Don't Think about a Pink Elephant: How to Avoid Invasive Thoughts

If someone tells you "don't think about a pink elephant," it's probably hard not to imagine one. But why? Learn about invasive thoughts here.
Don't Think about a Pink Elephant: How to Avoid Invasive Thoughts

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 06 September, 2022

If we ask you to think of anything but a pink elephant, you will surely find it difficult not to imagine one. But what is this phenomenon? And what can it tell us about invasive thoughts?

The truth is that the more we try to push a thought out of our minds, the more likely we are to think it. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as the ironic process theory. It suggests that trying to suppress a thought has paradoxical effects as a self-control strategy.

To remove something from our mind, we first have to think about that something to bring it to our awareness. Thus, the image or idea we want to suppress will inevitably appear.

Below, we’ll delve into this phenomenon and show you an effective strategy to avoid the thoughts that take hold of us and that we don’t know how to suppress.

Don’t think about a pink elephant!

In 1987, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study led by social psychologist Daniel Wegner, in which the ironic process theory was addressed for the first time. In that research, participants were in two experiments in which they had to verbalize their stream of consciousness for 5 minutes.

In the first experiment, they were asked not to think of a white bear. In the second experiment, they were asked to think about a white bear.

The findings confirmed that participants were more preoccupied with thinking about a white bear in the first experiment, even though they were asked not to think about a white bear. The researchers concluded that suppressing a thought has paradoxical effects as a self-control strategy. This can lead to obsession and preoccupation, despite best efforts to ignore the idea.

Whether we’re told “don’t think about a pink elephant” or any other image, this psychological process increases the likelihood of thinking about what we don’t want. This is the ironic process theory.

It does no good for our loved ones to encourage us in difficult times by telling us to “stop thinking about it.” The advice to repress thoughts, paradoxically, may only serve to strengthen intrusive ideas.

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The consequences of the pink elephant paradox

The paradox illustrated by “don’t think about a pink elephant” can not only intensify intrusive thoughts but also influence how we feel and act. In this case, giving too much importance to a thought can lead to harmful beliefs.

intrusive thoughts
Negative thoughts can come in like a tidal wave and persist in the mind, altering our decision flow.

The spread of persistent negative emotions

Intrusive thoughts are often associated with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, anyone can develop them in a manner similar to a clinical obsession.

In these cases, it is quite common for people to feel anxious and worried about the intrusive thoughts that plague them. Not only because they are unable to control them, but also because of their content.

Increased distraction

A study found that people who tend to develop negative thoughts and worry about them are more distracted when they try to focus on a specific task . Ultimately, lack of focus ends up hurting creativity, professional development, and professional and personal relationship building.

Difficulty making decisions

When intrusive thoughts steal our attention, decision-making is often biased. In this case, instead of making rational and considered judgments, we’re led by wrong assumptions, which have nothing to do with reality.

Four steps to avoid intrusive thoughts

The paradox of the saying “don’t think about a pink elephant” shows us that the worst way to avoid intrusive ideas is to try to stop thinking about them. In this case, the best option is to be aware of them and the emotions they cause. Let’s take a look at some tricks for how to do it.

1. Get some distance from your thoughts

We have the false belief that everything we think belongs to us and defines us, but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that we are not our own thoughts, and they should not rule us. An intrusive thought is just one of the many that we have every day.

Now, how do we distance ourselves from them? A very effective way is to become aware that we’re having negative thoughts. For example, if we’re invaded by the thought that no one likes us, we may say to ourselves: “right now, I’m having a thought that states that no one likes me.”

Mindfulness and meditation are excellent tools to distance ourselves from our thoughts and let them flow without judging them. Therefore, we invite you to include these practices in your daily routine.

meditation is great for invasive thoughts
Certain meditative practices bring us closer to the observation of the mind to separate us from what the thought wants us to believe.

2. Be aware of the present moment

The second step is to realize and accept that we are having intrusive thoughts. Continuing with the previous example, this would imply saying to ourselves: “I’m aware that at this very moment, I am having a thought that’s trying to get me to think that no one likes me.”

3. Be aware of the emotions that the thought arouses

Next, we must become aware of the emotions and feelings that this intrusive thought unleashes in us. For example, “when I have the thought that no one likes me, I feel sad, frustrated, without energy, and I feel like crying…” Thus, we bring all those emotional states that the intrusive thought provokes into our consciousness.

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4. Question your intrusive thoughts

Most of the time, intrusive thoughts are irrational and do not correspond to reality. Therefore, we should ask ourselves how true that idea is.

Continuing with the previous example, the ideal would be to say to ourselves: “Does no one really like me, or are there certain people who do not like me, but there are many others who do?”

We can choose where we place our attention

To conclude, we want to emphasize that many times, we won’t be able to decide what we think. However, we do have the freedom to choose how much value, attention, credibility, and effort we put into it.

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  • Fox E, Dutton K, Yates A, Georgiou G, Mouchlianitis E. Attentional Control and Suppressing Negative Thought Intrusions in Pathological Worry. Clin Psychol Sci [Internet]. 2015  [consultado el 16 de agosto de 2022]; 3(4):593-606. Disponible en: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4618297/
  • Wegner D, Schneider D, Carter S, White T. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [Internet]. 1987 [consultado el 16 de agosto de 2022]; 53(1): 5–13. Disponible en. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.5