If you experience anxiety, you know all too well that, at times, uncontrollable thinking is a byproduct. It’s the worst, isn’t it? But thankfully, there are a few unique ways to learn how to unhook from negative thoughts. One of them is called cognitive defusion. In this article, you’ll learn all about this technique and how to detach yourself from frustrating thoughts.
What is Cognitive Defusion?
Widely used as a skill in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), cognitive defusion, also known as deliteralization, is the practice of separating oneself from their thoughts. Over time, people learn to observe their thoughts as temporary and separate from themselves rather than getting caught in unhelpful thought traps. It’s particularly helpful with those experiencing anxiety and/or depression.
What Are the Benefits of Cognitive Defusion?
While defusion doesn’t mean you eliminate cognitive distortions or negative thoughts for good, you learn to realize how your thoughts affect you, which is the most important benefit. You discover that your thoughts, whether significant or not, are not always true about yourself and the world around you. The other benefits that come with noticing your thoughts instead of believing them provide you with a whole new lease on life. For example, your overall health improves, including your sleep, relationships, confidence, motivation, and relationship with yourself. Most importantly, you learn you are enough and capable of living the life you deserve and accomplishing your goals.
How to Unhook From Negative Thoughts
1. Create space
Anxious thoughts have a habit of making us believe they’re accurate. Unfortunately, replaying the same thoughts can become ingrained patterns and stories we tell ourselves from creating real change or taking action. For example, instead of saying “I hate myself”, try reframing it by saying, “I’m having the thought that I hate myself”. When you insert this reframe, you create space between the thought and yourself.
2. Slow it down
When we’re stressed, we often repeat negative statements on overdrive without taking breaks or slowing down. So, try repeating the negative thoughts back to yourself slowly. What do you notice about the thought now? Do you notice it’s less powerful or less true? Does it feel painful to repeat it? Saying the negative thought at a slower pace provides time to reflect on whether it holds any merit.
3. Thank your anxiety
If you notice a negative thought popping up, instead of judging or punishing yourself for saying the thought, which can only make things worse, thank it. Sounds weird, right? It may, but saying “Thank you anxiety” acknowledges what you’re feeling is anxiety and tricks your brain into stopping the rumination. After all, your mind thinks it’s helping you by overthinking a situation that feels uncontrollable and fearful. So, thank it.
4. Rephrase your thoughts
One of the best ways to learn how to unhook from negative thoughts is to reframe them. For example, if you consistently say, “I’m not enough”, or “I don’t deserve a great life”, try to say, “I’m sometimes not enough”, or “I sometimes don’t deserve a great life”. Instead of trying to force yourself to say “I’m enough” all the time, inserting the word “sometimes” provides a more neutral starting ground. It allows you to make room for improvement slowly rather than feeling pressured to change your self-talk immediately.
5. Take charge
If you’re prone to anxious thoughts, you know how disempowering they can feel. For example, you may become defeated when your self-critic turns on, or you may begin to believe the statements that pop up and dislike yourself as a result. Yet it’s important to know your thoughts are real, but they aren’t true. This means you have every right to get angry and ask, “Who’s in charge here? My thoughts or me?” and the answer is you. Question your thoughts and challenge their presence.
6. Mindfulness technique
Another fantastic way of creating space between yourself and your thoughts is to become an observer. For instance, begin spending time observing your negative thoughts when they appear. Notice how they shift from one story to another quickly and temporarily. And notice that they’re startled by an incident or situation, but they never exist in the present moment. Increasing your self-awareness and practicing mindfulness will allow you to see how fleeting your thoughts are.
7. Acknowledge and investigate
After observing your thoughts, identify between a thought you’re having, and one you believe is true or significant. To begin, acknowledge and label your thoughts. For example, if you’re worried you’re going to fail, label it as fear. Then question your thought by asking, “Do I believe this thought?” If so, investigate what could happen if you think it’s true. Perhaps you will lose sleep and confidence. Or you might miss a great opportunity if you don’t take action. Following these steps will help you see your thought from a different perspective and help you rationalize their presence in your life and its future consequences.
8. Label the stories
If you notice you’re consistently having the same thought, externalize it by naming it as separate from you. For example, if you’re telling yourself, “I’m horrible, and no one likes me” repeatedly, then for a second, if this thought was a movie, what would you call it? Perhaps “The I’m horrible, and no one likes me story” or “The I fear I’m not good enough story”. It may seem silly at first, but, over time, with practice, you’ll begin to treat your thoughts externally rather than internally. They’ll become separate from you because you’re learning to question them.
Cognitive defusion is a wonderful technique that helps you learn how to unhook from negative thoughts. But remember, it may not decrease their frequency (it’s great if it does). The main goal here is to reduce the attachment you have to your thoughts, which can become patterns and stories over time. When you learn to separate yourself from your thoughts, you generate more self-love, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness.
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