9 ways to get rid of unwanted thoughts


This is about the ongoing saga of my friend who struggles with unwanted thoughts and phobias and has been given the (I think unhelpful) label of OCD.

If you’ve not seen the original unwanted thoughts article then it might be worth checking that out first…

What’s happening as he works through his problem is that actually, his progress goes in spirals — sort of 2 steps forward, one step back type of thing.

His last setback was actually caused by just one late night. Just the lack of sleep for one night has made it more difficult to stay on top. Everything affects everything else…

Anyway, over the weeks and months, we’ve developed some very simple mental “handles” for him to use when his head is swimming and he’s got “stormy waters.”

I reckon you’ve got to keep it simple because in an anxious state, it can be so hard to hold any kind of rational thought in your head.

In a crisis you need some simple ideas to try. A simple action plan to get rid of unwanted thoughts…

Crisis solutions

  1. Nip it in the bud. BE QUICK. The more you dwell, the harder it’s going to get. As soon as you become aware of an unwanted thought, give it no importance (a “don’t care” attitude) and then THINK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. Unwanted thoughts often have a shocking sense of urgency attached. Quick diversion is essential before the thought takes hold.
  2. Keep it simple. It is simple. It’s not easy but it’s simple. Don’t GO THERE but don’t suppress thoughts either. You cant stop them arising but you can choose to pay attention or not. Again — THINK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE.
  3. Don’t split your attention. Once you fully understand that your fear or unwanted thought is irrational, let go off it. There’s no constant danger, no need to split your attention between what’s happening now and being alert for danger. If you become aware of a split — if you’re aware of “thoughts always there in the background” then pay MORE attention to what you are doing, or something external like sounds or images or events happening NOW. Come to your SENSES — pay attention to perception, which is always NOW.
  4. Exercise. If you become anxious then you need to get that adrenaline out of your system asap. Go for a run or brisk walk ’til you calm down.

Longer term solutions

  1. Meditate. Regular meditation will mean you can deal with all the points above more effectively until you no longer get unwanted thoughts
  2. Make a pact. Some irrational fears may still require that you are allowed to think certain thoughts around that subject. Make a pact with yourself in advance to identify what thoughts are allowed and what thought are not. You might want to talk this through with trusted friends first. This is because you probably don’t know for sure what should be allowed if you have a phobia.
  3. Learn your triggers & notice cause/effect. Learn your triggers that start you off on a path of unwanted thoughts Learn how other things in your life affect your ability to stay on top — sleep, too much caffeine, poor diet and so-on. The faster you learn, you faster you’ll feel well again.
  4. Don’t go it alone. If it gets to the point where you feel you can’t cope alone — please GET SOME HELP. These are tricky issues and you probably need supporting through it. I’ve had the same conversation with my friend about 100 times and it takes a long time for the new ideas to “get through.” It’s tough. Get help and support.
  5. Sort out your lifestyle. Everything affects everything else — lack of sleep, poor diet, too much caffeine and a range of other lifestyle factors all affect your thoughts and your ability to drive your own mental car.

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Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.

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37 thoughts on “9 ways to get rid of unwanted thoughts

  1. Question: How do you deal with extreme pleasant thoughts that you want to keep , and extreme unpleasant thoughts that you don’t want to keep. The subject of the thoughts being the same…

    e.g: You love someone a lot and are left in doubt if the the other person loves you. So its natural, that you will get plesant thoughts about love interrupted by unpleasant thoughts where you are searching for answers to ease your doubts and you are not allowed to clarify with the other person.

    I am not sure..but to me it seems that both thoughts need to let go…


    1. Hi Raja,

      I think the word love is often used when the experience is actually intense attraction and desire. True love lacks nothing and so desires nothing, is not clingy or needy. I agree about letting go. Most of the time, letting go is the best thing.

      If you worry about whether you are loved in return, then you put your happiness outside your control and that is stressful.

      You might be interested in this article (click link below) that goes into some detail about this…


      All the best Raja,


  2. Thank you so much. This article was very helpful. My 29-year old son is going through this and it is very difficult. He has health anxiety and wants to run to the emergency room at all times.


  3. Thanks, that does help put it into perspective :)

    Will this kind of thing take some time to get rid of? I’m asking because the the anxiety does occassionally return, and I do sometimes think ‘i didn’t think about that for a while’ but then think about the anxiety. Will this be something that will return to me now Ive made such a bid deal out of it?

    Thank you so much for your help :)



    1. Hi Sam,

      The time depends on how big a deal you’ve made… how much attention and importance and how long it’s been going on (how deep the habits or mental grooves are). You say “occasionally” so that suggest to me that the deal ain’t so big :-) It may return by the power of association… triggers in your environment or thoughts but all you need to do is not care and remove attention.

      The clearer you are in understanding, and the more consistent you are with the new attitude and removing attention, the faster it will go and be forgotten. It’s no good not caring one minute and then the thought comes are you get frustrated (start caring). Beware all forms of attention and importance such as frustration, resistance, looking out for it etc.

      This only EVER need be dealt with IF it rises up. Then have the don’t care attitude and remove attention, every single time, whenever or wherever. It’s that simple.


  4. Thanks Mike; thats sounds like good advice :)

    What exactly do I tell me myself and how do I view it in this way?

    Also, I think the thought has in part turned into a simply fear that it will come up again when I’m with a girl or something and will ruin moments for me. Do I do a similar thing to ensure that I just forget about this worry?


    1. Hi Sam,

      Fear is a powerful emotion that will guarantee your continued attention to it. These are primitive mechanisms… whatever you fear, you will be reminded of very often and associations, triggers for the fear thoughts are built very quickly and easily.

      You don’t have to say anything to yourself but if you want to, you can just label it “garbage.” The important thing is to simply see it as garbage, which it is. For a while the thoughts can continue to take over your awareness and hang around. They also try to dominate your attention so it can be difficult to distract away.

      That’s why patience and consistency are so important. Keep solid with the new attitude and keep removing attention. Do it as fast as you can so that the thought has less time to overwhelm you and dominate your mental field.

      If the unwanted thought lingers in your awareness, just see it for what it is… a thought you unwittingly gave fear and importance to… now that is playing out as it does. It’s just primitive. It’s as if a song is playing on the radio you don’t like. You don’t fight against it or pay attention to it, all this just increases your annoyance. If something is in your field of awareness you don’t want like this song, just stop caring, pay attention elsewhere. Allow it, don’t resist it, but don’t care, don’t pay attention.

      Or if someone’s at a party you don’t like… the best outcome for you, assuming you are staying, is to pay no attention at all. The more aware you are that the annoying person is there, the more they dominate your awareness.

      So ATTENTION and importance (how much you care) are the two key factors. Remove both from unwanted things and that is the fastest way to get rid.

      How do you feel about gas pipes Sam? Have the same attitude if your unwanted thought comes and remove attention… calmly rivet it onto some object in your surroundings for a few seconds.

      Be really calm about all this, because anything else is caring isn’t it… and we want “don’t care.”


      1. Oh, and by imagining the thoughts coming when you’re with a girl and ruining the moment and by attaching fear to it, you are telling your unconscious mind “Remind me about this when I’m with a girl because there is danger.”

        You are mentally building the powerful association in advance.

        Atention is the volume control for thoughts Sam. Get really, really clear about this in your mind and it will serve you your whole life. You have choice and you choose with your attention.


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