You're head down working—productive as hell. Then, moments later, you get a super upsetting email from your kid’s school, and you grind to a halt.
Or maybe you see a meeting suddenly appear on your calendar with your boss and your HR business partner—oof!
Or maybe you have a tense exchange with a neighbor across the street, blocking your driveway with their truck. And now you can't stop replaying the scene in your head. Over and over again.
Sound familiar? Welcome to the club! Now, what do you do about that?
A couple of years into my tenure at a rapidly growing company going through some tough times, I overheard our VP of Engineering share with my boss—his direct report—that he was worried about me succeeding as a manager. He thought I was too much of an introvert (but I’m an extrovert with ADHD) to take on difficult conversations (if anything, I had the opposite problem—I was at times too direct with people) that needed to happen to transform the engineering culture and processes I was responsible for (and which I already received praise for from our CTO).
Overhearing that conversation rattled me. In part because so many points seemed factually inaccurate. And in part because the conversation was happening behind my back.
I couldn’t think straight for days, and I couldn’t sleep. I was questioning my ability to lead, wondering if I was indeed up to transforming our engineering culture, and worried about my future, not just at this company but as an engineering leader at all.
It took me a few days to get over myself and get back to work. I was in a mental tumble for days. But curiosity led me to dive into the science behind this rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts.
Let’s explore the science behind persistent thoughts and look at practical strategies for managing and stopping them, including mindfulness techniques, journaling, and positive reframing.
Emotion causes thoughts to persist
Persistent thoughts plague most of us, popping up when we least expect them—sometimes masquerading as helpful reminders about tasks or events, other times causing unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Persistent thoughts persist for various reasons, ranging from evolutionary survival instincts to mental health issues.
The human brain is wired to look for potential threats constantly. Our prehistoric ancestors had to be hyper-vigilant to survive in a world full of danger, and this instinct has carried over into modern times.
The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, is responsible for processing emotions and detecting potential threats. It’s always on the lookout, and when it detects a threat, it sends a signal to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought.
The prefrontal cortex, cued by the emotionally charged signal from the amygdala, concludes, “This seems important to pay attention to!” And as a result, the thought becomes persistent and difficult to ignore.
In addition to the amygdala, the hippocampus, a structure in the brain responsible for memory formation, also plays a role in persistent thoughts. When a thought is associated with a strong emotion, such as fear or anxiety, the hippocampus creates a powerful memory of the thought, making it more likely to resurface in the future.
This is why traumatic experiences can lead to persistent thoughts and flashbacks long after the event has occurred. And this is why learning to process and reframe your experiences is vital to managing persistent negative thoughts.
The negative impacts
While persistent thoughts can be helpful in some contexts, they can also have negative consequences if left unchecked. Some of the potential adverse effects of persistent thoughts include:
- Stress and Anxiety: Persistent thoughts can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, as they often involve worrying about things that haven't happened yet or ruminating on past mistakes.
- Depression: If persistent thoughts are focused on negative self-talk or negative experiences, they can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair, which can contribute to depression.
- Sleep Disturbances: Persistent thoughts can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep, as the mind is constantly racing and unable to relax.
- Distraction and Poor Concentration: Persistent thoughts can be distracting, making it difficult to focus on tasks or enjoy activities.
- Health Problems: Chronic stress and anxiety caused by persistent thoughts can lead to physical health problems such as headaches, stomachaches, and high blood pressure.
- Relationship Problems: Persistent negative thoughts can affect relationships by making it difficult to focus on the present moment or to engage with others fully.
- Poor Decision-Making: Persistent thoughts can interfere with decision-making by clouding judgment and causing folks to make choices based on fear or anxiety rather than logic.
- Low Self-Esteem: Persistent negative thoughts can lower self-esteem, as people may internalize negative messages about themselves.
- Addiction: In some cases, persistent thoughts can lead to addictive behaviors such as substance abuse, social media or gaming addiction, and excessive consumption of food, as individuals may use these activities as a way to escape their thoughts.
- Increased Risk of Mental Illness: Chronic stress and anxiety caused by persistent thoughts can increase the risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Strategies for managing persistent thoughts
Fortunately, several strategies can help you manage and stop persistent thoughts.
Some of the most effective ones include:
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of bringing attention to the present moment without judgment. Techniques such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing can help calm the mind and reduce the frequency and intensity of persistent thoughts. Shifting the focus to the present moment can also include exercise, drawing, playing music, cooking, reading, and even playing with pets.
- Journaling: Writing down persistent thoughts can help you better understand your thought patterns and identify any underlying issues.
- Positive Reframing: Reframing persistent thoughts more positively can help reduce their negative impact. For example, instead of dwelling on mistakes, you can focus on the lessons learned from the experience and what you might do differently in the future.
Although you can’t control your thoughts completely—they are like the clouds in the blue sky, come and go as they please—you can control where you direct your attention. Just because a thought pops into your head doesn’t mean you have to engage in a conversation with it.
Often, instead of trying to push the persistent thought away, simply watching it unfold without judgment is enough to make it go away. You might notice that if you try to observe the persistent thought, it doesn’t want to stick around; it wants to slip away and dissolve.
For those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), persistent thoughts can be incredibly challenging, as many of my clients would attest. ADHD can cause the mind to race from one thought to the next, making it difficult to focus on the present moment or control intrusive thoughts.
This is caused by the areas in the brain that together form a network called Default Mode Network (DMN). This network becomes typically active when we’re not focused on any particular problem. So, for example, it begins to fire on all cylinders when we’re daydreaming. Unfortunately, it’s almost continuously active for folks with ADHD.
So, for individuals with ADHD, it may be helpful to seek the help of a mental health professional or coach who can help develop strategies to manage persistent thoughts and improve focus and concentration.
In summary, persistent thoughts are a natural part of the human experience, but they can also be a source of stress and anxiety if left unchecked.
By understanding the science behind persistent thoughts and implementing strategies such as mindfulness techniques, focusing on the present moment, journaling, and positive reframing, individuals can manage and stop persistent thoughts.
Remember, persistent thoughts don't have to control your life. You can take action today to start managing your thoughts and improving your mental health. So, take a deep breath and start implementing these strategies today.
You've got this!