Shut up, brain, just shut up!
April 17, 2015 12:23 PM   Subscribe

There are some incidents that happened in the past that I'd rather not think about, but still do.

Like everyone, there are a few things that I've experienced that I'd really like to forget about. But I think I'm worse than most people about making my brain stop thinking about things. I'm no longer having intrusive thoughts that disrupt my daily life, but every single day in the past few years since they happened, they cross my mind once or twice. Maybe thrice if I don't have a lot going on that day. I want to think about these things zero times a day. Like, I'd like to Black Mirror-style wipe it from my brain.

Can I make it so I don't have thoughts about these incidents every day? Do I just have to wait until more time has passed? It's already been years since all of these situations happened; is it going to take decades until it's far enough removed? How do you stop thoughts from entering your mind, however fleeting?
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper to Human Relations (24 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience it's not so much preventing the thoughts from returning--because I for one can't--but employing as much forgiveness as you can muster so they don't sting so much. Forgive whoever or whatever made the event shitty, especially if it was you.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 12:30 PM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you think you have intrusive thoughts worse than most people (which may or may not be the case), consult with a psychologist or psychiatrist. Intrusive thoughts are a symptom of OCD and several other disorders.

Whether or not you are typical in this regard or have a disorder, we cannot erase memories in a controlled way. What you can control is how you deal with them.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:31 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you have to think the thoughts and then let them go. Fighting them just prolongs the experience. So have the thoughts and then tell yourself you are letting them go. Eventually they will recede. A second technique is to use a rubber band around your wrist. Every time you have the thought, snap it. Eventually you'll notice it fades.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:31 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

But I think I'm worse than most people about making my brain stop thinking about things.

Nah, you're not. This happens to everybody. Just about an hour ago in Trader Joe's while trying to decide if I wanted to try the canned dolmas a particularly cringe-worthy memory of a sexual experience with a boyfriend from a decade ago popped into my head and I did one of those faces like when you get brain freeze and I must have groaned or said something because the woman stocking the shelf next to me looked over and asked if I was ok. Everybody deals with this.

I'm not saying that to diminish your experience at all, but just so you know it's not just you.

One thing that helps is to realize that this is super common, and to let the thoughts come and pass without dwelling on them. The surest way to think about a thing is to hope you don't think about it, much like the futility of trying to will yourself to fall asleep when you're awake at 3am. Accept that the thoughts will come remind yourself that that time in your life has passed, and carry on.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
posted by phunniemee at 12:34 PM on April 17, 2015 [21 favorites]

EMDR and CBT made all the difference for me! I struggled with shame for most of my life even from things that happened when I was like 4 or 5, and EMDR helped me unpack all that baggage and sort through it more effectively so the thoughts that used to rule my life no longer intrude as much or at all. You might find it helpful too, if only to provide you with new tools to process what's frustrating you so that it goes away!
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:34 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

The second the memory comes up, I think, "NO!" And then I immediately think of something, anything else - math problems, a movie plot, grocery list, anything. I used to let the memory play out, thinking I needed to rehash it to get over it. That never worked, after years of trying. The key for me so far is to stop my brain immediately.

Now, this is with the caveat that your memories aren't the kind that might need professional help to deal with. Mine are all the embarrassing things I said at work, thoughts of ex boyfriends, etc variety.
posted by umwhat at 12:35 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

For my OCD, I learned how to take those intrusive thoughts and play with them in my mind until they stopped controlling my brainspace and I was able to do with them what I wanted. This was done with the help of a therapist, which may be something, if this is interfering with your enjoyment of life, you might want to look into.
posted by xingcat at 12:36 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Part of the process is time. It sounds like that's already working since you don't think about them all day every day.

Can you identify what prompts you to think about these incidents? Maybe you can figure out a way to avoid the prompts. This sounds silly but it worked for me: I have to keep some emails from my ex regarding taxes and divorce proceedings. Instead of a folder named "ex's name" I put them in a folder called "old documents". Now instead of seeing his name and getting aggravated, my eye just slides over the title without triggering any memories.

Good luck.
posted by Beti at 12:37 PM on April 17, 2015

it was really hard, but the thing that helped me was

Going from doing this:
Past Thing pops up in head
I react by going "ohgodthisisterrriblestopthinkingofthisaahhhhhhhhhh"
And thus brought it into the present with me because my mind and body were tense and ugh.

I changed to doing this:
Past Thing pops up in head
I react by going "yep." deep breath in and out "... it's in the past. if anyone still cares, well, nothing i can do. it's not who i am now. it is ok to let this go."
And thus it stays in the past where it belongs.

