What are thoughts?

Thoughts are mental activity in your brain and are the building blocks of your inner world. This article explains thoughts in the context of intrusive thoughts
what are thoughts image showing people with thought bubbles
Dr Elaine Ryan
Written by Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith® Elaine obtained her Dr in Psychology from the University of Surrey and has worked in psychology for 20 years. Dr Ryan specialises in Intrusive Thoughts, OCD and anxiety-related conditions.

MoodSmith is a site about intrusive thoughts, but have you ever taken the time to find out what a thought is? Thoughts are powerful things. They can make you feel happy or sad or anxious or keep you stuck in a repetitive, obsessive spiral. They can affect your health, emotional well-being, and overall outlook on life. It is crucial then to take some time to understand thoughts.

The way you think about things affects how you feel and behave. If you have positive, helpful thoughts, you will feel better and be more likely to do something that helps you in your life. On the other hand, if you have negative, harmful thoughts, you will feel worse and be more likely to do things that negatively impact your life.

For example, if you want to change jobs and see an opening in a firm you wish to work in. If you think that you are capable of getting the job and have the necessary qualifications, you will apply for the job and are in with a chance of securing the position. However, if you think other people will be better, and there is no point in applying, even though you have the required qualifications and experience, you are less likely to apply for the job and, as such, have zero chance of getting a new job. 

The only difference between these two examples is the thoughts in the person’s head. The seemingly harmless thought not only has the power to affect how you feel but has consequences in the real world.

What are thoughts?

Thoughts occur in your brain and are necessary and helpful in most instances to help you navigate, learn, and progress through life.

According to cognitive science, thoughts are mental representations of information that help you make sense of the world. The thought not only represents something but has the power to make changes in your body. 

For example, you can think about food. This thought represents a particular food that exists in the real world. You can think about apple pie or your favourite food. While having the thought, your mouth might be producing saliva, why? Because the thought represents food you have previously eaten, your body prepares to eat and digest it by producing saliva.

The science of how thoughts work is a relatively new field, but there is already a wealth of research that shows that our thoughts have a profound impact on our lives. Thoughts can influence our emotions, behaviour, and physical health. This is why learning how to control our thoughts and choose thoughts is an essential skill for people who ruminate or suffer from intrusive thoughts.

Why are thoughts important?

Thoughts are important because they are the building blocks of our inner experience. They are the foundation upon which our emotions, beliefs, and actions are built. Thoughts can be positive or negative, helpful or harmful, but they all originate in the same place: our mind.

Any negative thought if it takes on meat and weight can become intrusive. If you have thought for the first time that you are a terrible person, it has no weight behind it, but if you keep thinking about it, looking for evidence to either support it or contradict it, it starts to take on significance. By repeatedly thinking about it, you are adding meat to the bare bones of the thought; it is becoming one of the building blocks of your inner experience.

It is crucial to understand that the initial thought means nothing; it does not say anything about you as a person or means that you are a terrible person. It is just a thought. You can feel the changes as it gains weight and becomes a building block, almost like building a house on a shaky foundation; it has the potential to affect everything you do next in your life. 

In the example, a person either applied for a job or not, depending on the thought in their head, their behaviour in the real world and how they felt about themselves depended on a thought process. 

Likewise, if the thought you are a terrible person takes on weight, it starts to change how you feel about yourself and affects the decisions you make in the real world regarding your life.

Always remember that a thought is just mental activity in your brain. Even though I started this article explaining thoughts are mental representations, that does not mean they are accurate. 

As the thought of being a bad person becomes intrusive, that means that it has become a building block of your inner experience, not a mental representation of how you are. Your internal experience changes based on the thought in that you feel different. When you start to see the thought as saying something real about you as a person, this is known as thought action fusion.

When an uncomfortable or unwanted thought occurs, it can be helpful to understand what is going on, i.e. what is happening in your brain.

Where do thoughts come from?

This article from Healthline helps to explain that thoughts begin to form when neurons signal other cells via neurotransmitters. I like to simplify science by thinking that my brain is constantly taking in information, and messages are being sent to help a thought form. For example, if I notice something about books out of my conscious mind, this information enters through my retina and ends up signalling similar things relating to books. I then might find my way onto Amazon to search for books; not entirely sure how I got there. My time on Amazon started with the image of a book through my eye and messaging other parts of my brain.

Similarly, suppose someone is thinking that they are a bad person and not paying attention to the news on television regarding a person doing something wrong. In that case, this information can still go in and send messages throughout your brain, signalling the thoughts you have unwittingly been building regarding you as a bad person. You then can have the conscious thought, “I’m a bad person.”

Hopefully, seeing the thought as a series of signals in your brain helps you from adding more meat to the original thought.

How to change the thought

Remind yourself thoughts are just mental activity in your brain.
Rather than analysing and putting meat and weight on the thought, tell yourself that this is just a thought.

The following articles will be helpful if you wish to learn more about thoughts and how to change them using therapy models.

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