Why Our Heads Fill Up with Too Many Thoughts and What to Do About It

If it hadn’t been so annoying, it would have been hilarious.

Several months ago, the American Psychological Association Practice Organization (APAPO) started a new listserv. The problem was, they didn’t ask permission; they just automatically added everyone in the organization to the list. Then, several weeks later, they sent out the first email—a relatively innocuous, informational correspondence. Useful to some. Spammy to others.

And the listserv exploded.

mindfulness

Photo Credit: ClevrCat via Compfight cc

It started with a handful of people asking to be removed from the list. Then, people who weren’t annoyed by the original email got annoyed by the extra emails, and they began demanding to be removed, as well. Next, people who had ignored the first round of complaints got angry at the exponential increase in messages, and they too replied to everyone, lambasting the whole community. My inbox was overflowing, even though the APAPO had only sent a single email.

The problem wasn’t the original email; it was the reaction to it.

This is how our minds work, too.

We have an original thought or feeling, something like, “I’m kind of sad today,” and it is rarely a problem in and of itself. Sadness happens—a relatively routine part of being alive. It is our slew of ensuing thoughts about that thought that become the problem:

“I have no reason to feel sad—what’s wrong with me? Quit being weak. Oh, no, I’m feeling worse—what if I get depressed again? I can’t handle this right now and I’ll let everyone down if I’m not my usual happy-go-lucky self and then no one will want to be around me and I’ll be alone.” And so on.

Or we might have this ordinary, relatively harmless initial thought: “I’m scared.” But then all our inner voices begin flooding our mental inbox with their reactions:

“I want to unsubscribe from this mind of mine! Get me out of this head! Why can’t I be brave? Why do bad things always happen to me? Am I being punished for something? Oh no, my heart is racing—am I having a heart attack? Am I going crazy? Surely everybody can see I’m totally losing it.”

Or maybe your initial mental message reads a little more like mine typically does: “I messed up.” It’s a relatively mundane statement of fact: you’re human, imperfect, so you make mistakes. But then the reactive thoughts start filling up your mind:

“I made a mess, so I am a mess. I never get it right; I’m never good enough. No wonder I always disappoint people. I’m worthless and who would ever want to be with me and I’ll never amount to anything and what’s the point of this life if you’re a nobody?”

Somewhere in the midst of the APAPO debacle, my annoyance actually did give way to humor, as I watched us replicate in electronic form what our minds do in thought-form every day. I chuckled to myself as I quietly unsubscribed from the list.

Of course, you can’t quietly unsubscribe from your mind.

Around the time I unsubscribed from the APAPO listserv, I created a listserv situation of my own: I accidentally scheduled an UnTangled blog post for the wrong day. I awoke to discover the error, and my initial thought was, “Whoops, I messed up.” But then the mental reaction began:

“You also sent out an Artisan blog post this morning. People won’t like having their inboxes jammed up by your words. They’ll unsubscribe.” And then, “When people unsubscribe from your email list; they’re unsubscribing from you. Why do you even bother to write at all?” As the morning wore on, this stream of thoughts filled up my mental inbox, making it difficult to get anything else done.

So I went down to the river.

Literally.

I drove to the river that runs through our town, and I watched the water flow past. And I pictured my thoughts like that river, flowing past me. As I watched them, I began to feel separate from them—just as my body was sitting next to the river of water, I knew my self was sitting outside the river of my thoughts, watching them, observing them. My thoughts weren’t me.

Within an hour, I could chuckle at the absurdity of my thought stream.

I need a lot of practice at this because, on that particular day, the initial thought was, “I made a little blogging mistake.” But some day, the thought is probably going to be something a lot bigger, for instance, “The doctor just told me really bad news.” By then, I need to be very well-practiced at watching the flood of mental reactions.

In life, unlike a listserv, you can’t unsubscribe from all the unwanted messages, experiences, thoughts, and feelings it sends you. What you can do is stop trying to unsubscribe from them. Instead, you can attend to them, you can watch them fill up your inbox. You can pay attention to them until you see them for what they are:

A little absurd, and maybe even a little comical.

But most definitely not you.

Then, as you watch the flood of thoughts subside, you will be free to read the original message again, to deal with your ordinary humanity, with all of its sadness, anxiety, mess, and illness.  Instead of being swept away by the flood of life, you will be free to drink it down. Until you’ve tasted every last bit of it.

