How to get out of your head and focus

13 April 2023

Pushing away intrusive thoughts is a hard task that many of us struggle with. Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Liane Thakur from Student Psychological and Counselling Services talks us through some techniques to get out of your head and focus.

Man sitting on sofa looks at laptop

Have you ever felt just stuck in your head, with unhelpful thoughts just swirling around? Do these thoughts get in your way of moving forward and focusing on the task at hand? Yeah, me too. It’s very frustrating. Fortunately, there are some exercises you can use to help you manage intrusive thoughts, depending on the situation you find yourself in.

Why do we experience intrusive thoughts?

Our brains are constantly trying to problem-solve situations that bring us anxiety, frustration and fear. The brain doesn’t know that an academic problem isn't actually a bear coming at us that could kill us. That part of our brain that deals with fight, flight or freeze responses will even see a 1000-word essay as dangerous. Unfortunately, the messages the brain sends tend to be about short-term solutions for those feelings (e.g. “it’s okay, you can do it tomorrow”).

Sometimes, our brains send messages that once worked but are now inhibiting us. For example, “This is so tough” may have once made us work harder, but now makes us want to hide in bed. We must figure out ways to deal with those current unhelpful thoughts so that we can do what is best for us, in the short AND long-term.

Use your problem-solving skills

Guy Winch, in his Ted Talk: “How to Turn Off Work Thoughts During Your Free Time”, speaks of taking those thoughts and posing them as a problem to solve. For example, if you are getting overwhelmed by all the work you have, your brain may be saying, “There’s no way I’m going to get it done”. Instead, you can ask yourself, “Can I problem-solve this?”. Perhaps it means breaking tasks down into small bits or figuring out a schedule. Once you’ve figured out a solution, well, then you don’t have to worry about that thought.

"But, Liane, my brain keeps sending that thought over and over. What do I do?" Well, dear reader, one idea is to have a lovely conversation with your brain. “Hey brain, thanks for trying to get me motivated to do work, but I already dealt with this thought.” And then let it go.

Write it out

Other things that have worked for my clients, and myself, have included writing down and leaving thoughts behind in a notebook, checking-off the thought every time it comes up, then turning back to what you are trying to do. If you struggle to get yourself started, give yourself permission to just do the activity for 5 minutes, and then you can stop. At least it’s 5 minutes more than before. Or try doing it badly. I had a client write the worst possible paragraph she could to start off her thesis. She found out just how hard it is to write really badly, and could move forward more easily (as it could only get better).

Visualise your thoughts

For those with a visual mind, imagine the part of your brain that sends you unhelpful and critical thoughts as being a separate entity from you (and if we look at the brain, in some ways, it actually is). Make it a person or a character who is sitting on your shoulder like a devil, telling you all the bad things. Acknowledge what they’ve said and then knock them off your shoulder. How dare they tell you that you aren’t good enough! (I’ll be honest, I use a politician I don’t like as my critical voice, so that I can imagine them tumbling off my shoulder. I can’t feel anxious when I’m giggling.)

Help yourself make positive progress

Dealing with persistent and intrusive thoughts is tough to do, especially if it’s something that’s been going on for a while. We have received so many messages from our past experiences, so they feel so real and immediate. Yet, even if you believe what your brain is telling you is true, is that “truth” actually helping you? If you think it’s probably hindering your progress, then it’s worth trying to make a change. Just the act of asking yourself, “Is this helpful?” can sometimes be enough.

Other resources you can check out:

Student Psychological and Counselling Services at UCL

The Confidence Gap or The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Denis Greenberger & Christine Padesky

Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley

Liane Thakur, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Student Psychological and Counselling Services