This post is about how to stop overthinking and negative thoughts.
We are rigid with our thoughts, we believe them or resist them- but this reinforces them.
Hey Emma, Why are you pulling that rope? Have You ever tried pushing one?
Alright guys, sorry for the bad joke, but thanks for letting me reminisce on my days as a camp counselor for a second. And this rope has something to teach us about our anxiety, and our anxious thoughts.
A Ballerina Story
I once had a client who was a ballerina, she was a really good one too, performing at top levels. But she struggled with anxiety.
When roles for the next production were about to be announced she would worry and worry about what part she would be given, she would wonder if she’d be given the lead, she would ruminate over any mistakes she had made and wonder if she’d messed up so much that they would give the lead to someone else, she’d think about everything she’d said to the production manager, wondering if anything had been offensive.
She also tried to predict the roles each dancer would get. She’d think about every other dancer and about their strengths, in her head she’d imagine a hundred different scenarios with each of them placed into a different role.
She’d compare herself to them, only noticing all their skills and all her own flaws, and then she’d flip and obsess over her own abilities and highlight all of their flaws.
She would literally obsess over this for hours each day for days or weeks leading up to the role decisions. It interfered with her ability to relax, to hang out with friends, and to finish her school work. And she felt stressed and confused. She couldn’t figure out if she was amazing or awful, confident or insecure, and she knew she had to be confident, so if a fearful thought came up, she’d struggle against it, try to force it out of her head with positive thinking or another round of obsessing over who would get each role.
And the more she tried to think positive, the more stressed out she became, the more time she spent inside her head, and the more anxious she was.
She stopped seeing friends and became more depressed, it seemed like the harder she tried, the worse things got, so by the time she came to see me she was ready to give up on it all.
What Doesn’t Work With Thoughts
So here’s the problem that many of us get trapped in. Most of us at some point get stuck in our thoughts, we ruminate or obsess over situations, whether it’s the dumb thing we said the other night or the upcoming performance we need to do.
If we have a thought like “I’m such a loser” we just believe that thought without question. Or we engage in a wrestle with our thoughts, trying to force them to be positive, trying to prevent pop-in thoughts from happening. Or we fear our thoughts, we judge them or demand that they change.
But the problem is, the more we try to force our thoughts to change, the louder they become. And, worse, when we’re putting tons of energy into struggling with thoughts, we get sidetracked from what we really value in life.
So in this post, you’ll learn how to escape the trap of overthinking, bothersome thoughts, and negative thinking with the ACT skill of cognitive defusion.
How Our Brain Works
When we are rigid with our thoughts, if we believe them or even if we resist them- this makes them louder. The way your brain works is “What you pay attention to, you get more of.” Your brain is wired to pay more attention to the things you pay attention to.
Dean Anderson, from Wasatch Mental Health, once told this story to illustrate the process. When his family needed a new car, they decided they wanted a suburban, they didn’t really know what color they wanted, but after looking through their options they decided that they wanted to buy a Pewter Suburban- it’s kinda a tawny gray silver color- and as soon as they chose that color, guess what they started to see every time they were on the road? Pewter suburbans, they had never noticed that color before, even though they’d been around them frequently, but once they started looking for them, they started seeing them everywhere.
So if you have an intrusive thought, and you’re like “Ah! That was awful! I should never think that again!” Your brain is like “That thought is super important! Let’s pay a ton of attention to that thought, and let’s scan for that thought all the time, and if it pops in, let’s pay even more attention to it!” And this makes that thought louder and louder. What you pay attention to, you get more of.
Or if you have a thought like “I’m going to fail that exam” and then you struggle against the thought “No, I’m a great student! I can’t think about failing! I have to think positively!” Then your brain makes both thoughts really loud. And all that back and forth interferes with your ability to study.
So What Do We Do Instead?
Cognitive Defusion is the ACT skill where you stop believing your thoughts, drop the struggle with them, and instead you notice them, you separate yourself from your thoughts, and you use your values to clarify what you do want to pay attention to.
So the first skill with cognitive defusion is noticing that you’re thinking. We talked about this a little in the video on Automatic Negative thoughts- It’s pretty powerful when you can shift from “I am not good enough”, “I can’t handle this” to “I’m noticing the thought that I am not good enough”. But let’s see if we can take it one step further.
Observer Self Exercise
Let’s take one minute right now and practice.
Tune Into Your Thoughts: Close your eyes and start to notice your thoughts. Don’t try to change or judge them. Just let them come and go. For the next minute, become aware of every thought that crosses your mind.