It wasn't easy at first, it took several months, but it's a heck of a lot easier now. You will have to do the new reaction several times at first, but then it will become second nature so that instead of going "ohmygodnoooo" and tense up, you go "whatever" like Hyde from That 70s Show and go on about your life.

Best of luck to you!
posted by sio42 at 12:41 PM on April 17, 2015 [15 favorites]

One thing I found helpful was to try turning down the colour in the memory. When it would pop up, I'd stop it and slowly dial down the colour to leach the impact out of it. Doing that enough times seems to help take the sting out. The memory is still there, it's just less impactful now. Watching it happen on a television screen screen and then watching myself watching it on a television screen, to gain some mental distance, also helps.
posted by Solomon at 12:41 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

I learned this process from someone else here, but what seems to work for me is

1) acknowledging the thought for what it is -- an intrusive thing that you could potentially get 'stuck' thinking about;

2) telling myself "I will address this later" -- really, acknowledge that it is something you could give good thought to, but just that you won't do it right now; and

3) like Beti said, it's also important to try to identify why the thought arises. General stress? Specific situation that's triggering you? Tired? Hungry? Because if you're really just hungry or bored, you can do something about that, and then you don't need to address the thought later ...

Somehow these add up to giving myself permission to let it go. Or something. Most of the time. Good luck; we're all human.
posted by Dashy at 12:44 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Something that I've heard about mediation may help you - it's what people who meditate call "monkey brain". It happens when you try to meditate, but you keep getting all these weird intrusive thoughts about random nonsense; it's like your subconscious has turned into a pesky monkey and is trying to demand your attention.

And a lot of people think that having these thoughts is a sign they're failing meditation; but it's not. The point of meditation isn't stopping yourself from having those thoughts, the point of meditation is stopping yourself from reacting to those thoughts. It's like - you know how if a grownup and a little kid are out somewhere and the adult sees another adult friend and the kid is sort of standing around being bored, and the kid starts interrupting them with all sorts of random nonsense ("look, it's a rock!" "look, I can stand on one foot!") If the adult tries to ignore the kid and keep talking, the kid will get even more persistent ("Mom, look! Look! LOOK! LOOK! LOOK! MOOOOOOM LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOK!") but if the adult merely just acknowledges the kid just the tiniest bit ("mom, look!" "Yes, I see you") and then goes back to the conversation, that's usually enough for the kid.

And the same thing happens with those kind of thoughts - most of the time, if these thoughts pop into your head and you go into a whole mental "oh GOD why I am I thinking about this what is wrong with me why can't I concentrate aaaaaah" pit, then that derails your focus; but instead, if these thoughts come into your head and you go, "oh. Yeah. That happened. Okay." and then go on, then...those thoughts have less control over you when they show up, and they're less likely to come up.

So the fact that you're having these thoughts isn't strange, and their existance isn't the problem - how you react to them is something you can control, though. so maybe try just a simple, "yeesh, yeah, that wasn't great. But it happened, and I learned from it. Oh well" kind of acknowledgement to yourself, and then you go on.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:46 PM on April 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

A good therapist can help you to process these past experiences which will lessen the need for your brain to keep churning.
posted by elf27 at 12:47 PM on April 17, 2015

I'm with cheese- forgiveness is an extremely effective method of changing it from 'OMG this event from the past HURTS NOW' to 'this event from the past hurt'

Even if you have forgiven in the past, you can still forgive again! After all, there are multiple facets of hurt, so there are multiple things to forgive. Even if you have forgiven them all before, it never hurts to forgive now, again.
posted by Jacen at 12:50 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Stopping your brain from thinking a thing isn't really possible. Convincing your brain that a thought is seriously important and needs even more attention right this second is, unfortunately, both possible and pretty easy. Your mind is really good at teaching itself lessons, at problem-solving, and one of the ways it does this is to present a constant stream of images, memories, procedural knowledge, sometimes random, sometimes relevant, and then learning from your reaction.

So, like, if I burn my hand on the stove, for a few minutes at least, my entire attention is going to be wrapped up in hands, stoves, heat and pain. It'll be what I think about. And that's good, and healthy--I should obsess over the pain for a little bit, so that I remember not to put my hand on the burner like that. And, normally, that brief obsession will fade, and other things will take my attention. When the memory of burning comes up next time, it won't seem important, so it'll fade from view.