The bitter.

The sweet.

And every thing in between.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Joyce Slaughter

    I love the river activity, real and visualized. What a great way to practice this surrender. As I read those words, I could literally see you in my minds eye, writing each of your negative thoughts on a piece of paper and throwing it into the currents to be carried away. Much like a burning bowl, but with water instead. Another great post. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      That is a fantastic idea, Joyce! I’d have to write them on leaves though, my superego wouldn’t let me throw paper in the river. Ha!

      • Joyce Slaughter

        Oh no! Not real paper. That would be wasteful. Unless it was special, biodegradable, fish food paper … then that would be kind of cool.

        I just had this image of you in your hoodie sitting at the river’s edge writing your thoughts on paper and releasing them. It was very peaceful. 🙂

  • Sayidali

    Great points – thanks for sharing!.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Sayidali, and you’re welcome!

  • Mike Gates

    Good morning.
    “I want to unsubscribe from this mind of mine!” and “A little absurd, and maybe even a little comical. But most definitely not you.”

    These bookend what is important to remember; I am NOT my thoughts. I can recall a time in my life when I was convinced that my head was out to get me; an enemy to be feared. I would joke that “If I bought this thing at the store I’d be at the returns counter right now!” At the same time I (subconsciously) identified self with my thinking so that made life pretty miserable. Since I wasn’t aware of the connection to identity I didn’t know why I was so unhappy, but it was real.
    The thing that really helped was a framework to start observing my thoughts. One thing I became aware of was that there were times when my thinking seemed to be harmless, even beneficial; in my case it seemed to resolve around self. If I was thinking about someone else and how I might help them my thinking seemed to be clear. In those moments when my thoughts turned to myself and how I was going to “get what I wanted/needed”, “fix my problems”, or my favorite: “woe is me” then things went south in a hurry.
    Tons of itty-bitty steps out of that state of being, but the important thing I took away from that epiphany was that my thinking was a tool to be used and mastered; not something to be feared/loathed nor to be used lightly.
    I’m fortunate today to not have to think too much. I’ve been relieved of that compulsive meat-grinder obsessive thought-pattern that is certain that there isn’t enough; that I’m not enough.

    One of my favorite bumper-stickers is apropos: “Reality; It’s not what you think”

    • drkellyflanagan

      Love this whole comment, Mike. It adds a personal narrative and more detailed description of the process to the post. Indeed, there is something transformative about that moment you realize that your thoughts cannot observe themselves and that, indeed, you are the observer, and thus not your thoughts. The beginning of some important freedoms.

  • tanvi

    This post couldn’t come have a better time. I just mentioned to my friend a couple hours ago that I want to unsubscribe my own mind. I suffered a major personal and professional setback at the same time and now I can’t really enjoy anything because it just feels wrong for a lot of reasons. I like this idea of the flow and gradually training myself to not react to everything. Thank you so much

    • drkellyflanagan

      Tanvi, I’m so glad this came at this time for you. I’m sorry to hear about your recent trials, but I do believe when you’re able to get some separation from your thoughts about them, it will be a relief all of its own. My best to you as you seek to do so.

  • Janet Hartman

    What a nice reminder this morning, thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Janet!

  • Shannon

    PERFECT! These days I’m trying to be a “filter” and let life flow through me. No reactions, no resistance, stories or judgements. It’s not for the faint of heart! Sometimes it’s not safe to go in alone or at night. However, if I sit with what is, not what was or what will be, I realize that the present moment goes on for infinity. There are no problems, maybe a life situation, that only turns into a problem if I make it that way. The burden isn’t heavy if I choose not to carry it. Life flows like a river, twigs bump into you, the current can sweep you away, you can hang onto a rock, clinging, not wanting to let go. The amazing thing that happens when I let go of the oars and just drift along, my moments become more joyful, more full, I appreciate all that is so much more. My present moments become loaded with love, gratitude and bliss! Thank you for these amazing words. They couldn’t have come at a more perfect moment!

    • drkellyflanagan

      A “filter” is another great visual metaphor, Shannon. I wrote an unrelated post last year using the metaphor of a sieve. I guess that could work, too. Thanks for adding this!