Labeling: As you notice each thought, silently label it as “thinking.” For example, if you think, “I have to do laundry later,” acknowledge it by thinking to yourself, “thinking about laundry.”
Shifting to the Observer Self: After a few minutes of labeling your thoughts, try to shift your perspective. Instead of being inside your thoughts, imagine you’re sitting in a cinema watching your thoughts on a screen. Your thoughts are the movie, and you are the audience. Remember, movies come and go, but the audience remains.
Noticing Sensations: Now, divert your attention from your thoughts to your bodily sensations. Can you feel the weight of your body on the chair or the ground? The sensation of air entering and leaving your nostrils? The feeling of your clothes against your skin? As you notice each sensation, remind yourself that you’re observing. Can you observe yourself thinking, can you notice that you’re the one having thoughts? This is your Observer Self in action.
OK, could you feel that difference? Between the thinking self and the observer self? Was it easy to stay as an observer, or did you get sucked back into thinking?
- How did it feel to watch your thoughts from a distance rather than being entangled in them?
When we’re caught in the whirlwind of our thoughts, it’s easy to believe that they define us. But by accessing the Observer Self, we realize that we are not our thoughts. We have thoughts, but we are the observer of those thoughts. This perspective can reduce suffering and provide clarity in moments of distress.
Remember, your thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not facts, and they’re not you. By regularly practicing this shift from the Thinking Self to the Observer Self, you can cultivate a greater sense of peace, balance, and understanding in your life.
ACT has a ton of metaphors for this skill. The chessboard is one- your thoughts are like chess pieces, but you are the board, you’re the place where these thoughts happen, don’t get wrapped up in the individual piece, notice the whole board. Or another one is – your mind is like a sports announcer, it can make commentary for hours and hours, but the announcer isn’t the real event, the real event is the game they are playing, the action. Our brain is going to make commentary on much of what we do, but when we detach a little from our thoughts, we get to be the player.
For example, if you have the thought “I’m going to mess up this presentation,” imagine it’s the sports announcer providing commentary. Instead of getting wrapped up in the thought and feeling anxious, you might respond with, “Thanks for the commentary, mind. I’m going to go back to preparing and do my best.”
There’s some other easy ways to practice defusion. After this video, in the full course we’ll have some exercises like “Leaves on a stream” and “Passengers on the bus”.
But using humor can be one of the most powerful ways to defuse from thoughts. If you’re having a negative thought about yourself, you could try saying it in a silly voice or imagining it as a cartoon character. Singing it is another ridiculous way to defuse a thought. “I’m having the thought that I’m a loser”. This can help you see your thoughts as less threatening.
Another simple way is to write them down. Writing down your thoughts can be a helpful way to distance yourself from them. Try writing down your thoughts as if you’re an outside observer, rather than as if they’re happening to you. Or you could title the page “Stuff my word machine is making” or start each line with “I’m having the thought that…”
Calling these “Stories” can be super helpful too. We do this all the time in marriage therapy. Instead of saying “My husband never helps out around the house.” you say “I’m telling the story that I’m always a victim here”. Or you might think “My wife is a narcissist” and a therapist could help you discern that, while she may have some selfish traits, you’re telling a story that “she’s incurably bad, that “why bother trying if she’s so terrible”” and that story isn’t helping you have a better relationship. Our word machine of a mind is always telling stories, and if we believe those stories too rigidly, we’ll filter out lots of helpful thoughts that disagree with that story.
In a comment on YouTube, Tommy explained cognitive defusion in his own words: Ok, so….this is my take on the whole thing: Thoughts and feelings come, sometimes seemingly on their own. I don’t identify them as right or wrong. I don’t spend time thinking and overthinking and trying to pick them apart and figure out why. “Oh, my! Why in the world am I thinking like this?” begins an endless string of thoughts about thoughts about thoughts. They just happen, like a hiccup or my heart beating. So, I just kind of look at them…decide whether they are useful…if not, then….hmm, that was interesting. Oh, well …on to the next thing….
The whole goal of defusion is to help you take a little space from your thoughts so that you can shift your focus and energy into the things you care about. When you’re not so wrapped up in your thoughts you’re free to be present and engaged with the people you care about, you can put your energy into doing the things you love.
Remember, cognitive defusion is a skill that takes practice. It’s not about getting rid of your thoughts or never getting caught up in them again, but rather learning to observe them with curiosity and openness. Keep practicing and experimenting with different techniques to find what works best for you.
If you want to learn more about anxiety, click the link below.