Defusing from Thoughts

In my last post I referred to the flaw in our minds through which we become entangled in anxious, depressing, obsessional thoughts. In this post I explore ways we can disentangle from them.

The time-honoured approach is that of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, in which we identify the thought, write it down and hammer it with facts, logic and counter-evidence. Exposing it for the nonsense that it is. A simpler, but similar approach is The Work, developed by Byron Katie in which you go beyond the thought by addressing four questions to it:

Is that thought true?

Can you absolutely know that it is true?

What happens to you when you hold that thought?

Who will you be without that thought?

Both these approaches work well for the majority of people, as I can testify from years of using both.

Another approach that can work well is based on the Stop technique, in which you yell the thought out of your head (either out loud or between your ears). Or breathe it out. Or visualise a stop sign on it. An amusing variation on this theme is described in F*ck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way, by John Parkin. That way uses the f-word every time you catch yourself processing judgments that you know are doing you no good. It works because using the bad word is aggressive on your internal critic or inner defeatist.

One limitation on all these approaches is that hammering the thought may not be enough; you still have to find something else to do to fill up the space in your head left vacant. Otherwise, the thought will most likely come back at you. As well as that you will also have to develop a replacement thought that works better for you and design some behaviours that will take you in your chosen direction. That’s one reason why cognitive therapists in the 1970s decided to tag on the ‘behavioural’ bit in their job description, recognising that ultimately change comes about when you change your behaviour, not your thoughts.

Over years of working with these disorders I came to the conclusion that the problem lies deeper than problematic thoughts. That it comes, in fact, from our wrong relationship with the mind, as I wrote in the previous article. This conclusion was delightfully supported when I came across Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) a few years ago. This simple, elegant approach bypasses problematic thoughts altogether.

The entire approach is based on building mindfulness. When we acquire the art of staying in present moment awareness, without judgment, we are then in a position to watch thoughts come and go without getting entangled by them. Exercising acceptance and curiosity, we can observe them for the kind of thoughts that they are: worries, exaggerations, obsessions, catastrophic predictions, self-judgments, etc. Avoiding fusion with those thoughts and taking the decision to try a different path. Then using a defusion technique to seal the decision.

There are dozens of ways to defuse, but here are a few that I teach:

The Bus

Imagine that you are at a bus stop and a bus comes along with the thought on its destination board. The bus comes to a stop in front of you and the doors open as the driver waits for you to board. You decide not to get on that bus today and wait for another. The doors close and the bus departs without you. You wait for a few moments and another bus draws up; this one with a different destination. ‘Self-fulfilment‘, for example. Boarding that bus you look forward to exploring all the ways in which you can pursue rewarding activities during the day ahead.

The Stream

You are on a boat floating down a stream on a warm summer’s day. Enjoying the sun, the peace, the cool water. To one side of you some leaves (or toy boats) are floating by. Some of these have those unwanted thoughts sketched on them. You watch them float by behind you, out of consciousness. On the other side new leaves/boats come floating by, with thoughts reminding you of some of the things you can achieve that day. You pick up one of these and focus on what you will do next.

The Beach Ball

Here you are in the sea in shallow water that comes up to your waist. You are holding down a beach ball in the water and on the ball is one of those pesky thoughts. Releasing your hands, you watch as the ball rebounds over your head behind you. You swim back to shore and focus on the day ahead.

The Mountain

You are a high mountain (alternative: you are sitting on the peak). The earth is far below and you are mindful of the peace and freedom around you. Further down the slopes clouds come and go and some of these contain unwanted thoughts. You watch as they pass by and are vaporised in the sun.

The Chatterbox.

This technique is described here.

The final step, still staying out of Junkmind, is to refocus on an activity that you associate with the things most dear to you: your work (if applicable), relationships, family, home, creative projects, health, etc. Ensuring that the activity you choose is capable of bearing your whole-hearted attention.

Summary. Defusion works when you are no longer in bondage to the illusion that your mind is a repository of truth. Exercising care and selection before allowing a thought into consciousness. Bypassing the thoughts that do not serve you and committing to the thoughts, desires and activities that reflect the healthy side of your mind.

In the next article I will discuss how to defuse from unwanted feeling states like anxiety and depression.

