It’s no surprise that this year has been particularly mentally challenging for many of us.
We all have those times when those anxious, negative thoughts intrude and start taking over. They start to fester and eventually become so overwhelming that you fear you are on the brink of drowning in destructive emotions.
It’s unrealistic to just try to wish them away, so you try to distract yourself or ignore them. Yet again, they seem to dominate and intensify until suddenly you are incapable of really focusing on anything else.
Well, today, we share a few cognitive therapy techniques you can use that will enable you to deescalate and relieve your stressful and destructive thinking.
These simple psychotherapy techniques are a form of acceptance and commitment therapy known as cognitive defusion.
Defusion exercises are effective as they allow you to distance, disconnect and see your thoughts and feelings for what they are. This helps to decrease your attachment to a particular belief or set of beliefs that are not currently serving you well.
What you can do when your thoughts are overwhelming and stressful.
The following defusion techniques can help you cope with uncomfortable or unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
When you catch yourself in the grip of a negative thought, shift perspective by telling yourself that this is ‘just a thought that … ‘ whatever your story is.
Even if you still believe it, you’re recognising that it is ‘a thought’ about the world rather than the world itself, and you’ve opened up the possibility of being wrong.
Psychotherapist Nadia Addesi shared this tip on Tik Tok recently. She says that by labelling it as a thought, you are validating the concept that it is NOT fact.
“And that takes the power away from the thought.”
Using Metaphors for cognitive defusion and detaching from your thoughts is also a really effective way to accept and counteract negative thoughts and feelings and not give them power over yourself.
Steven Handel from The Emotion Machine cites the following 7 metaphors to be able to accept and detach from any negative thoughts.
Clouds in the sky – One of the most common metaphors for “cognitive defusion” is to see your mind as a sky and thoughts are just clouds passing you by. This touches on the fact that all of our thoughts are impermanent and changing. Like the popular saying, “this too shall pass” – new thoughts will rise into our awareness, and then drift out of awareness and disappear. And if we give it enough time, every thought eventually dissipates and passes us by, just like a cloud in the sky.
River stream – Another popular metaphor for how our minds work is a river stream. Heraclitus famously said, “No man can step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” This is a great illustration of how things are always changing in our lives, both in our environment as well as within our own self. Everything is in a constant state of flux – and your thoughts, feelings, and experiences flow through consciousness in the same way water flows through a stream. Your mind is the river and your thoughts are just things flowing down it. Give it time and it will pass.
Passengers on a bus – One of my favourite exercises is the mindbus exercise. In this exercise, you visualize yourself as a bus driver, and every thought you have is a passenger that gets on (and off) the bus. The best part about this exercise is you can create faces for each thought and imagine yourself talking to them and interacting with them (this visualization alone will make you feel that your thoughts are separate from you). Then you can take control by saying things such as “Thanks for your feedback, but this is my bus!” or “This is your stop, please get off!”
Suggestion box – Think of your mind as a suggestion box. It’s genuinely trying to help and serve your best interests, but it doesn’t always suggest the best ideas. Your mind is always searching and playing with new thoughts, and you never have to take any thought or impulse too seriously. It’s just a suggestion, and you have the ultimate power to “veto” any single thought you have. This is related to the concept of free won’t, which states that our real power and choice in life comes from our ability to NOT act on every thought or impulse.
Brain drain – Another great exercise for disempowering your thoughts is to practice a brain drain writing session. All you need to do is give yourself 5-10 minutes to write whatever comes to your mind, without any self-filtering or self-editing. This completely “stream of consciousness” writing can often help to purge thoughts that have been hanging around in your head (even ones that you may not be aware of). The metaphor I apply to this exercise is that your thoughts are clogged up, and the “brain drain” allows you to break up the clog and let your thoughts flow more freely. This can be particularly helpful to do in the morning (or night) to help clear your mind before starting your day (or going to sleep). It can also help to purge any worries, anxieties, or stressors that you are excessively ruminating over.
Feeding the wolves – There’s a common folktale of a grandfather telling his grandson about a fight between two different wolves. One of the wolves represents light, hope, and positivity; the other wolf represents darkness, despair, and negativity. The grandson asks, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replies, “Whichever one you feed.” This is a great metaphor that shows us that we choose which thoughts we give power to and which we don’t give power to. While negative thoughts happen, we can always choose to not feed any energy to them and suck them up of their power and control over us.
Burning your thoughts – One fun exercise for overcoming negative thoughts and stripping them of their power is to burn away negative thoughts. Just get a piece of paper and a pen, then write down 5-7 negative thoughts that have been occupying your mind lately. Then find a safe place to burn the piece of paper. This isn’t just a metaphor for destroying negative thoughts, but also a ritual that can often send a symbolic message to your brain. “Fire” itself is a powerful symbol of change and transformation. Here is a picture of the last time I did this at the beach.
These techniques, with practice, can really make a difference in those anxious moments when you are overcome and feel trapped with intrusive, self-destructive thoughts and feelings.
Do you have any other tips or tricks to help combat stress in times of overthinking?