Beyond Irrational Thoughts: What Causes Them?
By Mason Komay
Updated November 09, 2019
Reviewer Aaron Dutil
Are your thoughts negatively impacting your life? Do you find that your thoughts are controlling you and what you're able to accomplish? How are you supposed to know what's normal and what's not? Learning to identify irrational thoughts, what causes them, and how to overcome them is important to live a healthy and happy life.
What Qualifies as Irrational Thoughts?
Irrational thoughts are unrealistic thinking patterns. They can be annoying, disheartening, and in some cases downright dangerous. While anyone can experience irrational thoughts under stress, there are specific irrational thoughts that need to be monitored and diminished, if possible. According the blog, It's Just a Feeling, irrational thoughts can pose a threat to mental wellbeing if they include:
- Thoughts of harming yourself or others
- Persistent thoughts of others falling ill or dying
- Unjustified worry of financial hardship
- Fear that no one likes you, and that you will always be alone
What Can Cause Irrational Thoughts?
You are more likely to produce irrational thoughts when under emotional distress. During these times, you are trying to free yourself from a self-made cloud of emotional volatility. Stress will often cause people to engage in problem-solving that is not realistic. People who are prone to pessimism or are highly resistant to change often struggle with irrational thoughts.
Another term for irrational thinking in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are biased and negative thinking patterns we develop over time without realizing. Common cognitive distortions include polarized thinking: believing something is entirely good or bad; and overgeneralization: constantly taking negative events and applying them to the whole rather than one situation. There are many types of cognitive distortions, but they are all irrational. They are oftentimes inaccurate or even completely false. Unfortunately, this does not prevent these thoughts.
The good news is, you can learn to control your thoughts. It might not come naturally, but when you learn how, your emotions and behaviors will follow.
When Do Irrational Thoughts Emerge?
Because these thoughts emerge during moments of emotional stress, they were born from the intensity of your emotions, rather than logical thinking. The irrationality is based on acute emotional processes. For instance, someone who constantly experiences fear will develop irrational thoughts due to that intense emotional state. Anger is another emotional state that tends to create many irrational thoughts.
If you or someone you know is having these thoughts, intervening may be necessary, depending on the severity. However, while seeking treatment, it would be wise to understand the cause. Knowing the cause will help determine how to prevent irrational thoughts, or at least cope with them in the future. It's a mistake to ignore the thoughts in the hopes they'll go away.
The Dangers of Raging Irrational Thoughts
The beginning effects of uncontrollable irrational thoughts can be as minor as wariness when someone looks in your direction, or misunderstanding people. Over time, you may experience more neurotic thoughts, such as: Why did he say that? Why did he do that? Does he want to hurt me? As stated before, fear is a common source of irrational thinking due to its emotional potency. The more intense the emotional state, the higher the likelihood someone will experience unreasonable thoughts.
If left alone, irrational thoughts can multiply, causing more bizarre behavior. This combination of irrational thought and aberrant behavior can spiral into significant mental health issues, such as paranoia, intense anxiety, psychosis, and phobias. It's important to consider proven treatments rather than ignore the symptoms.
Stopping Irrational Thoughts
Here are a few popular methods for treating irrational thoughts:
Directly confront these thoughts. Write them down and question their veracity. Ask yourself questions such as: How realistic is this thought? What evidence do I have that this can happen? This forces you to start thinking more rational thoughts and not depend on your distressed emotional state. This method allows you to actively restructure your thinking.
Change your thoughts
Learn to think in a more positive manner. Many people believe they don't have any control over their thoughts, but they do. People have far more control than they realize. If you focus on the positive aspects of your life, irrational thoughts will lose their power.
A gratitude exercise is a great way to counteract negative thinking patterns. Write down three things you are grateful for every day. Come up with three new things each day. This forces your mind to consider more positive alternatives to irrational and negative thoughts. Expressing gratitude has been shown to have a lasting positive impact on the brain.
Many people use daily meditation to reduce irrational thinking. A short daily meditation practice will help keep your thinking more grounded. It doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out session. A simple ten minute meditation exercise every day will help restore emotional balance. Meditation makes you less emotionally reactive and reduces stress. Over time, you'll find yourself able to generate a sense of calm and serenity. You will no longer be emotionally bothered by random thoughts. If you need help, there are many great meditation apps.
Have a support system
Finally, it might help to seek an outside perspective. You may choose to speak with someone who knows you, such as friends, family, or even coworkers. Get their opinion about the thoughts you're having-maybe you'll discover they struggle with them as well. Perhaps they can help you recognize how truly unrealistic these thoughts are.
Get Support from Counseling
Another great option is speaking with a therapist at BetterHelp. The therapists at BetterHelp are trained to help people cope with irrational thoughts using a variety of methods from the comfort of your home. When you sign up at BetterHelp, you'll be matched with a professional therapist especially suited to your needs, and the rates are often much more affordable than traditional in-person therapy.
Whomever you decide to confide in, getting another's opinion will help you understand these irrational thoughts and provide a more realistic perspective. You can read reviews of some of our BetterHelp therapists below.
"Shana has helped me tremendously over the past few months. She has assisted me in changing my thought patterns and bad habits. She is very caring, a great listener and is not judgmental. It is clear how much she cares about her patients. I appreciate her and would recommend her to anyone searching for a counselor."
"Rickie is very good at understanding what you are trying to convey and provides constructive ways in which to change your thoughts and behaviors. She is kind and supportive in her communications. She likes to get you to figure out why you are doing certain behaviors so that you can change any negative behaviors."
You don't have to live with irrational thoughts controlling you. If you're suffering from irrational thoughts, take that first step toward a more positive, productive, and balanced life.