Trou­bling thoughts are still just thoughts

Rich Bayer

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE -

— A teenager feels de­pressed be­cause she’s sure the kids at school don’t like her. A col­lege stu­dent is afraid that he won’t do well on an im­por­tant exam next week. A mom stays up late worrying that her 16-yearold daugh­ter, who just started driv­ing the fam­ily car, might be late be­cause she has got­ten into an ac­ci­dent. A mid­dle-age man has dis­turb­ing, reap­pear­ing im­ages of some­one he thinks has died.

We all have trou­bling thoughts. We all have ideas and no­tions that bother us at least some of the time.

For most of us, how­ever, the trou­bling thoughts do not rule our lives. In fact, most of the time our think­ing is just rou­tine. We think “the dishes need wash­ing,” so we turn on the faucet and we wash them. We think “I need gas in the car in or­der


to get to work to­mor­row,” so we plan to get up five min­utes early and take care of it.

Typ­i­cally, the thoughts we ex­pe­ri­ence are neu­tral and some­times the thoughts are happy. Of course, we don’t com­plain about these. It’s when our thoughts be­gin to bother us in some way that we be­come con­cerned. When our thoughts make us feel un­com­fort­able, we try to find a so­lu­tion.

Our minds ex­cel at this, at least most of the time. That’s be­cause the brain is a prob­lem-solv­ing ma­chine. It can eas­ily dis­cern problems in our­selves or in the world around us. This is help­ful be­cause we en­counter so many problems that need to be solved. When con­fronted with a prob­lem, the mind starts work­ing to find a so­lu­tion. Some­times this oc­curs quickly and we hardly think about it. Some­times it takes a while, as we may need to mull things over.

On the other hand, the mind may be bet­ter at see­ing problems than at de­vel­op­ing so­lu­tions. The mind can eas­ily find problems that we don’t need to ad­dress, or imag­ine neg­a­tive out­comes that are very un­likely, but still con­cern us. These types of thoughts can be trou­bling to us until the mind finds a so­lu­tion. Four fac­tors When ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a trou­bling thought, there are four fac­tors that can help us de­ter­mine how se­vere it is.

The first fac­tor to consider is whether the thought is in­ten­tional. There are many problems in our lives that we choose to work on. We solve these in our own time with­out any an­noy­ance. But some thoughts in­trude into our world un­in­vited. This can be some­thing as sim­ple as a song play­ing in our minds that we can’t seem to stop or it can be a wor­ri­some thought that some­thing bad is about to hap­pen.

The se­cond fac­tor is in­ten­sity. A thought can be mildly an­noy­ing or se­verely dis­turb­ing. It can be mi­nor such as the fear about how we’ll per­form on an upcoming test or it can be se­ri­ous such as the scary im­age of a ghost that pops into our head.

The third fac­tor is fre­quency. Some dis­turb­ing thoughts play over and over and some come to us only one time.

The fourth fac­tor is con­tent. The sub­ject of a thought might be ex­tremely fright­en­ing or it might be rel­a­tively sim­ple. “I don’t think so-and-so likes me” is mild com­pared to a thought such as “God hates me … I’m a bad per­son … I should die.”

All four of these fac­tors de­ter­mine the to­tal im­pact of a trou­bling thought. If it’s ex­treme on all of these scales, the thought might cause us to lose touch with re­al­ity.

How to man­age trou­bling thoughts

If we’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing trou­bling thoughts that are mild to mod­er­ate, we can usu­ally find ways to cope on our own. But if we’re on the ex­treme end of the spec­trum, we may have a di­ag­nos­able men­tal health con­di­tion. This is when we almost al­ways need out­side help.

At the lower end of the spec­trum, a trou­bling thought may be part of the brain’s nor­mal prob­lem­solv­ing. The col­lege stu­dent who frets about his per­for­mance on the upcoming test can sim­ply de­cide to spend time study­ing for it.

Other types of trou­bling thoughts can be re­placed by pos­i­tive im­ages. Some­times we can counter a de­press­ing thought with a happy thought. When the de­press­ing thought starts to en­ter our aware­ness, we can take a mo­ment to re­call scenes from the happy beach va­ca­tion we had last sum­mer or re­mem­ber a par­tic­u­larly joy­ful event from our child­hood.

Some­times a trou­bling thought is telling us that there’s an un­der­ly­ing emo­tional is­sue we need to deal with. For ex­am­ple, consider the process of go­ing through grief. The thoughts will be dif­fi­cult. We may hear our thoughts saying some­thing like, “I lost my mother. I miss her. I need her. I feel bad that she’s gone.” When griev­ing, it can help to talk about our feel­ings with a close friend, a fam­ily member, a min­is­ter or a pro­fes­sional coun­selor.

For the re­ally se­vere thoughts, we will almost al­ways need a pro­fes­sional coun­selor and pos­si­bly a pre­scrip­tion for a men­tal health med­i­ca­tion. When hear­ing voices that won’t stop, es­pe­cially if they’re telling us to do some­thing harm­ful, or when re­peat­edly see­ing fright­en­ing im­ages, we almost cer­tainly need some kind of pro­fes­sional help.

There is one method that can be ef­fec­tive with all kinds of trou­bling thoughts. That is to re­mem­ber that they are “just thoughts.” Even the most se­vere and fright­en­ing thoughts are just thoughts. It helps to re­al­ize that our thoughts are gen­er­ated by the mind and the mind can play tricks on us. Our thoughts, in them­selves, are not nec­es­sar­ily true.

Dr. Rich Bayer is the CEO of Up­per Bay Coun­sel­ing and Sup­port Ser­vices in Elkton and a prac­tic­ing psy­chol­o­gist.

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