in high school or are besieged by an image of driving your car into oncoming traffic? Maybe a traumatic event from your past comes rushing back to you, or a random vulgarity pops into your brain. These are known as intrusive thoughts, and—believe it or not—they’re completely normal experiences. However, in some instances, intrusive thoughts can be a signal that there’s more going on.
In this article, we’ll explore what it means to control your thoughts and how possible that may be, plus how mental health conditions play a role and what you can do to take back a bit of control.
Can you control your thoughts? What the science says
We’ll get right down to it: You are not a superhero. “No human would be able to control all of their thoughts all of the time” says Taylor Newendorp, MA, LCPC, Network Clinical Training Director at NOCD. “Research is all over the map, but in general, data suggests that after age 12 or 13, the average human being experiences tens of thousands of different thoughts in their waking hours over the span of one day,” he says.
In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, you have about 70,000 thoughts each day running through your head. Making all those thoughts happen is the result of 100 billion neurons in your noggin that communicate at 300 miles per hour, the clinic points out.
Considering the sheer complexity of thought creation and the incredible number of thoughts bouncing around in your brain, you can see what makes it impossible to master them all the time. “This is one of the beautiful things about the human mind—it’s constantly creating. One way it constantly creates is throwing lots of different thoughts and images at us. Most of which just happen,” Newendorp says.
Often, inputs from the environment set off a series of thoughts—and your outside world is also something out of your control. One study in Frontiers in Psychology in 2018, found that conscious thoughts could be easily triggered by external forces—such as being asked not to think about something. What popped into participants’ minds had little to do with whether they wanted to be thinking about these things or not.
There’s an example that’s commonly used to illustrate this point: right now, no matter what, don’t think of a pink elephant. Now tell me what you thought of—I’ll bet it was a pink elephant! Of course, you didn’t really intend to think about one, and you’ve probably never thought about a pink elephant before. But the fact that your brain was trying to direct your attention away from a pink elephant only made it more likely for that thought to pop into your mind.
Of course, there are well-known practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, that harness the power of thought. However, in these practices the goal isn’t to control your thoughts. Rather, it’s to be aware of where your attention is and what’s in your mind, and to acknowledge your thoughts without judgment, research suggests. A wandering mind happens during practice—this is another term for having uncontrolled thoughts—and that’s okay.
What to do if you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts
Sometimes, thoughts, images, or urges may pop into your head that you find distressing. These are known as intrusive thoughts, and they’re a universal experience: “Having a memory you don’t want to think about or an unpleasant image that’s graphic or disturbing is something that happens to most people over the course of their lives at some point,” says Newendorp. What’s more, with the sheer number of daily thoughts everyone has, it would be impossible for all of these to be positive or neutral.
No one finds intrusive thoughts pleasant—otherwise, they wouldn’t be intrusive—but most people can brush them off fairly easily, dismissing them as insignificant. However, there are a couple reasons that some people have a particularly hard time doing so. If you have an anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), you’re more likely to attach a meaning to random thoughts and images that enter your headspace, says Newendorp, increasing your desire and effort to stop them or avoid them in the future.
Anxiety disorder is an umbrella term for several types of disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Though these disorders manifest in many different ways, they share a general sense of worry, restlessness, or dread, making it difficult to handle distressing intrusive thoughts.
While OCD was once under the category of anxiety disorders, today it’s considered a separate disorder from anxiety. According to the NIMH, OCD is a chronic disorder characterized by obsessions—uncontrollable and unwanted thoughts, urges, feelings, sensations, or mental images—and compulsions—repetitive behaviors someone does to neutralize their obsessions, such as checking, counting, seeking reassurance, or ritualized showering. People who have OCD tend to experience more frequent intrusive thoughts, feel greater discomfort surrounding them, and have difficulty controlling their responses to them, according to research.
So how do thoughts land differently in these mental health disorders? “If you have OCD, for example, you may immediately assume an intrusive thought means something,” says Newendorp. Perhaps you have a fleeting image of yourself harming your kids. That’s horrifying, certainly—you love your kids!—and normally, you could shake a thought like this off, let it go, and refocus. But with OCD, an intrusive thought can derail you.
“If you have OCD, you immediately assume the worst,” says Newendorp. You may assume, then, that simply having a thought like that must mean:
- You are going to do something harmful.
