Unhooking from Your Negative Thoughts

One of the biggest issues in life is dealing with thoughts that really push us around.  All of us have these. The most common is the thought that says, “I’m not good enough.”  There are variations on the theme like “I’m defective,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not worthy.”

 

These are all part of a story we have been telling ourselves for years.  For those of us new to recovery, these thoughts can really get crankin’.  (Stay with me to discover techniques that will cut the connection with these tormenting thoughts.)

 

The problem is not that we have negative thoughts; it’s getting hooked by them.  When we allow this to happen, we are immediately hijacked from what we are doing in the present moment.  One minute we’re talking with a loved one and the next we are miles away reliving a negative experience from our past.  All courtesy of these hijacking thoughts.

 

I know all too well how much anxiety and pain these thoughts cause.  So I understand the importance of getting out from under their spell.  So what do we do about them?

 

Some self-helpers will try to smother them with affirmations.  Others will argue with them or try to disprove them. Still others will roll up their sleeves and get in the trenches to fight them.  Research shows that these techniques produce a rebound effect that only  intensifies these thoughts later.  Then we find ourselves, one again, in the emotional dumpster.

 

At some point, we will say, “They’re beating the hell out of me.”  And in that moment, we have struck upon truth!

 

That truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who we are.  The key word here is SEPARATE.  We are not our thoughts.  Once that ray of light has entered our minds, we are ready for radical approach that allows us to be free from these tormentors and live a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.

 

Drumroll…This approach is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  And it has helped me as well as my clients tremendously.  Another tidbit of good news is you can do this with or without a therapist or coach.

 

The biggest concept that ACT deals with is fusion.  That’s what I have been talking about in this post.  It’s when we get hooked by a negative thought. In ACT language, this is called fusion.

 

All of us get pulled around by our mouths from time to time with thoughts that hook us.  What I want to teach you is how to get unhooked—or defused.  The way that we do this is to change our relationship to our thoughts so we’re not controlled by them.

 

Try this simple exercise to see what I mean.  It’s courtesy of Russ Harris, a leading practitioner of ACT.  It’s called Thoughts as Hands:

  1. Imagine that out in front of you are all the people you love, all the things you cherish, all your challenges, and all the tasks that you have to do.
  2. Your hands are your thoughts and feelings
  3. Bring your hands up until they cover your eyes and mask your vision. Keep your eyes open.
  4. Look around and notice the things that you’re missing out on because your hands are over your eyes.
  5. Notice how difficult it is to focus on, connect with, and engage with these things in front of you.
  6. Notice how difficult it is to take action—to do the things that make your life worthwhile.
  7. Now, lower your hands, and put them by your sides. See how much easier it is to focus, to connect, to act.
  8. Realize that our thoughts and feelings—our hands—still exist. They have useful information to tell you now that they’re just resting beside you rather than blocking you from your life in the present moment.

 

Through this exercise, you have created a new relationship with your thoughts: it is the  subject/object relationship in which you are the subject and your thought is the object.  As subject, you have become the observer self because you are watching your thoughts as though they are characters interacting on a stage.  It’s important to note that we are not avoiding our thoughts or trying to get rid of them—we are distancing ourselves from them so they don’t prevent us from engaging with what we truly value in our lives.

 

Harris recommends that you follow the Thoughts as Hands exercise up with techniques that help you to defuse from your thoughts. To begin, think of a thought that has recently hooked you and name it.  Then say, “I am having the thought that…” and state the name of the thought, such as, “I’m not worthy.” Follow that up with, “I notice I am having the thought that…”

 

Just saying these two sentences creates a little separation from the thought.  You’re now experiencing the beginning of the defusion process.  To increase the defusion, bring a little humor into play. Below are some techniques Harris suggests for any thought that has hooked you. Again, start with the two sentences from above to create some initial defusion and then do one or more of these exercises Harris suggests:

 

  1. Say the thought in a funny voice over and over again.
  2. Say it with a foreign accent.
  3. Sing the thought to the tune of one of your favorite songs.
  4. Project the thought onto a mental screen and imagine a karaoke ball bouncing along the words.
  5. Project the thought onto a mental screen and put it in some crazy fonts.

 

One of the best techniques for defusion it to imagine yourself sitting above a river and placing the negative thought on a leaf.  Just watch it move along the river.  Don’t talk to it.  Just silently let it float by.  Or put the thought on a cloud and watch it drift away.

It’s my hope that you experience a new relationship with your thoughts.  It may be that as you defuse from a thought that you can now also see the positive in a former negative memory that keeps generating the thought.  As you practice defusion, you will find that you become more and more present to your life. And you’ll find that you are increasingly empowered by what’s important in your life rather than being disempowered by your dark thoughts and feelings.

 

Have fun!

RJ Handley

Spiritual Life Coach

Three Steps to Releasing from Anxiety

Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”  So it is true with me and probably with you as well.  When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.

Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong.  It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms.  We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.

If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times.  We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds.  Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat and, before we can stop it,  we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.

If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking.  And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel.  Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.

Finally, after decades of struggling with anxiety, I have found a solution to this emotional hijacking in Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT).  And more specifically, in a very accessible book called Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong that applies the core tenets of ACT to anxiety.

“The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain,” according to Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of the book.

Pain is an inevitable part of life.  Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it.  And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.

This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment.  We were not only predator but also prey.  What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad.  So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.

ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety.   One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it.  When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance.  Same with our anxious thoughts.  When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.

How do we do that?  By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind.  Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders.  Its domain is the past and the future.  The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment.   If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.

Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:

  1. Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.

 

  1. Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought.  Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.

 

  1. Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now.  Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.

The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind.  Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.

When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thinking, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods.  With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.

May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.