Your Brain Is Nagging You. Here Are 5 Ways to Make It Stop
* Your job review is scheduled in two days and, in passing, your boss says, “Well, we’ll certainly have a lot to talk about.” You try to put what he said out of your mind—what did he mean by that?—but it keeps coming back, and now you’re a nervous wreck.
* You’re sitting in the airport, ready to board, and thoughts of every plane crash you’ve ever read about keep barging into your head. You try to shake them off, reminding yourself that plane travel is safer than driving a car, but it doesn’t work.
* You’re going to the doctor next week to have that mark on your thigh looked at and you think it’s probably nothing, but worst-case scenarios float into your head 24/7 and distracting yourself doesn’t work. Why is that?
The answer is what Daniel Wegner calls “the ironic monitoring process"—your brain actually searches for whatever thought or emotion the individual is trying to suppress. Yes, your brain is actually nagging you.
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In their initial experiments, Wegner and his colleagues instructed one group of participants not to think of a white bear while they performed other tasks. A second group was instructed to think of white bears andthen not to think of them. Interestingly, the first group, which tried to keep the white bear at bay, thought about them more than once a minute! And the second group thought about them more when they were trying to suppress white-bear thoughts than when they were told to think about them.
In plain language: Trying to suppress an intrusive thought is akin to putting out a Welcome sign and inviting it to stay awhile. You may find this disconcerting—I certainly do, because I like to pretend I have complete control over my thoughts—but we probably just need to suck it up and face how much of what we think is really automatic and unconscious. (I’m not even going into unconscious “primes” and how they shape our thoughts.)
White bears, it turns out,...