It is often said that thoughts have a mind of their own. They come into our heads unbidden, often unexpectedly, and they are usually involuntary. Automatic thoughts are so universal that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has made controlling them one of the pillars of its practice.
Just because something is automatic, it doesn’t mean that we are powerless to influence it. Take breathing, for example, or blushing. Both are involuntary, you might say, but both can be changed by the conscious decision to do it. Admittedly, it’s a bit harder to change blushing than it is to alter our pattern of breathing, but it can be done.
The idea that we have to put up with intrusive and unwanted thoughts is pernicious and false. Rumination (obsessive over-thinkinging about situations or events), is a core feature of depression, anxiety and other kinds of psychological distress. Helping somebody to learn how to take control and stop the unwanted and intrusive thoughts is a feature of many kinds osf therapy, and the self-help book shelves (and many websites), offer advice on how to do it. In therapy, it’s often the first step in enabling the client to feel better about themselves and move beyond their difficulties.
For the rest of us, unwanted thoughts can be a nuisance, but you don’t have to put up with them. Like any unwanted vistiors, you may not be able to stop them arriving, but you can prevent them from staying, and you certainly don’t have to let them take up residence.
Burns, D., (1999), The Feeling Good Handbook, Penguin, London.