Negative thoughts can be tough to shake, especially if you’ve been struggling with them for a long time. These thoughts may have such a hold over us that they affect our feelings, behavior, and even our sense of self.
If this is something you experience, know that you’re not alone. You may have tried various things to combat that pesky voice inside your head, like trying to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, beating yourself up for having the brain that you do, or attempting to numb out with various behaviors (drinking, binge eating, self-harm, etc.). But have you tried acceptance?
As the name suggests, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is all about accepting difficult thoughts and feelings as a normal part of the human experience. ACT teaches us that pain is a part of life. Rather than trying to change or avoid uncomfortable emotions or thoughts, we can accept these inner experiences and move forward with living our lives.
One of the ways to foster acceptance is through a process called cognitive defusion. Don’t worry, it’s not as technical as it sounds! Cognitive defusion (also known simply as “defusion”) is a strategy that helps us look at our thoughts instead of from our thoughts. Instead of allowing our unhelpful thoughts to shape our reality, we can “de-fuse” from them to regain a sense of agency over our lives.
The storytelling mind
Our minds love to tell stories. These “stories” come in the form of thoughts, and our brains have a lot of those! The amount of thoughts we have can feel overwhelming, especially if those thoughts are negative.
If your brain is frequently feeding you a stream of negative thoughts, you might start to believe that they are actually true. Defusion is a way for us to detach from unhelpful thought patterns in order to see them for what they are: just a bunch of words.
So, how do you practice defusion? Here’s a step-by-step process:
- Unhook yourself
Sometimes we may feel as if our thoughts have hooked us, reeling us backwards at 100 miles per hour. We can get so swept up in our thoughts that we start believing every little thing they tell us.
Next time you find yourself getting carried away by a torrent of negative thoughts, pause. Notice what’s happening. By pausing and observing, you can “unhook” yourself from unhelpful thought patterns.
- Name the thought
Next, name the thought. You can say something like, “I’m having the thought that…” or, “I notice I’m having the thought that…”
For example, maybe your mind won’t stop sharing stories about how much of a failure you are. After unhooking yourself from those thoughts, notice them by saying silently or out loud, “I’m having the thought that… I’m a failure.”
Do you notice the difference? Naming our thoughts creates some distance so they don’t have as much of an impact.
Like any skill, defusion takes some practice. Here are some exercises to try to hone your defusion muscle:
- Thank your mind – As mentioned earlier, our minds love to tell us stories. Whenever you notice your mind getting up on its high horse and spewing unhelpful narratives, say, “Thanks, Mind!” It helps to say this sarcastically so that you don’t take your mind’s stories so seriously.
- Leaves on a stream – Our thoughts come and go just like leaves floating down a stream. Close your eyes and imagine you’re sitting on the bank of a creek. Every time you have an unhelpful thought, put it on a leaf and watch it drift downstream. You’ll learn to watch your thoughts come and go, allowing you to be more flexible with your thinking. If you’re a fan of guided meditation, check out this guided “leaves on a stream” exercise.
- Silly voices – Imagine a cartoon character with a distinct voice saying your thoughts out loud. It’s hard to take your mind seriously when you hear Winne-the-Pooh say, “I’m so ugly!” or Mickey Mouse exclaim, “I’m worthless!”
Reclaim your power!
The ultimate goal of cognitive defusion is to give your thoughts less power. If you find that your thoughts dictate way too much of your life or your behavior, try practicing defusion. Eventually, you’ll learn that you don’t have to believe every single thought that goes through your head.
Gina Henschen, MA, LPCC is a People House Affordable Counseling Program alumna and a graduate of the University of Colorado Denver’s clinical mental health counseling program. She currently works as a therapist at Road to Growth Counseling in Westminster, CO, where she specializes in working with adolescents and adults who have experienced trauma, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating. Visit roadtogrowthcounseling.com or Psychology Today to connect with her.