Have you ever noticed how the very thing that you most fear often comes your way? Why would this be, when we seem to do all that we can to avoid these things? People who fear panic every waking minute of the day often get a panic attack out of the blue. People who think of not dropping a glass of wine at a party often do. And then there are, thankfully, those people who think of heinous things such as dropping a baby they are handed to carry, or ramming into a car that has cut them off, who do not meet this fate. Why do we sometimes meet our most feared fate, and at other times not? Daniel Wegner, in an interesting article in Science, told the story of "ironic process theory".
This theory essentially states that there are two competing brain processes occurring at the same time. One is the conscious wish to focus on something positive (like walking with a full glass of wine across a living room) while the other is the unconscious wish to avoid the dreaded consequence (like dropping the wine over precious furniture). Each of these thoughts involves a different brain system, and usually, the conscious desire wins over and we manage to avoid what we dread. The conscious brain searches for the proper distraction while the unconscious brain checks for errors so as to prevent the dreaded consequence.
However, when the brain is under stress for whatever reason, this wonderful synchrony starts to break down. If you overload your brain, your brain starts to find it difficult to focus on your conscious desire to find a proper distraction, and instead becomes a victim of negative distractions. What was once an unconscious error monitor changes it nature from monitor to "searcher" and the brain starts to look for those dreaded consequences, conveying this information to your action centers.
All of a sudden, by thinking too many thoughts at the same time, or by being overwhelmed by seeing a past lover unexpectedly at the party, the hand holding the glass starts to quiver under the loss of your initial conscious control. The wine splashes to the edges, and while you might ordinarily start to gain control, when your brain is overwhelmed, this control is lost. All that your brain can hear is "shaking hands drop wine" and that repetitive message sets up the brain (through priming) to do exactly that. It seems as though under pressure, the brain turns suppression into expression and the very thing we most fear becomes the dreaded consequence.
How then, can you avoid doing the very things you most fear?
1. Recognize that your brain is not set up to automatically to get you what you want when you are under pressure. In fact, it is set up to do the opposite. Reducing stress through effective time management, meditation, exercise or reframing may go a long way to helping you get what you want rather than just blustering through your stress. For example if you are half way across that room with a glass of wine that is beginning to feel like it is going to spill, rather than just blustering through, stop. Stopping takes the pressure off of the conscious brain and allows it to get its grip back on your initial desire. You may feel silly stopping in the middle of the room, or you may feel afraid that if you stop, you will just prolong the dread of dropping the wine, but stopping will help your brain to regroup and by putting your brain into "park", you can switch the brain off, and then start again. This allows the brain to reframe and reconnect with your desire.
2. Practice focusing on what you want rather than what you do not want. And when you start to get more and more negative ideas about what might happen, overexpress the positive attitude to yourself. Overexpression is a great way to get the conscious brain to reclaim its grip over your desires. Develop a positive image of your success (like walking all the way across the room with not a drop spilled); repeat positive ideas to yourself. It may seem like brainwashing, and it is. But by practicing, you are also allowing your brain to cement positive habits.
3. Think of negative thoughts like a hot iron and positive thoughts as a calm, soothing balm: Whenever the idea of dropping that wine (or losing money or your job or not getting that house) comes into your mind, treat it as you would putting your hand on a hot piece of metal-but with an added calmness that allows you not to have jerky withdrawal. Calmly remove your attention to the negative and search for that soothing balm of your conscious brain's attention to the positive.
These are three of the many things that you can do to avoid the irony of being human, and the more you practice them, the more you will allow your conscious and unconscious brain to do what they are supposed to do.