But what if, when the memory of burning came up next time, I tried to push the thought away? The brain doesn't understand pushing thoughts away, it doesn't parse intention quite like that. Instead, it sees that this thought has caused me stress--I'm wrinkling my brow, I'm hunching my shoulders. My goodness, says my brain, this burning business sure is causing a reaction--this must be a really important memory! Let's bring it up again tomorrow. And it happens tomorrow, and I'm like, why can't I stop thinking about this? Go away, burning memory! And now the brain sees that not only am I all scrunched up, but I'm angry! This thought is even more important than it realized! This anger, this distress, we need to solve this right away! So then my brain goes into problem-solving mode. Let's think, it says. Let's think about burning--let's put that memory in the spotlight, let's think over its implications. Meanwhile, I'm trying to remember what's on my grocery list or what my friend's telephone number is, but noooo, the brain is all, we must use up all available resources on this thought, it is so distressing!

Obviously burning my hand is a silly example, but our brains do the same thing with embarrassments, traumatic memories, fears. The key isn't to mash it all down, switch it all off. Instead, the key is to make some room in your head for the thought. Let it be there. Let it happen, in all its painful glory. That takes practice (a lot of practice if it has reached a really obsessive daily-happening degree), but fighting the thought ends up taking up so much energy, and adds so much stress, that it can be a huge relief to reach the point where the thought is just there, and you can think, "Yup, that's the thought all right, and since it's just a thought, it will go away on its own." Not forcing it away. Just letting it live the normal short life-cycle of a thought.

There are a lot of books on mindfulness out there that deal with precisely this; my current favorite is called "The Mindful Way through Depression." My advice would be, go to the library, looking through some of these books, try out some of the simpler meditation exercises, and just take a look to see if this practice might be something you feel is useful. I am finding a lot of help with obsessive thinking with these practices.
posted by mittens at 12:59 PM on April 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

Try to change the memory. Like you're the director of the movie. Don't just tell yourself "No!" because that won't work. Let yourself remember the first few minutes accurately. Then when it starts getting bad and awkward, think, "Okay what if I made some edits here? What if this happened instead? How would that have gone?" Trying to visualize a whole different ending takes brainpower and is distracting and can be weirdly satisfying. And it kind of re-writes the associations in your head. So next time you start to remember it, you can sub in the good ending instead.
posted by quincunx at 1:15 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think this depends so much on the nature of the memories/experiences in question--depending on whether they are traumatic, or merely cringeworthy and embarrassing.

Lots of good advice above for either option. To the "cringeworthy/embarrassing" column, I've found this helps: when the memory comes into my brain, I'll say--out loud, with confidence, to myself--"huh, well that was pretty fucking stupid." or "heh, that was really goddamn embarrassing." THEN, I tell myself--out loud again--"Well, nothing to be done about it now." and "I guess everyone has memories like that. Oh well."

This doesn't change the frequency with which these flashbacks occur, but it has taken the teeth out. I don't get that sickening gut-punch of embarrassment, and the power of these recollections is slowly fading.
posted by duffell at 1:27 PM on April 17, 2015

I will suggest that the fact that you still think about it so much suggests that something is not really resolved. There are multiple different ways to resolve it, such as therapy, working with the idea and so on (many of them covered above).

I really don't think time alone fixes these things. That is kind of a deadline mentality and the brain doesn't really work that way. The brain works on a milestone format. So you stop thinking about something as often when you pass some milestone of having sufficiently resolved something.

It can help to keep busy, to set a challenging goal and focus on accomplishing that. I think this is useful for two reasons: Accomplishing something personally challenging changes you. And when you change as a person, past events become less relevant. But, also, it crowds out other things mentally. Accomplishing something challenging requires you to put a great deal of time, energy, mental focus and so on into Accomplishing The Thing.

When I went to GIS school, which was an 8 week long, boot camp style thing where I completed a certificate that typically took a year to complete, somewhere during that time, I had a very intense dream about, among other things, beheading a baboon. I had dropped out of college to get married and follow my husband's career. I had been a homemaker for a lot of years and financially dependent upon my husband. Completing an important educational goal that related to my career goals did something profound to my internal/emotional/psychological relationship to men. It fundamentally changed me and changed how I felt about men and related to them.

And that also fundamentally altered my relationship to my memories of having been sexually abused and raped as a child. I think about it a lot less and when I do think about it, it has much less sting.

So one way to put a stop to this is take on some all-consuming personal challenge that will force you to grow as a person. It can change you. It can crowd out old memories. And it can change your relationship to your past.

