10 Methods for Managing Your Thoughts and Mind

Medically reviewed by: Erica Munro, MSc
Tuesday, November 21 2023

Having unwanted or maladaptive thoughts can be frustrating or even distressing. These kinds of thoughts may pop into your head briefly or stick around longer, and may impact your emotional wellness.

If you’ve had these unwanted thoughts, you may feel like they’re completely out of your control, coming and going as they please — and their unpredictable nature may lead to more stress and anxiety. But while immediately preventing these thoughts entirely may not be possible, it is possible to manage them, helping improve your mindset and emotional well-being. 

Below, we’ll explain what it means to manage maladaptive thoughts and give some examples of what this might look like. We’ll also go over several methods you can use to handle these thoughts more productively. 

What does it mean to manage your thoughts? 

Managing your thoughts doesn’t mean suppressing or ignoring them. Suppressing unwanted thoughts won’t make them go away. In fact, research shows that doing this may even raise the risk of depression or anxiety. 

Rather, handling unwanted thoughts means managing and directing your thinking patterns. Our thoughts have a significant influence on how we feel. For example, thinking about a recent setback or failure may make you feel sad, disappointed, or angry. You might get stuck dwelling on these feelings, which may lead to symptoms of depression or other mental health conditions. 

Managing your thought patterns in adaptive ways may help improve your emotional well-being. In the following sections, we’ll explore what managing your thoughts involves in greater detail.

Redirecting unwanted thoughts 

While you might not be able to completely prevent unwanted thoughts, you can redirect them. Rather than trying to stop these thoughts, you can learn to shift them through a new perspective — in other words, look at them in a different light. 

For example, let’s say you didn’t meet your daily exercise goal for one day. Instead of focusing on failure, think of it as a minor setback and remind yourself of all the times you did meet that goal. This way, you’re redirecting the unhelpful failure-focused thoughts into something more productive. 

Regulating your attention 

Where you focus your attention can make a big difference in the way you think and feel. Harmful distractions, like intrusive thoughts, can take up all of your attention and affect your mood. 

To counter this, you can learn to focus your attention on desired subjects or tasks. For example, you might grab a book to read instead of focusing on unproductive thoughts. For additional support, therapy may also help you train your mind to manage those unwanted distractions and focus on more desirable tasks or subjects instead. 

SonderMind can connect you with a counselor to help you learn to regulate your attention. Find out more about SonderMind’s personalized approach to counseling and therapy.

Being present in the moment 

Mindfulness, or focusing on the present instead of stressing about the future or dwelling on the past, is another helpful way to manage unwanted thought patterns and reduce feelings of anxiety. Being present can also prevent you from overthinking. 

Mindfulness provides a way to keep your mind focused on the present. This practice has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety. It can also help you learn to let thoughts — even unwanted ones — float by without derailing your inner peace.

Limiting rumination 

Rumination means engaging in repetitive thought patterns that are maladaptive, unhelpful, or unproductive. These thoughts might get stuck playing in a loop in your mind, making it difficult to manage them. If rumination becomes chronic, it can take a toll on your mental health.

Dwelling on or being preoccupied with these thoughts may significantly affect your mood and lead to feelings of hopelessness or anxiety. Learning to manage your thoughts can help you limit or avoid ruminating. 

Regulating your emotions 

Our thoughts and emotions are closely connected, with our thought patterns affecting our emotions and vice versa. For example, thinking about a loss you’ve experienced may make you feel sad and upset. If you’re in a sad or gloomy mood, you may be more susceptible to unproductive thoughts. 

Regulating your emotions involves understanding and managing them. You may allow yourself to acknowledge and accept the loss, but without allowing those sad thoughts to take over. Learning how to regulate your emotions this way can help you handle future stressors more adaptively, so you can better manage maladaptive thought patterns when they occur. 

10 methods to manage your mind and thoughts 

Learning to manage your maladaptive thoughts may seem intimidating at first, but it can bring a host of benefits, like reducing anxiety and thinking more clearly. 

To help you get started, let’s walk through different methods you can use to manage maladaptive thought patterns. As you read, keep in mind that everyone’s journey is unique; you may find that some methods work better for you than others. 

1. Set clear, realistic expectations for yourself 

While being ambitious and setting goals is great, it’s also important to be realistic about what you can achieve. Setting lofty or unattainable goals may set you up for disappointment if you cannot reach them, which could lead to self-criticism or feelings of inadequacy. 

However, with self-compassion and self-awareness, you can get to know your limitations and work with them. You can then set goals and expectations accordingly. 

Let’s say you want to manage your time better and stop procrastinating. Don’t set a goal to complete every task or project you have right away: That’s not realistic. Instead, set a goal to work on them a little at a time, give yourself reasonable deadlines, and set yourself up for success by scheduling reminders for yourself along the way. 

2. Practice mindfulness and meditation 

Meditation and mindfulness can offer powerful ways to manage maladaptive thoughts and regulate emotions. Research shows that these practices help people stay focused on the present, reducing anxiety and stress and increasing awareness and the ability to think clearly. 

Mindfulness meditation lets thoughts drift through your mind as you focus on the present moment. These practices teach you to avoid giving unwanted or intrusive thoughts attention as they float by. For example, you may repeat a mantra to yourself or focus on how blue the sky looks and how the wind feels on your skin rather than allowing unwanted thoughts to derail your attention.