  • Delia

    My thoughts exactly as I feel like I had bungled through these past few weeks in a particular situation I was in. I only hope the intelligent minds that be are able to see through all that,
    at the real me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Intelligent minds have a hard time seeing through bungles, but loving hearts see right through them. May you encounter some graceful hearts. 🙂

  • Sheree

    I’m reading a book called The Surrender Experiment and it talks about how our thoughts are our preferences of likes and dislikes to any given situation. It’s hard to disconnect who we are with our thoughts. It does take practice. LOTS of practice.

    • drkellyflanagan

      GREAT title. Adding it to my list. Thanks, Sheree!

  • callmecrazy66

    I LOVED this message…practicing noticing and perhaps expecting a flood of mental reactions.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you!

  • Tracy

    This made me laugh as I remembered the “listserv debacle!” The funniest part, to me, were all the emails getting mad at people for asking to be removed from the list! lol
    I love your post, too, and the way it so clearly explains what I’m always trying to explain to my clients. Thanks so much for all you do!

  • Tyler

    Kelly, thank you so much for this post! I’m glad you are still writing. Every once in a while a piece of yours (like this) really strikes me. Today it got me thinking about how much I like a good salad (with multiple ingredients) and my favorite way to go about it is to just take one bite at a time. Don’t mix it too much and experience (hopefully enjoy 🙂 the different flavors and textures that come with each taste. A decent metaphor to go along with your piece?

    Also, this is timely. I was just remembering this morning a couple different messages given to me over the years–revolving around thought. “How we think is often very related to how we feel and act.” It’s interesting to consider how we are able to make conscious decisions over that process. I also resonate a lot with the examples you gave of thoughts spiraling out of control. Hopefully we all can learn to observe our thoughts and recognize when they’re ridiculous so we can have some separation and peace when it’s possible.

  • Keith Wilson

    Thanks. Well put. I shared it with my list-serve.

  • Norma Frizzell

    Thank you again for the visual the rier,l and the reminder to check what Iam thinking about and that it’s not me. Blessings

  • john matson

    I think the river became a subliminal way to wash/ cleans your worries away! I find that when I am down, if I can extract myself from bed, GETTING OUTSIDE IS A MUST! Not an option, but a must. Clip in and go for a bike ride, cut the lawn, kill weeds, fix my ham radio antenna that doesn’t need fixing! I think you get the point. So many studies re. depression, low self esteem, etc. have proven that making a connection with nature is often times more effective than meds. Of course these studies are mainly Euro-Based, as America focuses on what drug the FDA will approve next so we can buy call options on the producer of said new med and make a fair amount of cash! I, personally, would do what you did… let the riverwalk float your burdens downstream. Forever. John Matson

  • Elizabeth Rosengren Cotone

    Great post! I’m heading to the river today!

  • Ginny Campbell

    So lovely. Thank you for continuously sharing that we are human and that comes with feelings of all kinds – living those feelings, being open, present, and observant with all of them is what connects us to the tenderness and beauty of life itself.

  • Anne

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder. I often find myself heading to the beach (since it is the closest to me). There will be days when the waves are tough and big from the outside, but underneath is calming and peaceful. We often flood our mind with thoughts that are often look “tough and big” but when we dig deeper and ask ourselves “Where is the root of this thought?” the answer is simple. Today is a beautiful day, so please do not let it go away!

  • Nanny j

    THANK YOU, Dr. Kelly. What a great idea. Sometimes I just leave this office, go outside and take long breaths and feel the breeze or start a project but this makes my spouse think I have adult ADHD. As I’ve gotten older seems I question everything I do and it’s so tiring. Trying to be perfect is a major aggravation. Why do we even go there. I read once we should, “take every thought captive and give it up to the Lord”. My trouble is I capture them and study them until they grow mold. My mind is so over analytical that it comes over in discussions. Scary! However, while I still have a lot of work I don’t feel so bad thinking I’m loosin it after reading your post. Had a counselor a LONG time ago during some marriage issues tell me that, “I did a LOT of self talk”. Thought after that I was somehow abnormal. We have so much to be thankful for and thank you again for your honesty and humor.

  • Jayne

    Kelly,
    I love everything about this post. First, it brought back the absurdity of that whole APAPO email flood, which I found hilarious as it was going down, as more and more psychologists responded with anger, as if the anger was going to end the problem more efficiently than quietly waiting it out.
    But I really love how you connected the unwanted listserv messages to unwanted thoughts flooding our minds – a brilliant metaphor.
    And finally, going down to the river and the metaphor of the thought stream – just beautiful!
    Thanks so much!