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. Hi Mike!

    I’m so glad I found this website. I’ve tried to put in practice everything that I’ve read but it’s hard to get rid of unwanted thoughts. My story is something like this: I’m 24 years old and I have a 30 year old girlfriend. Before her, my relationships didn’t mean that much to me. Since she is older than me, having sex with her has been an amazing experience and we really enjoy it with each other. Since last summer, we have been having a long distance relationship… but I used to daydream about her all day, sexual thoughts included… I was so happy and everything was fine until I made myself this question during one of those sexual daydreams (being really open minded and respectful with homosexuals): “I wonder why gay guys don’t like women… they smell so great, their bodies are so sexy and sex with them is perfect”… and then I asked myself:”what if you are gay?” and ever since that day I haven’t stopped asking myself that question and having all kinds of unwanted homosexual thoughts here and there, all day long… I am certain I’m not gay… I have tried but I can’t find another dude attractive, it’s rather disgusting. Sometimes when maybe I forget for a little bit about the thoughts and everything is kinda normal, I might respectfully admire a beautiful woman’s face or body but right after the thought strikes back telling me: “But aren’t you gay?”. When my girlfriend visits me or I visit her, those days everything is perfect and my mind works perfectly… I forget about the thoughts and we have a wonderful time, I am able to perform sexually, everything is perfect… the problem comes back when I’m not with her. I don’t really know what to do anymore, I’ve read about HOCD and the syntoms are those fore sure… I just don’t know how to get rid of it. I think it would be waaaaay easier if I were gay and I would completely accept it and live with it, but I don’t like men and I find those thoughts so disturbing. I really love my girlfriend and I’m happy with her, but this is ruining it! I have gotten to the point of thinking that I just will make the decision of never having a partner again in my life since I am not attracted to men, and these thoughts strike when I’m interested in women.

    Thanks for your help! All this might sound funny, but it is hell, really…


  2. Hello I suffered a panic attack back in June 2011 ever since then I have not been the same. I had to start going to a psychologist which has helped me greately. However, I still can not let go of these thoughts that produce fear and anxiety to a point where I just think I am going crazy. My psychologist tells me to meditate but whenever I do is only for 5 minutes and then I get lazy. How do I break this habit?


    1. Hi Mayra,

      There’s two ways you can go with letting go. You can “just do it” and then see in your experience that everything is getting better, or you can deconstruct the belief that is stopping you let go, then the letting go is easy because you won’t give attention to what you now see as meaningless.

      So… if you’re determined to go with plan B, then then question is “why can’t you let go?”

      The thing with meditation is that the harder it is, the more you need it, so I would set a goal… 15 minutes a day, and stick with it. Another MASSIVE help for you would be to commit to paying full attention to whatever you’re doing right NOW. Then EVERYTHING is meditation. That’s an awesome way to go and anchors your attention so that thoughts POP in contrast. So, rather than your mind constantly drifting around, you are rooted in attention to your doing, and then you see thoughts pop. That’s massive.


  3. Dear Mike,

    I’m a 35 year old lady and I’ve never had any intrusive thoughts until only three years ago. I started getting these intrusive negative thoughts that are associated with things and places and imgaes (it’s just like when you hear a song and your mind instantly remembers someone or something and EVERYTIME you listen to this song, the same thing happens as if your mind becomes programmed to remind you of it!). I went through a stressful time in college when I had a stalker obsessed with me and around 4 years ago (after 12 years of finishing college!!), I found out that he called home to ask about my whereabouts!!) I picked up the phone and told him harshly to leave me alone and that I’m a married woman now (I’m still single but I told him I’m married so that he will leave me alone!) It freaked me out like hell that’s he’s still got me on his mind. He couldn’t get a hold of me but now he’s become a major part of my intrusive unwanted thoughts that have been bombarding me for the last three years.

    Another couple of negative intrusive thoughts I have is health and sexual inappropriate image related. I’m very healthy and I look very young but the past two years everytime I see a breast cancer awareness ad and campagin, it freaks me out. There’s also this inappropriate sexual image immediately shows in my mind everytime I watch a romantic scene that I love and it riuns the moment completely!!! I don’t know why I’m having these bad intrusive thoughts that I never suffered from before! I wish I could take a pill designed to erase all these thoughts from my head once and for all :(.



    1. Hi Rudain,

      Everything affects everything else so the first thing I recommend is to read Happy Guide so that you understand the big picture into which unwanted thoughts fits. We have “what to do in the moment” when an unwanted thought happens, and then there’s all the lifestyle factors that play into the type of thoughts you have. So it’s good to get everything working for you. So please read Happy Guide, it has everything you need to know and do.

      For example, there’s an extremely powerful idea in there which applies to your stalker, and any other worries you may have. And that is to ask yourself these two questions… “What can I DO?” “What is the OUTCOME I want?” So, you gently and calmly ponder these questions until you’ve exhausted your answers, then you action them, then you let it go, in full knowledge that you’ve done everything that can be done. And then using this tool becomes something you can TRUST, so that whatever happens in your life, you immediately go to the laser-targeted practical solutions of what can be done about it.

      You may decide for instance that if you hear from him again, or perhaps if it starts getting out of hand, you’ll seek an injunction. I’m not saying you should, that’s just one idea that occurred to me. By the way, I’m not sure calling him was a good idea because what you resist persists, you’ve made the whole idea of YOU bigger and brighter in his head, made it more likely he will think and obsess about you. On the other hand, what you IGNORE tends to go away. Ignoring is usually the number one tool for getting rid of things you don’t want… people OR thoughts.

      So, yes, thoughts become HABITS, become associated with triggers such as sounds, music, sights, smells, even moods. But you are always in control by the ATTITUDE and ATTENTION you give whenever a thought arrives in your mental arena. Now this can get tricky because you must NOT CARE about thoughts you don’t want to be there. This is something that can easily trip you up.

      See the case of your sexual thought. Of course you care, you DON’T WANT IT there. But your mind doesn’t see “don’t” it only sees emotion, meaning that you attached to the inappropriate thought. So it will GROW this thought for you. And the association will become STRONGER.

      So the keys are absolutely attitude and attention. So the attitude is don’t care, or laughter and the attention is AWAY. If you ponder this it’s totally logical — for something to NOT BE THERE, the right direction is to remove all attention and meaning. But thoughts DIE AWAY, and habits take time to be reprogrammed, so you need to be CONSISTENT in your reaction.

      This is vital. One of the other BIG pitfalls is frustration that the unwanted thought is still there. That is a lot of attention with a lot of emotion. So it’s important to not care that it’s still there, because that’s the only way it can go. By your attitude, you communicate powerfully with your unconscious mind.

      So with triggers, for example a romantic scene that you have now associated with a sexual thought that you don’t want… a scene comes, the thought is remembered by habit and association, you look at it with disinterest and refocus attention back on what you were doing which was watching the romance.

      You don’t try to hold the unwanted thought OFF because that is ATTENTION. Place attention purely on what you want to be there, not on what you don’t want to be there.

      Hope this helps… let me know if you need more clarity.


    1. You’re welcome Dylan, let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with. Btw, talking of faith, I also recommend Happy Guide for you to read. The other books I recommended to clear your mind of doubt and to gain clarity about the meaning of Jesus’s teachings. But then it always comes down to “What can I DO?” Happy Guide is full of what to do AND how to do it, including “how to become like a child.” ~ Mike


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