3. Learn deep breathing and relaxation techniques 

When you’re anxious, angry, or upset, taking a deep breath can help you calm down. Why does this work so well? Deep breathing slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and takes your brain out of fight-or-flight mode. It helps you create space to manage unwanted thoughts and emotions once you feel calmer. 

Therapists sometimes use deep breathing or other relaxation techniques as first-line interventions due to their immediate and diverse benefits. Examples of techniques therapists may use include:

  • Breath focus, where you focus on inhaling and exhaling slowly 
  • Guided imagery or visualization, where you imagine a calming or soothing scene or location
  • Progressive muscle relaxation, where you gradually ease tension in different muscle groups 

4. Limit your exposure to negativity 

Reading or watching the news, checking social media, or watching an upsetting movie can all be sources of negative stimuli in your environment, which may trigger unwanted thoughts. 

However, surrounding yourself with positive stimuli can help counter these effects. You might spend quality time with loved ones, listen to uplifting songs, or get close to nature on daily walks after seeing or hearing something upsetting. 

While it’s unrealistic to completely eliminate your exposure to negativity, balancing it with positive stimuli may keep you from feeling overwhelmed by the negative stimuli. 

5. Identify your distorted thinking patterns 

Recognizing your maladaptive thought patterns is the first step to challenging them. These patterns may be extremely disruptive and can significantly affect how you respond to everyday occurrences. 

Some of the most common maladaptive thought patterns include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking, or thinking in extremes
  • Catastrophizing, or exaggerated thinking 
  • Emotional reasoning, or treating feelings as facts
  • Overgeneralization, or making generalizations about negative experiences 
  • Personalization, or taking negative outcomes personally 

Some types of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help with these unhelpful patterns. A therapist can work with you to help identify, recognize, and address these patterns and cognitive distortions, and help you build more adaptive thought patterns instead. 

6. Establish a routine 

Having a routine can do wonders for your thoughts and mental clarity. Structure and routines bring predictability to our lives, which can ease anxious thoughts and allow us to think more clearly. 

Your daily routine might involve waking up at the same time every day, sticking to the same meal times, taking an evening walk, and going to bed at the same time. You might take an exercise class on the same day and time every week or always do your grocery shopping on Saturday mornings. 

Having an established routine helps take the guesswork out of your schedule, helping you approach each day with clearer thoughts and greater confidence. 

7. Limit non-prescription stimulants and alcohol 

Alcohol and non-prescription stimulants have been linked to increased anxiety and may lead to erratic thoughts when consumed excessively. Moderation is key when it comes to alcohol and non-prescription stimulants. Limiting your consumption of these substances helps protect you from potentially harmful effects on your mental well-being.  

It’s important to note that some people do need prescription stimulants to manage or treat certain conditions, such as ADHD. However, stimulants like caffeine may have adverse effects on others, like anxiety and jitters. 

Again, moderation is key. For example, if you’re a heavy coffee drinker but find that the caffeine increases your anxiety, you might decide to slowly reduce your caffeine intake. Instead of a few cups of coffee per day, you might reduce that to two cups, then one cup. 

8. Acknowledge and let go of negative thoughts 

You can observe negative thoughts without letting them take hold of your mind. Acknowledging these thoughts and observing them without judgment helps take their power away. In fact, research shows that accepting unwanted thoughts rather than judging them is linked to improved emotional well-being. 

For example, you replay an argument with someone while blaming yourself for losing your temper. Acknowledge these maladaptive thoughts, forgive yourself, resolve to treat others with more patience from now on, and let the unhelpful thoughts go. 

Accepting these thoughts makes it easier to reframe them into more positive or adaptive narratives. Judging these thoughts gives them too much weight or importance in your mind, which makes them harder to manage. 

9. Ask self-evaluating questions 

You don’t have to accept all of your thoughts as they are. Questioning maladaptive thoughts can help you learn more about why you might have them. For example, you might stop and ask yourself why you think the worst will happen in certain situations.

This introspection can help you develop self-awareness, allowing you to gain insights into your feelings and behaviors. When you question your thoughts, you can achieve greater clarity and work on making adaptive changes to your thought patterns. 

10. Meet with a licensed mental health professional 

Working with a licensed mental health professional can provide valuable help with managing unwanted thoughts. They can help you identify cognitive distortions, teach relaxation techniques, help you develop self-compassion, and address underlying causes of maladaptive thinking patterns. 

Keep in mind that different mental health professionals use different approaches to address various concerns. CBT is a common approach used for managing unwanted thoughts — focusing on identifying maladaptive thought patterns, challenging them, and replacing them. While CBT is common in these cases, you’ll work directly with your therapist to determine what works best for you. 

Learn more about how SonderMind can connect you with a therapist to help you change your life and achieve thought management goals. 

Work with a licensed therapist at SonderMind to begin managing your thoughts 

Unwanted thoughts can be distracting and disruptive — but they don’t have to take over your life. With practice and support, you can better manage unproductive thoughts and shift them to more helpful ones, improving your overall well-being. 

Working with a licensed therapist can give you the guidance and support you may need to help you identify and reframe negative thoughts. SonderMind makes it easy to connect with a therapist online or in person who can help you challenge those thought patterns and put you on track toward a healthier mindset. 

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