How To Get Something Off Your Mind

Have you ever had an itch that you just can’t seem to scratch?

Maybe it’s just out of reach, maybe your hands were tied behind your back, or maybe you did scratch it, but it just kept on coming back.

In the beginning it’s just uncomfortable, but after a while, it’s almost like a form of torture.

But this itch doesn’t need to be physical. Sometimes it’s psychological. This discomfort is the same feeling we get when we can’t get something off our mind. When no matter how much we try to avoid it, this thought just keeps on popping up and playing itself over and over again.

Whether we’re thinking about someone we used to know, a future event we’re worried about, or an imaginary argument with a coworker, as time goes on this thing on our mind starts to bring us a lot of discomfort.

At a certain point, what we want is to be done with it. To let it go and bring our attention to something else. 

To understand how to get something off your mind, you need to understand how the mind works. Although it’s an incredibly complex piece of machinery, there are certain general attitudes that the mind seems to follow, which we can use as principles to guide our behaviour. We could even think about these attitudes as different goals or personalities. 

woman stressed can't stop thoughts

The mind is:

A problem-solving machine. Because evolution has allowed us to develop a mind for problem-solving, it always wants a new idea to ‘figure out.’ Where there are no problems it will create one. 

An addict. The mind finds what it likes and it sticks to it. Worries are addictive because they give the mind something to chew on. 

A fake scientist. The mind likes to believe it uses flawless logic to study the world. At the same time, it will often act in incredibly irrational and unscientific ways (like creating fake scenarios and playing them on loop for hours). You can use this to your advantage though. By proving the mind wrong, it will lose momentary interest.

A reflection of the body. The mind follows the body. Quite simply, when you are sick and in pain, you don’t have the same thoughts you have when you’re healthy. 

A reflection of emotions. Emotions may be considered psychological, but they happen in the body first and foremost. Over 130 studies have shown that even intentionally changing your facial expressions – such as smiling – can change the thoughts you have.

Not reality. The mind likes to draw maps of reality. When we forget that our thoughts are just interpretations of reality, we can get caught in mind traps that are hard to get out of. 

So, now that you have some idea of how the mind tends to function, you have some context for the ways to stop thinking about something. Once you test these out you’ll see that some of them are more difficult to begin with but more effective in the long term. 

woman can't get something of her mind

10 ways to get something off your mind

#10. Challenge the thought with a reframe

This method is based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and the work of David Burns. In CBT, it’s common that you’re asked to identify the thought as a distortion and reframe it as something more appropriate (and realistic).

For example, take the thought “I’ll never be able to write a book .”

This is an example of polarised thinking (also known as black-and-white thinking). It could be reframed as “I don’t feel I can write a book now, but maybe in the future, I’ll be more confident in my writing.”  

To understand cognitive distortions in more detail, check out this article

#9. Replace it with something more exciting

The mind loves novelty and drama. If you have something that you can’t take your mind off, it’s basically your brain’s way of choosing the most interesting channel on the internal TV. If you can find something that’s a bigger, better, more exciting and hopefully healthier way for your mind to play with, then try and focus on that. That’s why it is good to find a hobby, hobbies keep us engaged and leave less space for us to learn how to stop caring so much about things that aren’t that important.

#8. Convince your mind that you’re bored of it.

This is very hard to do, but if you can master the art of indifference, you’ll be free from a lot of stress. One way to do that is to look at the thought until it simply becomes boring, though for people with serious anxiety, this is very challenging. Another is to recall the thought that’s stressing you, and to intentionally feel a sense of boredom when you do so. This will condition your mind to associate boredom with the thought and through time it will be given less energy.

#7. Move towards it

Similar to the point above, this is difficult. However, it’s useful to consider that it’s actually the avoidance of a thought that makes the mind say “oh this must be interesting if I’m using all this effort to avoid it.” When the thought is looked at honestly, such as in therapy or while journaling, the mind labels that story complete and boring, and moves onto something else.

#6. Challenge it

This isn’t always a long term solution, nor is it effective in the midst of very strong feelings. However, proving to your mind why something is wrong is one way to lessen its grip over you. For example, if you’re worried about someone having judged you for something you said or did, you can slowly and logically look at the situation. Are they really judging me? Isn’t it more likely that they’re actually indifferent? What would actually happen if I said the wrong thing? Have situations like this been forgotten in the past?

can't get something off his mind

#5. Make it worse

To make something worse requires a little bit of skill. First, you need to be reasonable. If you’re having suicidal thoughts or anything that puts you in danger, you don’t want to make it worse. Second, you need to be able to focus on the feeling of discomfort associated with the thought. If you can’t stop thinking about what someone texted you, you can focus on this sensation – maybe butterflies in your stomach – and try to enhance it. You’ll see that in doing so your resistance to the thought seems to drop away, and although it may not be a nice experience, you’re not in danger like your mind would have you believe. 

#4. Love it unconditionally

To love something unconditionally is to appreciate it exactly as it is. Again, this is not easy. But where you can find compassion for your thoughts and feelings, you can find love. You might not like your thoughts, but you can be sure they’re your brain’s way of trying to protect you. 

#3. Get into the body

If you don’t believe that the body governs the mind, try this. Think of a worry, something that feels heavy, something that won’t go away. Now go and exhaust your body – even just 10 minutes quick running on a treadmill will do. When your legs start burning, or you start to get out of breath, try to think about your worry. 

#2. Slow your breathing down

In meditation and yoga, the breath is fundamental. Breathe is the root of life, and the way we breathe influences the entire nervous system, as well as the body, emotions and thoughts. Slow, deep breathing will slow the mind and create calm thoughts, quick, unbalanced breathing, will signal to your brain that it needs oxygen because it is in danger. There are a ton of other benefits to deep breathing which I’ve covered in detail before.

#1. Do something creative

Most people are familiar with the brain lateralization – the fact we have a right brain and left brain which each perform overlapping but distinct functions. The left side of the brain seems to be more focused on problem-solving, which can lend itself to obsessive thoughts and rumination. The right side of the brain is more open, intuitive and creative. That’s why art can be therapeutic, it gets us into the right side of our brain.

It’s not always easy to get something off your mind. No matter how much will power or focus we have, there are certain psychological tendencies that can keep pulling us back. That’s why these techniques have been designed to go with the flow of the mind, rather than fight against it. 

What experience do you have trying to get something off your mind? Let me know in the comments!

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

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