Managing Persistent Unwanted Thought (PUT) Patterns
Ever struggle with repetitive thought patterns?
Some repetitive thoughts have their place. It might be that it isn’t until the 20thtime through that a new solution arises.
On the other hand, perhaps there is nothing to be done for the situation at the moment, perhaps I just need a break from the thought. Persistent Unwanted Thought patterns or PUTs often create the conditions for stress, anxiety, grief and other difficult feelings.
The PUT may be negative in its content or it may be more neutral such as in the case when we are trying to force a decision about something when we are not yet ready. We may have done our research, weighed it out many times and yet we still haven’t reached a conclusion about how to act. The thought may bat through our mind a hundred times a day, “should I quit or not?” or “Should I go or not go?”
First ask yourself “Is this thinking pattern helping me?” If not, here’s a method to manage PUTs:
1) Notice the thought. “Ah, there’s that thought, the one that’s not helpful.” Sometime we can be lost in the thought pattern for several minutes at a time, even more, until we become aware that we are again thinking about that relationship problem, the broken refrigerator, our ill health or whatever other matter is spinning around in our mind. So to begin, we step out of the thought and notice it from the perspective of an observer. “There’s that thought. Aha!” Pleased at our discovery.
2) Bring your attention to the present moment, ie. mindfulness “I’m washing the dishes right now.”. Or you might focus on the breath but I usually find that if I look at what I am doing right now and make a sentence about this, it shifts my focus away from the PUT.
It is important to keep the tone gentle towards the PUT. Think of the thoughts in a similar fashion as you would a puppy dog that you are training to sit still. You tell it to stay and it does for a moment and then it runs away. Rather than scolding the dog, you go and bring it back to it’s place and repeat “Stay”. Similarly, you notice that the thoughts are again running around your mind and you bring your mind back to the present moment, with compassion for yourself. “Silly mind, you’ve gone and run off again!”
3) Notice roughly how long it has been since the last PUT arose. Perhaps when you first begin the technique, it has only been 30 seconds or a minute since the last. Perhaps the thought then goes away and arises 3 minutes later. And then 10. And so on. This becomes an intrinsic reward system and puts you in the place of the Observer, a much more pleasant place to be rather than feeling victim to the PUT patterns. “Ah, it’s working; the thoughts are abating.” We notice the relief and bring our attention to the space between the thoughts, the moments when we were absorbed in life without the PUT.
4) If it feels right, you can nurture a sense of gratitude for the present moment, that you are safe right now, that the flowers are beautiful, that you are grateful for the food on the table etc. This one might not work for everyone and I don’t usually mention this when I am telephone counselling someone – might be a bit too spiritual or new age — but when a counsellor suggested this to me, I tried it out and found that it creates a warm soothing feeling in the heart.
5) If you wish, when you turn your mind to the present moment, to the here and now, you can turn your thoughts to affirmations such as “I am fine.” Or soothing thoughts such as “Everything is okay.” Or of course there’s the Louise Hayes’ style “I love myself…”
6) Reframe or turn the PUT inside out. Sometimes the thought can be reframed positively or changed in some way that defuses the pattern. For example, a woman has just broken up with her boyfriend and keeps replaying scenes when they were madly in love. She longs for him and keeps thinking “if only….and maybe if….then we could have worked it out.” To reframe this, she instead recalls “I decided not to be with Joe because we really don’t get along and I don’t feel I can get my needs met in this relationship.” Or in the case of making a decision, we might say to ourself, “I don’t know whether to do A or B yet; I have weighed it up and now I am waiting until I know. Thinking repeatedly about this matter will not help speed it up; in fact, it only distresses me.