The Curse of Consciousness: Trapped by Your Thoughts
The universal human need for mental control disrupts our quality of life.
Posted August 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Unpleasant thoughts are impossible to avoid and can significantly impact your quality of life.
- They are a “neurological trick” created by your unconscious brain and are not subject to rational interventions.
- The root cause of the problem is the human need for mental control. It sets off two reactions: suppressing and the inability to stay positive.
The inability to escape from unpleasant thoughts has a major impact on many people’s quality of life. Much energy is spent in attempting to control or suppress them. It turns out that they arise from the unconscious brain as a reflex, and they are much more powerful than your conscious brain. Rational interventions cannot and do not work.
The problem arises because these disruptive thoughts become stronger with time and repetition, are memorized, and evolve into obsessive patterns. The research term for them is, “URTs” (unpleasant repetitive thoughts).1 My term for them is, “Phantom Brain Pain.”
Then there is even a bigger issue in that they are processed in a similar manner as physical threats and stimulate your body into a flight or fight response (threat physiology). It is important to have this survival response, but it is deadly when it is prolonged. Your body is in high gear and your inflammatory cells are attacking your own body’s tissues. However, thought suppression is only part of this story.
The Ironic Effect
A significant obstacle to health and well-being is the “ironic effect.” We all know that when you suppress thoughts and emotions that they become more powerful and disruptive.2 But a lesser-known, and even more deadly problem is that when you try to think of something, you’ll think about it less.3 Your conscious intention is overwhelmed by your unconscious brain focusing on ways you may not achieve this goal. Since the unconscious brain is so powerful, it is a huge mismatch.
The problem is that the more well-intentioned you are, the more likely this universal process will kick in. If your intention is to be out of pain, inadvertently, you’ll think about the pain more and reinforce it. The research shows that if you seek happiness, you’ll end up sad. If you try to be sad, you’ll end up buoyantly happy. If you try not to stereotype people, you’ll end up being more prejudiced. It is a major human existence problem in that many people who want to contribute to the world’s well-being, end up being crippled by overwhelming unpleasant thoughts and crippling anxiety. People with few scruples are not as bothered by this ironic effect and perhaps why many people in power run over people that are more conscientious.
The “seed” of this ironic process is the need for mental control—any control.3 The effect varies considerably from individual to individual, but it is consistently present. As bad as it sounds, and it is problematic, the solution is incredibly simple. Just write down your thoughts on a piece of paper and destroy it. The act is that of giving up mental control and it is without risk. It is the reason The DOC Journey has you begin this exercise before you get into the substance of the course. Every human being should do this daily like brushing your teeth. Look at it as cleaning out the lint trap of your dryer. Even a few minutes a day interrupts this reactive process. It is also the reason why expressing writing is the one “mandatory” step without an alternative.
Moving past these obsessive thought patterns
Understanding the powerful irrational nature of these inner critical voices will change your life in several ways. First, they are a neurological mechanism intended to protect you. You cannot take them personally. This realization allows you to learn to separate your identity from this reflex and access who you are and want to be. Your “demons” are actually suppressed thoughts and who you are not. Again, the more of a well-intentioned person you are, the more intense the thoughts. It really isn’t fair.
The other mechanism of trying to think noble and positive thoughts creates the opposite effect in that you think about them less. It creates disruptive thought patterns such as “not good enough,” “just work harder,” “I’m a loser,” and “why does this always happen to me?” It is also problematic in that they push you to become “successful,” but you may not be able to feel it. A common scenario is the “imposter syndrome.” It seems many highly successful people feel like frauds even though there is abundant evidence to the contrary.
Where is your attention?
Whatever the reason, the end result is the same. You spend a significant amount of your life energy trying to squelch these voices and they won’t respond because they can’t. In fact, they will become stronger in that you are paying attention to them and stimulating neuroplastic changes in the brain. It is similar to spinning a basketball on the tip of your finger. It will keep spinning as you put more energy into it. Also, consider these thoughts as “dust devils” that are mini-tornadoes that occur in the prairie. They spin extremely fast, they cannot be stopped or even penetrated.
So, the second way your life will be impacted is that once you understand the problem and realize you are wasting your energy trying to assuage this noise, you can move past them. The energy is now available to turn towards the future and construct the life you desire. Going back to the basketball comparison, as you stop paying attention to these circuits, they will slow down and may stop spinning almost completely. You cannot “fix” these thought patterns. The key is to first separate from them (expressive writing), and then create circuits in your brain that are much more enjoyable. You can also shift onto the part of your brain that already knows how to play. All of this can happen quickly with practice. The energy now available to go in this direction will amaze you. You’ll quit trying to solve the unsolvable.
Begin with your disbelief
Your success in healing is not about generating belief in David Hanscom, The DOC Journey, or any other set of resources. That would be a form of thought suppression. Positive thinking generates the same thought patterns through the ironic effect. Your journey must begin and continue by connecting with what is happening at the moment. As you begin this course, that would be acknowledging your disbelief and downright cynicism. You have tried almost everything presented in this course at least once. Why should this experience be any different? Like trying to be happy ends up being sad, wanting to be free of pain causes you to be in more pain. If you can’t seem to get past positive thinking, keep trying. We all want to believe and experience happiness but living in chronic pain is tough.
The healing journey presents deeply researched tools that will allow you to calm and down and re-route your nervous system as well as ways to regulate your body’s chemical state. It begins where you are and sequentially teaches you the tools to accomplish this one step at a time. The way out of pain is truly paradoxical and why healing requires a sequence. It evolved out of the experiences of many successful patients.
Unpleasant repetitive thoughts are the “curse of consciousness.” They are unique to being human in that we possess language and can create abstract thoughts and concepts. They become our version of reality and identity.4 We may spend a lot of time trying to fix or escape from them, but it isn’t possible. They are relentless and irrational.
Understanding the neurological mechanism of how they occur allows you to recognize them for what they are, connect to your own value system, and move past them into a much more enjoyable life experience.
1. Makovac E, et al. Can’t get it off my brain: Meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies on perseverative cognition. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging (2020); 295:111020. doi.org/10.1016/j/psychresns.2019.111020
2. Wegener DM, et al. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987); 53: 5-13.
3. Wegener DM. The Seed of Our Undoing. Psychological Science Agenda (1999)/ 10-11.
4. Feldman-Barrett. How Emotions are Made. Mariner Books; Main Market Ed. 2018.