By Gina Henschen, LPCC
The human brain is nothing short of amazing. Our brains give us the power to do incredible things, but sometimes, they can get the best of us. Many individuals who come to therapy feel plagued by negative thinking or negative self-talk, and it’s no secret why — the mind, as amazing as it is, is also an impressive chatterbox.
According to a 2020 study from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, the average person has more than 6,000 thoughts in a day! But what percentage of those thoughts are grounded in reality or fact?
In an effort to eliminate negative thoughts, it’s common for people to make attempts to control them. This may show up in a variety of ways, from trying to counteract negative thinking with positive thoughts to avoiding situations that trigger painful or difficult thoughts. It’s also common for individuals to beat themselves up, shame themselves, or get mad at themselves for having such thoughts in the first place.
Despite all of these valiant efforts, the unwanted thoughts frequently remain. One thing is certain: trying to control negative thinking is exhausting!
Acceptance vs Avoidance of Negative Thoughts
The reality is, we can’t necessarily control our thoughts. Our brain is constantly chattering away, and it’s perfectly normal for it to do so.
I’ll share a common example of this. Imagine you’re in a swimming pool with a beach ball. You try to push the beach ball under the water, and what happens? It comes back up. No matter how hard you push down, the beach ball always resurfaces.
Our thoughts and feelings are similar. When we try to control our negative thinking and/or feelings, we are often left feeling defeated, frustrated, and tired.
So, what is there to do? Rather than trying to change or control our negative thoughts or feelings, we can instead work on changing the relationships we have with our thoughts and feelings. To do so, we must first begin to notice and examine our thoughts, and a process called “cognitive defusion” can help us accomplish just that.
What is Cognitive Defusion?
Cognitive defusion is a strategy that helps individuals notice their negative thoughts and separate themselves from them. The word “defusion” means to “de-fuse” from — in other words, to create some space in between ourselves and our thoughts so that the stories our minds tell us have less of a hold over us. Defusion is a concept that is central to acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), an off-shoot of cognitive-behavioral therapy that incorporates mindfulness, acceptance, and values-driven strategies in order to promote behavior change.
Many times, our negative thinking can have a big influence on our reality, so much so that our thoughts can feel like absolute truth. The fact is, thoughts are just words. They’re stories, but all too often, we become so tangled up in them that we can’t see them for what they really are. Depression and anxiety can amplify this by painting every little thing that goes through our heads in a negative light.
The common adage is that cognitive defusion helps us begin to look at our thoughts rather than from our thoughts. Here are four defusion exercises to try the next time you feel overwhelmed by the stories your mind tells you.
1. I am having the thought that…
In any defusion exercise, the first step is to notice the thought or feeling you are experiencing. Name it, either in your head or out loud, by saying: “I’m having the thought that…”
Example: You may oftentimes find yourself thinking, “I’m such a loser. No one could ever love me. I’m going to be alone forever.” Change the language to: “I’m having the thought that… I’m such a loser.”
Now, let’s get even further away from that thought. Again, either silently or out loud, say: “I notice I’m having the thought that…”
Example: “I notice I’m having the thought that… I’m such a loser.”
You can do this with feelings, too. “I notice I’m having the feeling of…” and “I notice I’m experiencing the feeling of…” are great ways to observe and defuse from uncomfortable feelings.
A simple change in language helps put some space between ourselves and the thoughts and feelings we experience. You can also try, “I’m only telling myself that… I’m a loser/a failure/whatever insult” or “I’m momentarily experiencing anxiety/hopelessness/whatever uncomfortable feeling.”
2. Leaves on a Stream
This is a classic ACT defusion exercise. Imagine you’re sitting near the bank of a river or stream, watching the water flow. Now imagine seeing leaves floating along the surface of the water, eventually disappearing out of sight. These leaves are your thoughts. Every time you have a thought, imagine that thought written on a leaf and watch it float away.
If you’re having trouble with visualization, try this free online defusion tool that’s a similar concept to Leaves on a Stream.
3. Thank Your Mind
You’re probably well aware by now that the mind loves to make up stories! Whenever there’s a new disastrous breaking news story going through your head, notice it and simply say, “Thanks, Mind!”
You might not always realize that your mind is telling you a story until it’s a few minutes into its monologue. That’s OK — as soon as you notice it’s happening, pause and simply thank your mind for the creative and imaginative story. Over time, you may start to get quicker at noticing whenever your mind gets carried away with the storytelling.
4. Silly Voices
All too often, we take that little voice inside our heads way too seriously. This exercise helps give that voice less weight and influence.
Pick a cartoon character or a character from a film, TV show, or video game, specifically someone who has a distinct voice (Mickey Mouse, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jigglypuff from Pokémon are some good ones if you need ideas). Then, get into character and say the thought out loud in that character’s voice.
Chances are, you’ll start laughing at how ridiculous it sounds to hear the Terminator say, “I’m such a loser!” or Mickey exclaim, “I’m worthless!” With practice over time, you’ll start to take your thoughts a little less seriously.
Our brain is a muscle, and there’s a reason that these techniques are called exercises. They take time, patience, and practice. But with a little bit of effort each day, you can strengthen your ability to notice and defuse from unhelpful thought patterns in order to improve your quality of life.
For further reading on defusion and other ACT concepts, check out The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris. All of these exercises are derived from this book.