How to decide if a thought is useful

Krista Jean Bringley, MA
Licensed Mental Health Counselor


How to decide if a thought is useful

Did you know that not all thoughts are useful? I bet that right off the bat you thought “of course, I have completely random thoughts all the time, and I know that they are just thoughts flitting by!” And yet, most of us have a hard time remembering this about our negative thoughts! While we might classify some thoughts as daydreaming, all of a sudden when a worry comes up we’re more likely to think “There’s a reason! Something’s wrong!  I have to figure this out!” And yet, ALL of our thoughts are just thoughts.


You see, it is your brain’s job to think. And more specifically, it is your brain’s job to look out for problems so that you can protect yourself from them. And that’s why negative thoughts, worries, and anxieties are so common! If your brain was thinking about good stuff all day you might miss out on noticing a sign that something is dangerous, and you might get hurt! So your negative thoughts and worries are intended to help you survive! That said, our brains are often acting out of an abundance of caution, so they might tell us about something that could be dangerous but isn’t actually dangerous. Or, even more complicated, they could be telling us about something that is actually dangerous, but there’s nothing we can do about it! This is precisely where anxiety or ruminating can get big, so this is where helping ourselves with “Is this thought useful” can make the biggest difference!


So, how do you decide if a thought is useful?


1. Ask yourself if the thought is true. If your thought is “I’m never going to get this right” well, I bet there’s a chance you could get it right, so this thought (and others that might not be true) is leading you down a dead-end path. See if you can come up with a version of the thought that is more likely to be true (like “I’m frustrated and worried that I’ll never figure this out.”) and then keep going with that thought!


2. Ask yourself what you can do about the thought. If the thought is “I’m frustrated and worried that I’ll never figure this out.” then you can do a number of things like ask for help or take a break to reduce your frustration before trying again. Great, you can do something! Take action! If the thought is more like “People I love are going to die someday”, well, there may not be much you could do about this. You could maybe encourage your loved ones to be healthy or to avoid certain dangers, but you can’t actually protect people you love from every possible danger, so this thought might not be useful.


If what you’ve figured out is that this thought isn’t useful (you can’t do anything about it right now or you’ve already done everything you can do right now), what you can do is redirect yourself. Something that often helps with doing this is acknowledging the thought and reminding yourself why you aren’t taking action! For example “Thanks for the thought, brain, and I’ve already done everything I can do about that for right now, so I’m going to trust myself and choose not to spend time on something I can’t do anything about.” You might have to remind yourself that you’re choosing not to stay with the worry over and over, but the more you practice coming back to a different thought, the better you’ll get at it! The other thing you can do when a thought isn’t useful is take care of yourself! Chances are this worry is scary, so if there’s not something you can do to respond to the worry, you can instead take a deep breath, go for a walk, call a friend, or take some other self-care action.


If you’d like some help figuring out how to apply this, give us a call at Life Skills Resource Group at 407-355-7378. Our experienced counselors are looking forward to helping you manage your negative, anxious, or otherwise not useful thoughts!