Addressing Common Types of Unwanted Thoughts (Esther Smith)
How about you? Do you experience thoughts you don’t want? Like me, do you ruminate on beliefs about yourself, the world, or God that feel true even though you know they are not? Like many people I meet, do you feel tormented by depressed, anxious, or intrusive thinking? Like everyone, are you uncertain about what to do with some of the thoughts that enter your mind?
For some people, unwanted thoughts feel like a mere annoyance. Other people experience them as problematic daily interruptions, and still others would describe them as a brutal and invisible form of torture. No matter the level of your distress, unwanted thoughts of all kinds often seem better kept inside. Perhaps you have the feeling that if you opened up about what went on in your head, no one would understand. Perhaps people would judge you or even think you are crazy.
No matter how stubborn your thoughts may feel, you are not alone. We all walk around with thoughts we just can’t get out of our heads. Consider some of the most common categories of unwanted thoughts people experience.
Worried and Anxious Thoughts
Everyone experiences worried and anxious thoughts from time to time. Mild worry over life circumstances may briefly appear. Anxious thoughts may cause heart palpitations and stomach pain. Full-blown panic attacks may lead to fears of dying. What if I don’t know what to say and look stupid? What if my baby gets sick? How will I pay these bills? Am I having a heart attack? Am I dying?
Self-Deprecating Thoughts That Assign a False Identity
Self-deprecating thoughts arise when we see ourselves differently from how Scripture describes us. I’m not good enough. I have to be perfect. I’m worthless and I hate myself.
Depressed, Hopeless, and Suicidal Thoughts
Life circumstances, difficult relationships, and dysfunctions in our bodies and souls can lead us to depression and hopelessness. This is too hard. I’m not sure I can forgive myself. Nothing will ever get better. People would be better off without me. I just want to die.
Racing Thoughts and Incessant Mental Chatter
Sometimes it’s hard to turn off our brains. There may or may not be anything upsetting about the content of our racing thoughts. Either way, we wish we could stop the incessant chatter. I should cook lasagna for dinner. I can’t forget to change the oil in the car. What should I be doing with my life? I just want to leave everything and never come back.
Daydreams, Fantasies, and Mental Pictures of Past and Future Events
We may rehearse mental images of past events that we wish had gone differently. Other times, we fantasize about an ideal version of the future or predict every disaster we can imagine. I can’t believe I said something so stupid in that meeting. How much better would life be if I had a different wife? I just know my son will get sick and die.
Irrational Thoughts That Don’t Match Reality
We all experience times when our thinking becomes biased or impaired and we struggle to see certain situations or people clearly. Sometimes this thinking can become obsessive. In other cases, people experience delusional thinking that breaks from reality. No one likes me. If I touch that doorknob, I will get sick. The FBI is following me.
Our sinful thoughts can be judgmental, envious, and bitter. Other times they are lustful, angry, deceitful, and prideful. I hate him. One lie won’t hurt. I’m better than all of them. This will be the last time . . .
Thoughts That Contradict Professed Theology
Sometimes our thoughts contradict our theology in shameful or anxiety-provoking ways. If I just ______, God will accept me. Does God love me? Is heaven real? Am I even a Christian?
Intrusive Thoughts and Images
Many people experience shocking thoughts and images that seem to spontaneously appear out of nowhere. These thoughts are typically highly distressing and feel shameful to admit. Oftentimes, they revolve around sensitive themes such as violence, sexuality, and faith. I could walk across the room and stab my daughter. I just had a sexual thought about my pastor. I hate God. What if I jumped off this building?
Thoughts Related to Traumatic Experiences
Trauma occurs when distressing events overwhelm our ability to cope. Following a traumatic incident, it’s common for our thinking to become clouded by thoughts that fit into many or all of the categories listed above. Thoughts filled with shame, doubt, fear, anger, and sadness may linger just beneath our conscious awareness. It takes careful examination to realize they are coloring our overall mindset far more than we realize. I am dirty. God doesn’t love me. I’m going crazy. I never feel safe. Will the pain ever stop?
Unwanted Thoughts about Unwanted Thoughts
Sometimes our most distressing thoughts happen when we start to feel bad, guilty, or ashamed that we are experiencing unwanted thoughts. God must be so disappointed in me for being anxious. I’m a bad Christian for being depressed. Why can’t I just stop thinking that?
Which category resonates with you the most? Many of these categories overlap, and you may find yourself struggling with more than one category at the same time. No matter the type of thoughts you tend toward, it’s likely your efforts to find relief haven’t been completely successful. As hard as you try, you can’t stop thinking, feeling, or believing the unwanted thoughts that cross your mind.
What should you do next? To learn more about how to renew your mind with God’s truth, get yourself a copy of Esther’s new book, A Still and Quiet Mind. Westminister Books has a great sale!
*Note: Today’s post is an excerpt from Esther’s new book.
 This book does not address suicidal thoughts in detail. If you find yourself ruminating on thoughts of death, reach out to a friend or counselor. If your thoughts turn into a plan to kill yourself, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. For further help, consider reading I Just Want to Die: Replacing Suicidal Thoughts with Hope by David Powlison (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010). See also the Suicide Resources page in the right-hand margin of this blog site.