Irrational thinking can feel isolating. You might wonder, does everyone think this way, and what can I do about these thoughts?
Your mind is as unique as your fingerprints — no two are alike. We all have different ways of thinking.
Some of us have thoughts about the past that linger, while others focus on the future. But what about thoughts that hinder your enjoyment of life and compel you to restructure your day around them?
In your difficult moments, irrational thoughts may be overwhelming. But with the right support, it’s possible to manage the impact irrational thoughts may have on your life.
The term “irrational” is not a judgment. In this context, it’s a clinical term. It refers to something that’s not based on reason, logic, or understanding.
From a psychological perspective, irrational thoughts:
- are not based in evidence
- operate mostly on assumptions
- are rooted in beliefs based on past experiences — positive or negative
We all have irrational thoughts from time to time, and in the general sense, these thoughts are not “bad.” However, they may cause you great distress and create friction in your relationships. In this sense, it may be important to understand them better and develop coping skills to manage them.
Irrational thoughts are a coping mechanism. They’re your brain’s way of trying to prepare for an outcome, making the unknown feel less scary.
Do we all have them?
Irrational thoughts are a natural part of life, especially right before a stressful event, like a presentation or a date.
“‘I can’t do it. I’m not good enough.’ Sound familiar? Absolutely everyone has irrational thoughts from time to time,” says Renée Goff, a licensed clinical psychologist in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Many people will be able to recognize these thoughts as irrational, push through, and shake them off, she says. “Others hold onto them and give them too much weight.”
In the latter case, irrational thoughts can negatively impact multiple areas of your life. These include:
- home life
- romantic relationships
For some, irrational thoughts are a pattern. Although not always the case, this could sometimes be a symptom of a mental health condition.
“While we all have irrational thoughts, the line between problematic and not is when they start negatively impacting our life or cause functional impairments in our behavior,” says Billy Roberts, a licensed clinician in Columbus, Ohio.
Some mental health conditions that may lead to persistent irrational thoughts include:
Irrational thoughts can act as fuel for the fire of anxiety, leading to rumination.
Rumination can then put you into a cycle of fear: The thought loops make you anxious, and then the anxiety makes your thoughts even more persistent.
Anxiety disorders may also create a “resource error.” This means that many thoughts may focus on the need to be prepared for every possible situation, which is not realistic, says Janika Joyner, a licensed clinical social worker in Chesapeake, Virginia.
“We are created with internal and external resources to solve problems as they arise,” she says.
“Anxiety leads a person to believe that they must have it all figured out. This is not possible or healthy, as life is unpredictable, people are complex, and there are a number of things that are not in our control.”
How to manage anxiety related to irrational thinking
Joyner uses a four-step process to help clients slow down and challenge their irrational thoughts. The steps include:
|Identify the thought.||“My partner is upset and wants to break up.”|
|Find exceptions.||“Every time things are tense, we lovingly work it out.”|
|Discredit with proof.||“Last weekend, my partner told me at dinner how happy they were to be with me.”|
|Replace it with a helpful alternative.||“There is a reasonable explanation and I trust that they will tell me what it is.”|
You may find it useful to round out this process with a bonus step: honing your strengths with an empowering statement.
For example, “No matter what is going on, I will be able to handle this.”
When irrational thinking becomes a pattern, it creates a cognitive distortion. This is an error in thinking or logic that affects the way your mind processes information.
Cognitive distortions refer to your mind making judgments, assessments, and inferences about a situation that are not based entirely on logic or evidence. This is usually the result of past experiences.
Cognitive distortions can shape your beliefs, mood, and how you view yourself, others, and the world in general.
“All mental health conditions come with their own unique thinking errors,” says Roberts.
“Depression-type thoughts often have to do with excessive guilt and minimization of the positive parts of life,” he says. “Anxious thoughts cluster around catastrophic views of current stressors and minimizing one’s own ability to solve problems.”
