5 simple steps you can take to declutter your mind

Updated: Jan 4

Have you ever attempted to close your eyes for a second and relax, only to be jolted back to reality by a barrage of unwanted thoughts, stressors, and emotions? It’s likely that we’ve all experienced this to some extent. Whether you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious, you're confused about an important life decision, or there’s something just eating you up inside that you can’t seem to escape, following these simple practices can make a world of difference in helping you come closer to finding peace within yourself.

When your brain is decluttered, it’s much easier to gain a greater sense of awareness towards whatever issues may be cluttering your mind. With this heightened awareness, we’re more able to care for ourselves in times of stress, overcome burnout, and foster a healthier connection with our innermost thoughts.

Here are the five simple steps we recommend you take when you really need to clear up some headspace and declutter your mind.

why not suppress the clutter?

Many of us have been tempted to avoid the wave of chatter reverberating around our brains, rather than confront whatever it is that may be eating at us… but it’s not that easy.

"Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."

-Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Here lies the problem with thought suppression—it just doesn’t work. Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., a social psychologist and psychology professor at Harvard University, spearheaded a completely new field of study surrounding thought suppression research because he read this quote, and was intrigued by it.1 He wanted to know the truth behind it, and so his research began with the study Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression, published in 1987.

the white bear effect

This study, conducted by both Wegner and David J. Schneider, opens with the Sartre quote we’ve included at the beginning of this blog post. It seems that, as we attempt to avoid and suppress a given thought, the very act of doing so actively brings the thought to the forefront of our minds. The 1987 study states, “to suppress a thought requires that one (a) plan to suppress a thought and (b) carry out that plan by suppressing all manifestations of the thought, including the original plan. Thought suppression thus seems to entail a state of knowing and not knowing at once.”2 This paradox is why Wegner conducted his initial experiment—to try and uncover the truth behind what is today known as the white bear effect, due to Dostoevsky’s quote.

Wegner’s initial study found that “the paradoxical effect of thought suppression is that it produces a preoccupation with the suppressed thought. These findings suggest that the task of suppressing a thought is itself difficult, leading people to hold the thought in consciousness repeatedly even as they try to eliminate it.”2 Thought suppression, in fact, does the opposite of its intended effect… so how can we eliminate the clatter of unwanted, unnecessary thoughts, plans, ideas, emotions constantly jabbering in our ears?

setting free the bears

The following steps are derived from Wegner’s 2011 publication Setting free the bears: escape from thought suppression. In it, Wegner examines various indirect thought suppression techniques and therapies that offer some potential as means for effective suppression. “Many of these strategies entail thinking about and accepting unwanted thoughts rather than suppressing them—and so, setting free the bears.”3

Effectively suppressing unwanted thoughts is essential to decluttering your mind and clearing up some free space to focus on tasks and goals at hand. It’s very important to make some room every so often so you can avoid becoming overwhelmed. A decluttered mind means less stress and anxiety, and it can also help you overcome burnout and organize your priorities. Overall, if you’d like to enjoy a quieter, more peaceful state of mind, then these five simple steps could be the key you’ve been searching for.

step 1 - write it down or talk it out

One of the most well-known therapies for driving unwanted thoughts from our head is Freud’s talking cure - ”the disclosure of unwanted thoughts to a trusted other.”3 This technique entails writing down or verbally disclosing to others your deepest thoughts and feelings. In general, “emotional writing lessens the recurrence of subsequent unwanted thoughts,”4 making it all the more important to try.

The effectiveness of this technique varies from person to person, depending on how they express their thoughts, to whom, and what exactly is being said. Regardless, when you find the right method for disclosing your innermost thoughts, whether they be negative or positive, the effects can be monumental. For example, the entire field of narrative exposure therapy is based on the concept behind effective exposure to your own thoughts. The act of talking or writing through something that’s on your mind “aims to help people think through events that underlie unwanted thoughts, through a process of exposure that encourages organizing the memory into a coherent story.”5 Once you’ve organized your thoughts in a narrative, chronological manner, you may find them leaving your consciousness, as they’ve been properly integrated into your story in a way that makes sense to you.

step 2 - practice exposure and paradoxical approaches

Another recommended strategy for clearing your mind of unneeded or unwanted thoughts is referred to as a paradoxical approach, because it requires that you actively think of things you’re attempting not to think about. This tactic, also referred to as exposure, can be done gradually, in small amounts (also known as habituation or desensitization)6 or it can be done in a large dose, referred to as flooding or implosion.7 Direct exposure to whatever may be giving you trouble - whether it’s a thought that keeps coming back to you, an interpersonal relationship you’re struggling with, or an aspect of yourself you may not love - may be the key to setting it aside permanently. This can consist of having that conversation you’ve been putting off for years, looking directly into your reflection and confronting your perceived flaws, or discussing the unwanted thought with your therapist. Whatever it is, and however you decide to confront it, do it at your own pace, and know this approach is not for everyone.

