Something terribly bad happened, and despite all your efforts to stop thinking about it, it always comes back to your mind when you least expect it? It can be words, images or feelings about what happened, and the more you avoid them, the more they come back, right?
Well, you’re not alone, actually, most human beings who haven’t experienced brain injuries have the same experience when trying to stop their thoughts, and it is believed to be due to the Ironic Processes of Mental Control (Wegner, 1994). Now, does it mean that there’s nothing you can do about your thoughts and you’ll have to endure the painful feelings associated with them for the rest of your life? No, it doesn’t, and I’ll go back to that in a moment, but first, it is important to understand that there’s nothing wrong with you when your attempts at stopping unpleasant thoughts don’t work.
Do you remember Basil Fawlty, the main character of the sitcom Fawlty Towers, and what happens in the episode when he tells his staff not to mention the War to their German guests? Don’t mention the war, don’t mention the war, and of course, he can’t help it and does more than mentioning the war, which causes much embarrassment to him. Basil Fawlty’s attempt to stop his mind producing the word “war” triggers the same process in our brains that when we try to stop thinking about a painful event.
Here is how it works. Let’s say we want to stop a painful thought that keeps coming back to our mind all the time. One part of our brain will start distracting us with other thoughts so that we can stop thinking about the unpleasant thought. At the same time, another part of our brain, that I call the Thought Police, will start screening your every thought to make sure they are free of any traces of the painful image, like an airport security scanner. Which means that while one part of our brain is busy trying to distract us from unpleasant thoughts, the Thought Police is all alert, comparing every single thought with the one we want to avoid. As a result, all our effort to avoid unpleasant thoughts each time imprints these thoughts deeper and deeper into our brain. No matter how many pictures of cute little puppies we look at on the Internet, if we do that with the intention of getting rid of an unpleasant image or thought, we will only strengthen the unpleasant thought in our brain. It can give temporary relief, and there are circumstances when temporary relief is necessary, but in the long run it is unworkable.
So, if avoiding bad thoughts reinforces them, what can we do to ease the pain? It might sound counterintuitive but making room for unpleasant thoughts and their associated feelings has been found to be very effective for many people. By stopping avoiding thoughts and feelings, and getting better acquainted with them with compassion – (can I give a name to my though/feeling? What sensations does it trigger in my body? In what part? How does it feel when I pay attention to them, etc.) – we come to realise little by little that thoughts and feelings, no matter how unpleasant they are, never last if we stop fighting them. It is like falling in quicksand, the best way to survive is to stop trying to get out of it and just lay on our back and float.
Just like laying on our back in quicksand, stopping avoidance of thoughts and feelings is easier said than done in the beginning. There are many self-help books describing the process and they can be very useful to become familiarised with the idea and start exploring by yourself. Nevertheless, making room for painful thoughts and feelings alone can sometimes be very daunting, and counsellors are there to guide and support you in this journey. There are tools you can learn and practice with them, which you can then use by yourself once you become more confident and comfortable with the process.
Learning and practising how to make room for unpleasant thoughts and feelings does not make them go away once and for all. However, when they come up, if we acknowledge and make room for them, and don’t pass judgement on them, they don’t overwhelm us anymore, and we can use the energy we used to use to avoid them in more fulfilling endeavours.
Daniel, M. Wagner, “Ironic Processes of Mental Control” Psychological Review Vol. 101. N1 (1994): 34-52
First published in counselling-directory.org.uk November 2015