- You will be responsible for something bad happening.
- You are a terrible person, a sociopath, or a pedophile. This is an example of thought-action fusion, or the belief that having a thought about something (even an intrusive one) is as bad as actually doing it.
Unfortunately, OCD is a rather clever disorder. When that fear pops up after an intrusive thought, OCD takes hold, demanding that you perform compulsions in order to feel better or avoid negative consequences, says Newendorp. The more compulsions you do, the more those intrusive thoughts will continue to interfere with your life, which only reinforces OCD more and more—it’s a vicious cycle.
Compulsions include a wide array of behaviors, both physical and mental. They might look like attempting to control your thoughts by pushing intrusive thoughts out of your head. There are many ways this is done in OCD, but it might involve counting in your head to a certain number in an attempt to drown out a distressing thought. Another example is avoidance. In our example above, the parent might avoid being in the same room as their children without a co-parent present, due to their obsessions about harming their kids.
How do you know if you should seek help from a mental health provider? Here are some factors to consider, according to Newendorp:
- Your thoughts are interfering with your day-to-day functioning, preventing you from fully focusing on work or schoolwork, conversations with others, and general responsibilities.
- Intrusive thoughts and the resulting compulsions are particularly time-consuming—filling at least an hour of your day in OCD.
- There’s significant anxiety attached to your intrusive thoughts.
- Intrusive thoughts are interfering with your sleep, either preventing you from going to sleep or waking you up in the middle of the night.
- You’re avoiding social obligations.
- You’re making a mental effort to push these thoughts out of your head (called compulsions) or using repetitive behaviors to distract from thoughts you don’t like.
Can you stop intrusive thoughts?
Although you can’t control your thoughts, there are things you can do to change some of your active thinking patterns and make a choice as to exactly which thoughts you’ll give the benefit of your attention, and how you allow them to guide your behavior. “You can make a conscious decision as to what you choose to focus on when it comes to the difficult thoughts running through your mind,” says Newendorp.
That will mean learning how to let go of some thoughts—as if they’re just clouds passing by, or spam in your email inbox—and hone in on others in a positive and productive way. “If someone is determined to sit down and focus on a certain thought for the next few minutes, this is something we have the brain power to do,” Newendorp says. But controlling the thoughts that pop into your mind? “Literally impossible,” he says. This is one brain hack that just won’t work.
If your intrusive thoughts are frequent and you think they may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder or OCD, there are additional steps you can take:
Let go of control
“It’s important to understand that the more actively you’re trying to control or get rid of certain thoughts, the more you increase your focus on them and the more intrusive thoughts will live in your brain,” says Newendorp. Realize that trying to wrangle your thoughts is a losing game. This is illustrated in one past study in Behaviour Research and Therapy where people who were told to suppress these thoughts experienced more of them. Turns out, avoiding what’s provoking your anxiety doesn’t make it disappear—it only allows it to grow.
Purposefully focus on that thought
This is a component of exposure and response prevention therapy—also referred to as ERP—a highly effective form of treatment for both OCD and anxiety disorders. It can also be useful if someone has both OCD and an anxiety disorder at the same time.
Though it seems counterintuitive, ERP asks you to purposely confront the thought you’re trying to suppress, so you can change how you respond to the emotions that come with it. For instance, let’s go back to our earlier example of an intrusive thought about harming your child. In ERP, you will focus on that very unwanted, distressing image of you causing harm to this person you love so much. “This causes distress, discomfort, and anxiety,” says Newendorp. “We’ll ask clients to purposefully focus on it without distracting themselves or engaging in compulsions to try to get rid of it,” he explains.
With intentional focus on the distressing thought, you’ll see that the anxiety attached to it is strong and fierce at first. But over time and with practice resisting the urge to respond with compulsions, that anxiety will begin to naturally fade. That doesn’t mean that you become okay with the thought. The power is in resisting the inclination to let these thoughts control your life. “When you do this enough, the image itself becomes meaningless, almost boring,” says Newendorp.
If you’re ready for intrusive thoughts from anxiety or OCD to go from distressing to boring, we encourage you to learn more about ERP therapy at NOCD. With face-to-face virtual counseling and between-session support, you can work to move past these thoughts and regain your life—often in a matter of weeks.