Beyond Irrational Thoughts: What Causes Them?
By: Mason Komay
Updated July 08, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil
Are your thoughts negatively impacting your everyday 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 to 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 it. 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 when 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.
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 and as a form of anxiety treatment. 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. You can also benefit from attending support groups as well.
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 that can be a valuable part of anxiety and depression treatment and beating many other conditions. 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are Examples of Irrational Thoughts?
Irrational thoughts can come in many different forms; however, some of the most common ones can be categorized as:
- “Black or white” or “all-or-nothing” thinking
- “Should” statements
Out of these groups, catastrophizing, where people expect the worst possible outcome, tend to be the most frequent ones that people have.
For example, someone might worry that they might humiliate themselves in front of a group of people or fail a performance, which are common irrational beliefs seen in social and performance anxiety, whereas another individual might have an intense fear of flying despite it being a statistically safe form of transportation.
Others might have irrational thoughts about accidentally hurting someone, something getting destroyed, or getting sick, which are common themes seen in conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, where they will use compulsions, which can be irrational in their own right, to find relief from the anxiety that comes from the irrational and intrusive thoughts that become obsessions.
Along with OCD, compulsions can also be present in eating disorders and people can have irrational thoughts regarding their weight and appearance and use compulsive behaviors to address them. For example, someone might binge-and-purge after their meals, which is a symptom seen in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Irrational thoughts can also be delusional too, and some individuals may have an inflated sense of self-importance or other grandiose ideas and become unnecessarily paranoid, which may be a sign of psychosis, which is a symptom of schizophrenia, but it can also appear in bipolar disorder as well.
Aside from disorders, people can have ordinary irrational thoughts about themselves and others such as feeling worthless, valuing the opinions of others more than their own, believing that certain people can’t be trusted, or that showing vulnerability and asking for help is a sign of weakness.
What Causes Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts?
Everyone experiences bizarre thoughts, but the difference between someone developing an anxiety disorder or OCD is choosing how we respond to them.
People with these disorders typically understand that their thoughts are completely irrational, but they’re unwanted, and therefore, they will try to push them away and find relief for the anxiety symptoms that come with them.
However, people who struggle with intrusive thoughts place a great deal of importance on them and believe that because the thoughts appear in their heads, they must mean something, even if they know that it is absurd.
Because there is significance being placed on the thoughts, this causes them to become more persistent, especially if compulsions are being carried out to try to control them.
The contents of intrusive thoughts vary from person to person, and they can be triggered by many different sources; however, all individuals with various anxiety disorder symptoms and obsessive-compulsive disorder will respond to them, whereas individuals who simply let their irrational and intrusive thoughts pass, won’t develop these types of mental health concerns because the thoughts don’t bother them or hold any meaning.
However, to an extent, you will need to give your thoughts some attention so that you can change negative and irrational thoughts into ones that are positive, productive, and rational.
How Do You Recognize Irrational Thoughts?
Although many people understand and realize that their thoughts are irrational, it can take some time and effort for others to reach the same conclusion for themselves. To do this, you can try to ask yourself some questions regarding your thoughts.
Some suggestions include:
- What is the likelihood of the thought becoming true? If the chances are very slim, it’s irrational.
- If there is a possibility that the thought is true, what’s the worst that can happen?
- Are you focusing too much on the negatives rather than realizing the possible positive outcomes of not holding onto the thoughts?
By recognizing irrational thoughts and refuting them by asking these types of questions, you can start to change them into ones that are rational.
What Is Rational and Irrational Thinking?
Once you know how to identify irrational thoughts, it becomes easier to correct them and start thinking rationally.
When you use rational thought processes, you use logic and reasoning to find solutions, and this can be done by asking yourself questions and analyze the situation carefully, rather than being reactive and responding entirely based on feelings and emotions.
Rational thinking begins as a process, and change will occur over time with practice, and eventually, you will restructure your brain to think more realistically and become a better problem-solver on your own and in collaboration with others because your thoughts will have a basis in reality, not irrationality and imagination.
As a result, you can have a healthier perspective on the matters in your life, which can lead to an improved sense of self-worth and a better sense of purpose and live a happier and more fulfilling life.
Can You Control Your Thoughts?
It is possible to modify how you think, but it’s not possible to control the thoughts that pass through your mind, as is the case with intrusive thoughts. In fact, trying to force yourself to control these types of thoughts only make them more powerful and appear more frequently.
For example, someone with panic disorder symptoms might worry endlessly about when the next anxiety attack will occur, and the stress and overthinking can actually make it happen.
On the other hand, you can control your thoughts by changing how you behave towards them, which then can alter your feelings and emotions. This is the premise of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and because it works to change your negative and irrational thought patterns into ones that are positive and rational, and this is a key part of OCD treatment and beating anxiety and depression symptoms.
Because of this, cognitive-behavioral therapy can be used to help treat countless mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders such as general anxiety, social anxiety, and panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the techniques you learn through cognitive-behavioral therapy can last a lifetime.
Is Overthinking A Sign of Anxiety?
Although it’s normal to overthink and worry from time to time in times of stress, overthinking, when done frequently, is one of the most common depression and anxiety symptoms, and can be seen present in other mental health issues as well.
When we dwell on the things that bother us, especially in regards to things in the past, it becomes known as ruminating, and people who ruminate often spend a lot of time self-reflecting on their problems. However, they usually don’t arrive at a solution.
Like irrational and intrusive thoughts, ruminations and overthinking can be challenged and treated through cognitive-behavioral therapy. A therapist can provide advice, diagnosis, or treatment for the condition you are experiencing, and from there, you can begin to tackle the symptoms.
Is Irrational Thinking A Mental Illness?
On its own, irrational thinking is not a mental illness, but it can be very problematic and disrupt your life.
However, depending on the circumstances, irrational beliefs can be a sign or symptom of a mental health disorder, and it is something that is highly-treatable when in the hands of a therapist who understands how to change your thoughts and 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 and find a therapist. You may also benefit from attending support groups where you can relate to other people who struggle with irrational beliefs, and whichever disorder you may be dealing with. Whether you have depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, or PTSD symptoms, help is always available, and you can receive a diagnosis or treatment immediately.