There are several common cognitive distortions that go hand-in-hand with irrational thoughts. These include:
This is jumping to the worst-case scenario, without considering other possibilities.
You have constipation. You are convinced it must be stomach cancer, even though you have no other symptoms. Upon getting results from your doctor, it turns out the constipation was from stress and a change in your eating habits.
This is the belief that you’re responsible for the moods and behaviors of others, without examining what else may be going on with that person.
Your co-worker didn’t say hi to you when she came into work this morning. You assume she must be upset with you, even though you can’t think of a reason why she would be. Later, you find out she had just received some bad news and was very distracted.
This refers to thinking in terms of all good or all bad. There is no gray area, and you have no ability to see two things as both true at once. You may refer to circumstances with buzzwords like always, never, everyone, no one, everything, and nothing.
Your partner is late for date night. You get into an argument and say that they always do this to you, they never show that they care, and everyone has a better relationship than you two do. Upon reflection, you recall that for the last three date nights they actually showed up early.
Minimization and magnification
Minimization occurs more commonly with those who live with depression. It means that you are not able to balance the negative circumstances in your life with positive ones. It’s the opposite of rose-colored glasses.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s magnification, which is more common with those who live with anxiety.
You give a speech at a conference that earns you a standing ovation. You feel miserable, however, because you tripped up the stairs on the way to the stage. Later, at lunch, no one even remembers that you tripped.
Cognitive distortions can be a challenge to undo, but with some attention — and intention — change is possible. You can reframe your thoughts, which will also have an impact on your mood.
If you are having a difficult time identifying your irrational thoughts, mindfulness or meditation practice may help.
Instead of pushing your thoughts away, allow them to be there. Imagine your thoughts going by like clouds, or as if you are viewing them from a moving train.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down your thoughts into a stream of consciousness.
When the timer goes off, reread your entry. Circle any irrational thoughts and write out three replacement thoughts that are helpful. For example:
|I am going to fail this test tomorrow. I always mess up.||1. I have gotten As many times.|
2. I studied really hard for this test.
3. If I do poorly, I can ask for a bonus assignment.
Sit with the discomfort
When you have an irrational thought, you may rely on certain behaviors to help relieve the discomfort you feel. For example, you may assume someone is mad at you (the thought) and then call them repeatedly (the behavior).
If you can learn to sit with the discomfort, knowing it’s temporary, you may disconnect the thought-behavior connection. Try reciting this mantra: “I am having an irrational thought, and I do not need to act on it.”
Channel that energy elsewhere
If irrational thoughts are taking over your mind, you may find it helpful to change what you’re doing. You can try:
- calling a friend
- deep breathing
- getting into nature
- taking a walk
Irrational thinking exists on a continuum, from mild to severe.
For some, irrational thoughts turn into false beliefs. If you feel strongly that these beliefs are unshakeable, even without evidence to support them, they may be delusions.
Delusions may be present in psychosis or as a positive symptom of schizophrenia. They are often coupled with hallucinations, which may cause you to act on them. However, only a trained health professional can provide a diagnosis, and there are many other causes of false beliefs.
For those who live with OCD, irrational thoughts contribute to obsessions.
Obsessions are persistent and distressing thoughts that are:
- lead to urges (compulsions)
Obsessions may include unwelcome thoughts related to sex, violence, germs, or fear of doing or saying something embarrassing in public.
Irrational thoughts are common. But when they start negatively impacting your life or cause you to change your behavior, consider reaching out to a professional.
“Working with a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a good resource in learning to manage irrational thinking patterns, reduce anxiety, improve mood, and support mental health,” says Roberts.
Irrational thoughts are manageable. Working on reducing them can improve your mood.
You may find it helpful to use the APA’s Psychologist Locator to find someone who specializes in CBT.
Self-help books can also be beneficial, like “The Anxiety and Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution.”
If possible, try to work a mindfulness practice into your routine, journal regularly, and use that thinking energy for positive activities, like connecting with others or exercising.
Most importantly, be patient with yourself and take it one thought at a time.