Return to school. Rehab a house yourself. Train for a marathon. I don't think it much matters what the challenge is, as long as it forces you to really focus on what you are doing in the here and now and is fairly all-consuming for a time.
posted by Michele in California at 1:35 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I used to make myself forget things by associating them with a thick, noisy, multisensory wall of static. Whenever the painful or embarrassing memory started to come up, and I felt that fist of shame or anxiety start to punch me in the gut, I would immediately bring up an image of chaotic fuzz, like dead-channel snow from an analog TV. I would focus on it entirely, blotting out everything else, until the feeling of stress subsided.

Repeating this exercise consistently would cause all the things that prompted me to recall the bad memory to become associated with the image of static as well; the static would come up right alongside the badness, giving me a chance to focus on the static instead, thereby preventing the bad memory from arriving into conscious thought. I always felt like I could choose to look behind the curtain, if I wanted to, but I never did. Instead I could just stay calm and glide on to the next thing. Eventually the recall would just fade away, and I haven't tripped over one of those static-wrapped memories in years, much less had one pop up intrusively. I'm not sure they still exist.

I have better tools now and don't need this one anymore, but it was helpful for a while.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:58 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know, it seems that different things work for different people. I found that after an event, I have to analyze it to bits fifteen times over to gain some distance. For long-term difficult emotions I have to use the meditation approach and allow the emotion to exist, acknowledge it, and wait for it to pass; but for old memories like you describe where there is no value in bringing it up again and nothing to learn from it, what works best for me is telling myself firmly "Stop. This was years ago and nobody even remembers it by now, so it's like it never happened". Or "No, I'm not thinking about it right now, there is no point, it isn't helping anything".

You might have to try a few things and see what sticks.
posted by Ender's Friend at 4:25 PM on April 17, 2015

I've found it helps to categorize my bad thoughts. There's no way to stop them from coming. Brains think. That's what they do. But rather than dwell on it or fight it, you can try to take control of it.

So, for instance, say one of your annoying thought patterns is about work. Anytime you start to think about when your boss yelled at you or you messed up a big project or something, you can stop and say "Oh, that's a work thought. My brain likes to go to those lately. Huh." and move on. Or if you had a fight with a friend that keeps coming up you can call it a "Relationship thought". Or whatever the case may be. It can be hard at first to just move on, but once you start to recognize the same thought patterns and recurring memories and such that you fall into then they begin to lose their power. Rather than spending 10 minutes being upset/ashamed/mad/etc. about the same old thing, you're able to see it for the waste of time it is.
posted by downtohisturtles at 7:08 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of good advice here. I would only add that especially if the memory is of a trauma, frequent recall is part of healing. It can occur with the purpose of desensitizing you to the memory and so maybe shouldn't be discouraged as much as embraced to allow your mind to dilute it. Nightmares and intrusive thoughts can be part of the process of letting go, but as many pointed out, it may take help from a pro and more time. You have mentioned it has improved some. Your body may be asking you to pay more attention to these thoughts and not less. There may be something specific that is asking for resolution.
posted by seldom seen at 5:51 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great advice above. To echo a few, for shame, it can help me to set aside time to really feel the shame and work towards an understanding of why I did the thing. If a memory is recurring to me because I haven't done that work, then I try that. (It sounds like you might be beyond that though.)

For traumatic memories, it really helped me to change it like a movie. Via memories, I was getting re-yelled at over and over again. The pain was always fresh and thus always needed revisited yet again. I introduced a third character who deescalated the situation right as the yelling started. I found an imaginary character who said the perfect thing, the thing that really would've ended the yelling successfully. (That took some trial and error. A couple times the brain scene got worse!) So then for awhile, whenever the scene came back, this person would deescalate it before the most hurtful things happened, and for a couple times, I'd feel like "wait, I want to know what happens next, wasn't it important?" But I'd already imagined the scene ending, so ...too late. It was like those other things happened after the theater curtains fell and everyone was leaving. Over time, the ending got more and more crisp. The spark of argument gets lit, nice guy puts it out, we move on before I got hurt, the end. Without fresh pain, the internal wounds healed.
posted by salvia at 9:55 AM on April 18, 2015

I agree with Michele in California that obsessive thoughts are indicative of unresolved issues. My therapist used to tell me that whenever I was having obsessive thoughts (the kind that make you feel ashamed, stupid, regretful, sad, angry) to find something I enjoy doing and start doing it immediately - as a distraction.

The problem with 'distracting' yourself from obsessive thoughts is that the obsessive thoughts don't go away. You're not teaching yourself about where they're coming from, or how irrational they are.