This technique has not yet found a widespread application, as many therapists struggle with the idea that “recommending that the client think about the unwanted thought and actively seek out reminders of it can seem not just paradoxical but cruel.”3 It’s important that you take this practice with a grain of salt, as it may not work for everyone, just like any of these steps—the key is to keep trying different methods until you find something that works for you.

step 3 - self-affirmation

Self-affirmation is the psychological state that occurs when we express our personal values and self-worth. This state of mind is usually triggered in psychological experiments by asking people to describe themselves in positive manners and exemplify values that they most identify with.3

Self-affirmation has been found to reduce rumination about incomplete goals8 and “in research addressed to thought suppression in particular, it has been found that receiving positive personality feedback reduces rebound of suppressed prejudices.”9 Take a few minutes every day to practice self-affirmation with yourself - what have you done recently that you’re happy about? What aspects of yourself do you like? How have others expressed their appreciation for you recently? Taking the time to remind yourself that you’re worthy of love - whether it comes from within, an external source, or both - can be integral to banishing negative thoughts from your mind.

step 4 - focused breathing

While this act can be considered a component of mindfulness or meditation practices, it may also “have effects dissociable from those of any contemplative activity.”3 Essentially, tuning in to your breathing is an effective way to distract yourself in a focused and intentional manner. If you read our previous blog post on cyclical thinking, then you already know how key distraction can be to encouraging negative thoughts to leave your mind. Focused breathing offers a method of distraction that is not concentrated on a fixed idea, rather, “the breath as a distractor is constantly changing and constantly responsive to the will.”3 This can make the breath an easy target to focus on, as its responsiveness to your body encourages you to stay focused on the present moment, and remain as present as your breath is.

If you’re seeking to find a moment of solace within your own mind, turning your focus inwards to your breathing is an effective method of distraction, but also a practice that can re-ground us in our mortality, and in our vigor. Life can be precarious, which is why it’s so important to remind yourself how precious the life you hold within you is, and to value it. This reminder can often serve as the change in perspective we need to properly clear our heads from that which no longer deserves a place there.

step 5 - mindfulness and meditation

Meditation practices vary widely from religion to culture to person, as does the definition of mindfulness. Many practices center around the act of focusing on the present moment, but today, the main emphasis found within mindfulness programs is the practice of “techniques aimed at mental control.”10 One study, which coined the meditation treatment known as the mindfulness-based stress reduction program,11 was conducted in 1982 by researcher Kabat-Zinn. The meditation-based treatment encouraged chronic pain patients to “assume intentionally an attitude of detached observation toward pain.”12 The study observed significant reductions in reported pain, and other subsequent programs have reported reductions in symptoms of stress.13

A meta-analysis of studies on mindfulness and meditation techniques reported broad effectiveness,14 which is to say, they provided the desired salutary effects, whether that be suppression of pain, unwanted thoughts or memories, or simply the quieting of worries and fears. The mechanisms that lie behind the effectiveness of these practices are relatively unknown, but we do know that they can have transformational effects.

These are just some of the methods Wegner details extensively in his writing, but they are essential to try if you haven’t already. Just as each one of our brains is unique, so are the methods that may be effective for us. If you’re ready to begin your journey towards true inner peace, don’t do it alone.

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1 Winerman, Lea. “Suppressing the 'White Bears'.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Oct. 2011, www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/unwanted-thoughts.

2 Wegner, Daniel M., et al. “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 53, no. 1, 1987, pp. 5–13., doi:10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.5., https://wjh-www.harvard.edu/~dtg/DANWEGNER/pub/Wegner,Schneider,Carter,&White%201987.pdf

3 Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears: Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist, 66(8), 671–680. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1ca1/877e67a6fa253a4a9bf902244d196a348e8d.pdf?_ga=2.254319304.1195672162.1615503617-573955916.1615503617

4 Segal, D. L., Chatman, C., Bogaards, J. A., & Becker, L. A. (2001). One year follow-up of an emotional expression intervention for bereaved older adults. Journal of Mental Health and Aging, 7, 465–472.

5 Robjant, K., & Fazel, M. (2010). The emerging evidence for narrative exposure therapy: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 1030–1039. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.07.004

6 Wolpe, J. (1958). Psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

7 Boulougouris, J. C., & Marks, I. M. (1969). Implosion (flooding): A new treatment for phobias. British Medical Journal, 2, 721–723. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.5659.721

8 Koole, S. L., Smeets, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Dijksterhuis, A. (1999). The cessation of rumination through selfaffirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 111–125. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.1.111

9 Koole, S. L., & Van Knippenberg, A. (2007). Controlling your mind without ironic consequences: Self-affirmation eliminates rebound effects after thought suppression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 671–677. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2006.07.001

11 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.formance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37, 997–1018. doi:10.1177/ 0149206310367948

12 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4, 33–47. doi:10.1016/0163-8343(82)90026-3

13 Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z., & Williams, J. M. G. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 25–39. doi:10.1016/ 0005-7967(94)E0011-7

14 Grossman, P., Nieman, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35–43. doi:10.1016/S0022-3999(03)00573-7