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  • Michael Philp

Can we actually control our thoughts?

You've probably seen those pro-mental health posts outlining things we can control and things we can't. And I would agree with 99% of what is on the list except for one phrase that always gets stuck in my craw - "you can control your thoughts". This one phrase has caused people so much heartache because often that is why people come to therapy - to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Our society encourages us to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings through messaging in social media and our cultural norms. We do this with telling people to control their thoughts and we also do this by telling people those thoughts and feelings are abnormal.

Our society messages sound like:

Stressed at work? Have a drink.

Boyfriend broke up with you? Go out and get drunk to forget.

Worried about the big meeting tomorrow? Have a drink to settle your nerves.

Got a promotion at work? Have a drink to celebrate.

Your team lost the grand final? Have a drink to commiserate.

Which makes total sense! As a result, we engage in activities that take us away from these unpleasant thoughts and feelings - procrastinating, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, risk taking and so on. We do these things because a) they work and b) they feel good (usually). When we drink alcohol our mood changes and we don't think so much about the problems we have. Except when we sober up, the thoughts come back. Now we have social media influencers telling us that we just need to control our thoughts and everything will be ok!

Before I go on - here are the cold hard facts. The more you try to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, the more your brain brings them back into your conscious awareness. So now you are working even harder to try and get rid of these thoughts, while your brain, in a somewhat masochistic fashion, keeps bringing your attention back to those thoughts. Because your brain is doing what it is designed to do - solve problems. And clearly this is a problem, because this is an unpleasant thought, so the best way to solve this problem is to think really hard about it and all the reasons why this thought comes into your mind so we can come up with a solution! So now you are worrying about the fact that you worry so much, and actually that is quite irritating, so you are now angry that you worry about worrying so much, but that makes you get the picture.

The reality is, we don't have control over our thoughts. Random thoughts pop into our conscious awareness all the time. Most of the time, we dismiss these thoughts without giving them much attention and forget about them quickly. Sometimes these thoughts are unpleasant - they make us feel sad or scared. It's our brain's way of trying to help us be prepared for potential danger, like an overly helpful friend who is always pointing out the things that could go wrong.

What can help with unpleasant thoughts?

If we change our mindset, however, we can learn to cope better with these unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Instead of spending a lot of time and energy trying to get rid of these thoughts, we could instead acknowledge them, allowing them to pass through, even though they are unpleasant. By noticing and naming these thoughts ("I'm having some anxious thoughts about the meeting with my boss tomorrow"), we can start to take a step back from our thoughts and observe them for what they truly are - signals from our brain - and allow them to come and go. We can even normalise these thoughts - "most people would feel anxious about a performance review".

Or we can show our selves some self-compassion, as we would show our dearest friends - "that was a tough moment in my life and it makes me feel sad when I think about it" instead of "I'm stupid to be thinking about these things in the past".

These are just some tips that may help in managing these unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Ultimately the key here is - my thoughts are not necessarily in my control, but I can choose how to respond to these thoughts.

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1 Comment

Sasha MCAT
Sasha MCAT
May 24

It’s also important that these are now always signals from our brain. Sometimes they’re just random thoughts

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