I'm not saying to sit around and think about the source of your obsessive thoughts even more. We're not trying to make the problem worse, obviously. What I am saying is that in order to quiet the mind of all the feelings and thoughts of shame and regret, one has to have their eyes opened to a world where the sources of those feelings still exist, but can be viewed through a rational lens.

It's seeing what your past life and current troubles look like when you're feeling hyper anxious, versus what they look like when you're rational and at peace.

These are techniques that have worked for me. As always, YMMV:

- Anxiety medication. Now, admittedly, this is also a temporary solution. You take it, the effects last a few hours, and then you're back to the way things were. But hear me out: there are lessons to be learned from how you feel while under the influence of anxiety medication. When I'm on my anxiety medication, I feel rational, realistic, and very open to the problems that are facing me. I can look at something like, say, a major financial mistake I made, and take the time to evaluate what I did wrong, what steps I need to take to get myself out of the hole, and then actually move forward with taking those steps, one by one. Likewise, it helps me to understand that it takes time to get up those steps. And that taking time is expected, and okay. If I don't take my anxiety medication, I'll just go "I am such a screw up I am such a screw up why did I do that why did I do that I hate myself I hate myself I should just give up now" until I realize I've been sitting on my couch with my shoulders scrunched up for the better part of an hour, and now all I've got is muscle spasms, heightened blood pressure and a clouded mental state. When I started to take notes about how I saw myself and my life when I was on anxiety medication, versus how I saw myself and my life while not on my anxiety medication, I started to see that not-anxious me was a person I looked up to and respected. I also saw that anxious me was a person who was believing every lie that her brain was telling her. I could either believe the lies (which is very easy to do because depression and anxiety have a way of making your negative thoughts seem so accurate), or I could remember that there is a rational, steady and productive person inside of me. That helped me to find my rational self even when not on medication. In other words, anxiety medication is a tool; if you use it properly, and are observant of how it affects your mind and worldview, you can influence how you experience life even when you aren't actively taking the medication.

- A couple of months ago, I started attending a weekly Soto Zen Meditation meet-up. The practice is the goal: you are practicing sitting, breathing, and being. With time and practice, the mind quiets. It's amazing how many stories our brain starts to tell us, even when we're just trying to have some solitude and go on a hike in the forest. It's the difference between walking along a trail and thinking about what you need to get at the grocery store later, or how you wish you'd gotten up earlier this morning, or creating a story in your head about the birds that just flew by; and walking along a trail and having no narrative in your mind at all. The mind is quiet, there is no narrator or story or voice, there is you and you are walking. This takes practice and I am still getting there. Meditation comes up as a solution on Metafilter A LOT, I know, but it really is a worthwhile endeavor. I recommend doing it with a group and instructor for a time, as opposed to starting out on your own. It's important to have someone to guide you, and others with whom to share and talk about your respective experiences. Check out and see if you can find any meditation practice groups in your area. For me, it really helps to have the structure of a weekly meet up and an experienced meditation practitioner as my guide. It's challenging but for those of us with obsessive thoughts, there is nothing more reassuring than being able to empty the mind and appreciate the beauty of the moment. Regular meditation practice will, in time, endow you with peace in the face of life's greatest challenges; as well as compassion for yourself.

- Books by Cheri Huber, such as There is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hate. Cheri's writing is incredible because, with an informal style, she helps you to see that your low self esteem is a monster of both our culture and our imagination. We've been programmed and conditioned to hate ourselves, and to take the blame for everything, and to flog ourselves even years after something happened. Cheri shows you how to identify and undo that lifelong conditioning.

- Deep breathing. This kind of goes back to meditation, but even if you aren't necessarily meditating, per-se, it can help to learn proper deep breathing techniques (breathe in deep through your nose, fill your lower abdomen with your breath, then breath out through your mouth) and to practice these whenever you find your mind racing with obsessive thoughts. Deep breaths engage your hypothalamus, which releases releases neurohormones that can fight the stress-causing hormones in your body - relaxing your muscles, slowing your thoughts, lowering your BP and heart rate. Suddenly, the thing that was bothering me now seems like something that has no business bothering me at all.

Anxiety is a really stupid jerk that shacks up in your head and whispers insults and hate into your ear all day. Anxiety is not you. Anxiety is a gremlin squatter that only you can kick out. It's not easy to kick him out, but experiencing what your life would be like without him will build the desire and ability to rid him from your mind for good.
posted by nightrecordings at 9:51 AM on April 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

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