Beyond Irrational Thoughts: What Causes Them?

By Danni Peck

Updated January 11, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Dutil


As the term suggests, irrational thoughts are unrealistic and generally negative thinking patterns we fall into and obsess over. These thoughts can be annoying, disheartening and in some cases down right dangerous. While anyone can experience this way of thinking during certain stressful periods, there are specific irrational thoughts that need to be monitored and diminished if possible when you start to experience them a lot. As was listed by the It's Just a Feeling blog, irrational thoughts can pose as a threat to mental well-being if they include:

  • You are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others in some way.
  • You are having constant thoughts of others falling ill, injured in an accident, harmed, or dying when there is nothing wrong with them.
  • You think you are in alarming financial hardship when you clearly are not.
  • You are worried that no one likes you and that you will always be alone.

If you or someone you know is having these thoughts, intervening may be necessary depending on the severity. However, while you are seeking treatment or medical attention, it would be wise to know what tends to cause irrational thoughts in the first place. Knowing what causes the problem will help determine how to prevent it or at least cope with it in the future. Sometimes, people will try to ignore these thoughts, hoping they will go away but this is a mistake.

What Can Cause Irrational Thoughts?

You are more likely to produce irrational thoughts when you are under serious emotional disarray. During these times, you are mainly concerned with yourself as you are trying to free yourself from your self-made cloud of emotional volatility. Stress will often cause people to engage in problem solving thinking that simply 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 or believing something is entirely good or bad and overgeneralization or constantly taking negative events and applying them to the whole rather than that 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 keep people from ruminating about these thoughts for long periods of time.

What should be understood about these thoughts is that since they emerge during moments of emotional stress, these thoughts were born from the intensity of your emotions, rather than logical thinking which your other thoughts are based off of much of the time. Hence, the irrationality is based on acute emotional processes. For instance, someone who constantly experiences intense fear will start to develop irrational thoughts due to experiencing that intense emotional state. Anger is another emotional state which tends to create many irrational thoughts in people as well.

The Dangers Of Raging Irrational Thoughts

The beginning effects of uncontrollable irrational thoughts can be as minor as being wary when someone is looking in your direction or misunderstanding what people say to or about you. Over time you may experience more neurotic thoughts such as: Why did he even say that? What is his motivation in behaving that way towards me? 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 start to multiply. Over time, people can start to behave in a more bizarre manner due to their thinking. This combination of irrational thought and aberrant behavior can spiral down into significant mental health issues such as paranoia, intense anxiety, psychosis, and phobias. Therefore, it's important to look at various ways people successfully use to curtail irrational thinking rather than ignore them.

Stopping Irrational Thoughts

There are a few options in regards to derailing unwanted and irrational thoughts. We will discuss a few popular methods. One such option is to directly confront these thoughts. You can do this by writing them down and then questioning the veracity of these thoughts. This is done by asking 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 at the time. This method allows you to actively restructure your thinking.

A second option is start working on thinking in a more positive manner. Many people believe they don't have any control over their thoughts but this is not true. People have far more control over their thoughts than they think. If you focus more on the positive aspects of your life, the irrational thoughts that happens to pop up in your head will not have as much power as they would if you were completely negative in your thinking.


A great technique to work on changing a negative thinking pattern is using a gratitude exercise. A simple gratitude exercise is writing down three things you are grateful for every single day. Each day you need to come up with three new things. This forces your mind to consider more positive alternatives to the irrational and negative thoughts. Expressing gratitude has been shown to have a lasting positive impact on the brain.

Thirdly, many people use daily meditation to slowly reduce irrational thinking because meditation impacts their emotional well-being. 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 10 minute meditation exercise every day will help restore more emotional balance. Meditation has a way of making you less emotionally reactive to situations and reducing your stress. Over time, a sense of calm and serenity will begin to pervade your existence. You will no longer be emotionally bothered by random thoughts. If you need help, there are several meditation apps you can choose and use.

Finally, it might suit you to listen to others who may hold a different perspective or an alternative view. You may choose to speak with someone who knows you, such as friends, family, or even coworkers. Get their opinion about the thoughts you are experiencing, maybe they struggle with them as well. Perhaps they can help you confront these thoughts and recognize how truly unrealistic they are and provide a good sounding board.

Another alternative is speaking with a therapist at BetterHelp. Therapists are trained to help people cope with irrational thoughts. A professional therapist can work with you on changing your thought patterns and learning to ignore occasional irrational thoughts. Whoever you decide to confide in, getting another's opinion will help you understand these irrational thoughts and allow you to have a more realistic perspective on them.

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