Most of us have at one point or another have had the experience of having unwanted thoughts, and tried unsuccessfully for some time to get rid of those intrusive thoughts. It can happen to anyone, even the most sane, mentally sound person. These unwanted thoughts can take all types of forms such as negative thoughts, irrational fears, or even seemingly random and bizarre ideas or images that pop into your head when you least expect them. For some reason, these intrusive thoughts stick in your head for days, weeks, and maybe even months. Why does this happen and what can an afflicted person do about it?
The first step to recovery is to understand the workings of the human brain. Throughout our formal education from childhood to adulthood, we are taught and trained to think logically and analytically. We primarily utilize our left side of the brain, the rational side. But in reality our brains do not function like computers. We are emotional creatures with deep and vibrant brain activity that takes place in the unconscious realm. When we focus we can think in a linear pattern but otherwise thoughts may just bubble up at any random time. These thoughts can be positive, mundane, fearful, etc. What gives thoughts staying power is the emotion we attach to them. Thoughts that we react strongly to really "stick" in our minds. They may bounce around in our head for a while or be forgotten only to return before long. Negative and frightening thoughts are often more likely to stick in our minds than cheerful thoughts. Anyone who has had a traumatic childhood experience can attest to this. This can lead to a vicious cycle where a person thinks of some fear, which causes that person to react emotionally. As a result the fear lingers and gains more "stickiness." By allowing the mind to constantly return to that fear, it becomes stronger and even more difficult to dismiss.
What can be done to break this cycle and overcome compulsive thought processes? An important step is to realize that you are not your thoughts. Just because you have unwanted thoughts does not mean you are crazy. You have to separate the "me" from the thoughts. When thoughts pop up in your head, try to observe them and take note. Then let them pass by. The key is to not cling to the thoughts or react in any way. You can, however, react to positive thoughts and act on thoughts that are productive. The ability to have choice and not react compulsively to every single thought is what counts. This is a big part of what meditation is about. Meditating on the breath allows you to focus on the process of being in the present, while calmly observing any thoughts and feelings that arise within you without getting involved. Regular practice can lead to a calmer disposition, less mental anxiety, and deep insight into the workings of the mind.