How to deal with difficult thoughts

Tips on how to notice your thinking and take the power out of difficult thoughts

Artwork of mountains and a thought river
Mind like a river - Harley Clinical Psychology | @harleyclinical

We all have busy minds, with recent research estimating that we have around 6200 thoughts each day (Tseng & Poppenk, 2020). This means that over the course of one year of your life, you are likely to have over 2,000,000 thoughts. Does this surprise you? Would you say that you are 100% aware of each one of those 6200 thoughts during your day?


Cognitive fusion

You are not alone if your answer to those questions is no. Most of the time we go about our day fused with our thoughts. Cognitive fusion is a state in which we are entangled in our thoughts; we can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts, and they dominate our behaviour and our actions. For example, someone who is experiencing depression may fuse with the thought “I am useless”. When fused, this person will experience this thought as an absolute truth, that he is useless (because he thought it). This person believes being useless is something he is rather than an internal thought that he has had.


We do not normally see our thoughts as inner events: we fuse them with reality

Wells (2009)


Therefore being fused with our thoughts means that:

- Our thoughts are truths that we believe unquestioningly

- Our thoughts are commands that we automatically obey

- Our thoughts are important and must be listened to


Defusion & how it can help

One of the aims of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to help people learn the skill of defusing from difficult or problematic thoughts. Defusion is the flip side of fusion: seeing our thoughts just as thoughts; internal bits of language that our minds produce to make meaning of the world around us. Language that we can choose to buy into, believe, get caught up in or not. When we are less fused with our thoughts, and they have less power over us, we are more freed up to make choices about what we do next.


First step to defusion: Notice the act of thinking

The first step to spending your day less fused and dominated by unhelpful thoughts is to increase your awareness of your thoughts: to notice the act of your thinking, or your mind at work. There are many ways you can do this, and the key to being less fused is consistent practise over time. Below we describe three techniques, one of which relies on visualisation. For some people this may be difficult, and will we outline more defusion techniques in future articles.


1. Simple noticing

  • Pause what you are doing.

  • Take a ‘reset’ breath - slowly inhale, hold your breath for a couple of seconds, then exhale slowly (repeat if you want to).

  • Tune into your mind chatter - ask yourself gently: what is my mind saying?

  • Take a few moments to just listen to your mind at work.

2. Mind like a river

An effective way to notice the act of thinking is to use visualisation. Think of your mind like a river - a never ending flow of thoughts. Using this metaphor you can:


  • Imagine yourself swimming/in the middle of/stuck in the river - this represents you being fused with your thoughts.


  • Imagine wading through the river, fighting the current - this represents you struggling with your thoughts (“I don't want these thoughts!”).


  • Imagine sitting on the bank of the river (or maybe in a rowing boat on the river), watching the water move on by - this represents you defusing from your thoughts, watching and noticing them as they move through your mind.



You can play around with the imagery to see what is most helpful to help you step back from you thoughts and notice the act of your thinking. Once you have visualised the river a few times, it can be useful to have a ‘short cut’ to it when you notice you are fused: ask yourself “am I in the river right now” or “have I fallen in the river?”.


Once you have noticed you are in the river ask yourself “how can I get myself out, what is going to help me step back from my thoughts?”


3. I am having the thought that...

A simple defusion technique that helps you notice the act of thinking is to simply say to yourself “I am having the thought that…”. Try this exercise:

  • Pick one of the difficult thoughts that tends to show up for you on a fairly regular basis.

  • Spend a moment or two getting really fused and caught up in that thought, say it over and over again to yourself.

  • Now say to yourself “I am having the thought that….(insert your thought)”. Repeat this a few times.

  • Now say to yourself “I notice I am having the thought that…(insert your thought)”.

What did you notice during the exercise?


Usually people report that when they started to notice they were having the thought, it took the power out of it, made it seem smaller somehow, and less loud in their minds.




Summary

Being less fused and more aware of the process of your thinking can help you manage difficult thoughts more effectively.


We have outlined a few strategies in this article that with practise can help to reduce the hold that difficult thoughts can have on you.


Once your thoughts have less influence on your behaviour you can then start to choose how you want to behave/what actions you want to take, in line with your values or what’s really important to you, which in turn can have a positive impact on your mood and wellbeing.


 

Struggling with difficult or distressing thoughts?


If you would like to explore how we can help you develop skills to deal with your difficult thoughts or emotions, do get in touch for a FREE initial phone call or contact us to book an appointment.




 

Tseng, J. & Poppenk, J. (2020). Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nature Communications, (11) 3480. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9


Wells, A. (2009). Metacognitive Therapy for Anxiety and Depression. New York: Guildford Press.



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