In my previous post (which you can access by clicking HERE), I debunked the 2- part myth that 1) you can control your thoughts, and 2) your thoughts control your life.
It turns out, you cannot actually control your thoughts. Our brain produces tens of thousands of thoughts per day, and most of them flit by without our conscious awareness.
But, some thoughts can cause distress. And for people with certain types of mental illness (such as anxiety, OCD, and depression), these thoughts can get “stuck,” meaning that they become entangled in an endless thought loop inside our heads.
Here is a relatable example to illustrate how this happens:
A mother is expecting her son home at a certain time, but he is running late and she cannot get a hold of him on the phone. Her mind jumps to the worst conclusions — he has gotten into a fatal car accident. This thought is terrifying for the mother, so she tries to fight it off through rationalization (“He’s probably fine, maybe his phone died, etc.”) But the thoughts keep coming, feeling all the more real and threatening. The mother even begins to envision her son dead on the side of the road with police cars all around. The thoughts become unbearable, and she starts calling her son’s friends and their mothers to try and get answers.
Obviously, this mother does not want to have these upsetting thoughts about her child, but they’ve gotten stuck because she has “attached” to them and accepted the thoughts as truth. Unbeknownst to mom, her attempts at stifling the thoughts through her coping mechanisms are only validating her fears and giving the thoughts more power, making her feel more anxious, stressed, and afraid. By trying to rationalize with the thoughts, she is mentally reassuring herself. By calling her son’s friends, she is giving the thoughts credibility, only making them more powerful.
This process can happen so automatically. Before we even realize what we’re doing, we can find ourselves in a battle against our brain.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s true that many of us DO live our lives as dictated by the voice in our heads. We mindlessly believe every thought we have, and we do whatever “the voice” tells us to do.
But, listening to our thoughts is a CHOICE. We don’t have to do it. Any by “listen,” I mean actually take the thoughts seriously and allow them to guide our actions.
Most of the thoughts that we have are not worth the attention that we give them.
In the case of the mother, she CHOSE to believe the original thought that her son was in a car accident. She grabbed onto that thought and did not let it go, allowing it to influence her actions as she tried to reassure herself both mentally (trying to rationalize with the thoughts e.g.: “his phone probably died”) and physically (by calling people).
Often, we don’t realize that we have a choice when it comes to our thoughts. We were never taught how to disengage from them and view them as bits of information that our mind creates to try and make sense of things.
But there is hope. Detaching from our thoughts is a skill that we can learn through a practice called “cognitive defusion.”
Cognitive defusion is the practice of observing your thoughts rather than becoming attached to them; creating distance between yourself and your thoughts. De-fusing from your thoughts means that you will no longer believe or accept all of your thoughts as fact. You will be able to decide which thoughts to pay attention to and label others as thinking errors.
Ultimately, through cognitive defusion, you will learn to let go of thoughts that are unhelpful.
Before engaging with a thought, you will determine whether or not it is beneficial.
Instead of mindlessly doing or believing whatever your thoughts tell you, you will separate from them and see them for what they are: thoughts.
Again, you are not trying to control your thoughts.
You are allowing all thoughts to be present, and then choosing which thoughts align with your values and which ones do not.
Some helpful visualizations to illustrate this process are as follows:
Close your eyes and imagine that you are a mountain. Your thoughts are a storm of wind, snow, lightning and thunder. The storm may be scary, but you are a mountain that cannot be moved. While the thoughts swirl around, you stand tall and strong.
Envision yourself sitting alongside a stream in the woods. You are relaxed, maybe laying on your back with your feet propped up. It’s Fall, and when the wind blows, you watch as the leaves from the surrounding trees become dislodged and find themselves floating down the stream. The leaves are your thoughts. You watch as they go by peacefully, without becoming attached to any of them. You are not jumping into the stream to collect the leaves — that would disturb the peace. No splashing, no stress. Sometimes a big gust blows and there are many thought leaves floating down. Some are big and float slowly, some are small and go quickly. You let all of the leaves go without becoming attached to any of them.
Imagine that you’re standing in front of a waterfall. It can be a huge deluge or a small trickle. The falling water is your thoughts. Constantly rushing. But you are not the water; you are standing outside of it and watching it go.
It’s important to remember that the goal of cognitive defusion is NOT to have less thoughts or to have more positive thoughts. The goal is to separate ourselves from the thoughts so that we can choose to act in accordance with our true goals and desires.
Originally published at http://fullwellself.com on May 17, 2020.