The Flaw in our Minds

The more I work with depression, anxiety and obsessional disorders, the more they display a mystery about the human mind. How is it we are so easily hijacked by depressing thoughts, anxious thoughts, obsessional thoughts? On average, each human being has at least 50,000 thoughts per day. Some are trivial, some constructive, some are funny. 6,000 of them are repetitive thought chains, focusing on the same issue. Yet the anxious person will keep coming back to the same twenty or thirty negative thoughts. Every hour, every day. That tiny group of worries, self-judgments and catastrophic predictions creates her mental health problem.

What is it about the human mind that makes it so easy for us to be taken in by thoughts?

The answer lies in how consciousness works.

From a few weeks after birth to the moment of death, consciousness runs on like a continuous cinema reel, recording every event, every sensory experience, every thought, and every emotion. To which we add our ever-changing story. 

In consciousness, we also connect to the outer world: people (and the things they say), rooms, food, drink, atmospheres and (if outside) woods, trees, lakes and skies. Also, recording the inner world of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and reactions.

And here lies the flaw: that consciousness gives the same reality to thoughts as it does to experience, and on (factual) written or spoken words. We come to believe that what thoughts tell us are as real as the instructions in a manual. When in fact many thoughts have no referent.

Three examples:

I am going to fail (anxiety)

Life is terrible (depression)

I have to keep washing in case I catch a disease (obsession)

Notice that the first and third are catastrophic predictions, the second is a global judgment. None of them are factual statements. 

Another reason we take alarming thoughts seriously is because they come with a charge. Meaning a bolt of anxiety. Surely a thought that is so unpleasant has to be taken seriously? The answer to that is that, if a thought has an anxiety charge, it is by definition unreliable. Because anxious thoughts are simplistic, global judgments, or else they are catastrophic predictions.

If you read the first three sentences in the last paragraph again, you can see a thought chain forming. Like this:

Catastrophic thought: ‘People will laugh at me’ > Secondary thought: ‘I am anxious’ > Tertiary thought: ‘That means something terrible is going to happen’ > Panic

These thought chains occur by a jump in reasoning from one false premise to another. The mind, when it processes information, cannot tell the difference between garbage and gold. It is you who has to do that.

To go beyond this flaw in the mind requires that we change our relationship to it. Becoming more sceptical about the thoughts that present themselves to us, and more selective in those we give attention to. Taking ownership of the thoughts we allow into mental space, and those we refuse.

Because the mind is a good servant, but a bad master.

Are you master in your own house? Do you run your mind, or does it run you?

In the next article, I will describe some ways to defuse from thoughts you have no further use for.

Photo: Hammer & Tusk @ Unsplash

9 Habits of Resilient People (No. 5)

This is the fifth in a series of articles on resilience.

The fifth habit is: Resilient people are hard realists.

Another way of putting this is that resilient people see things the way they are, not as they wish they might be. In a crisis they deal with facts rather than worries and similar fantasies.

People who don’t practice mind control can get lost in thoughts about the past (wish it was different), the future (hope it doesn’t happen) and about problems (wish they weren’t there). Resilient people live in the present and, mostly, focus on making the present work. For this reason resilient people tend to be very clear-sighted; one reason why other people tend to go to them for advice.

When crises come round resilient people will do a number of inter-related things first:

Continue reading

9 Habits of Resilient People (No. 3)

This is the third in a series on the characteristics of resilient people.

The third habit is: Resilient people exercise mind control.

The opposite way of saying this is that people who get stressed, anxious and depressed are not in control of their minds. Rather, their minds control them. Their heads are filled with a constant stream of thoughts which dictate their feelings, behaviour and activities – even their brain chemistry.

To use an old cliche about fire: the mind is a good servant but a bad master. The secret to making your mind work for you is to be selective abut which thoughts you pay attention to. Because thoughts are not real; they are only versions of reality, like paintings are. Some are stupid, shoddy and ugly; others are clever, inspired and life enhancing. You should only be looking at the latter sort.

Continue reading

A New Map of the Mind

It is now practically a cliche, and has been so ever since Howard Gardner published his work on the 7 different types of Intelligence, that we human beings possess multiple minds. Of which the ‘Rational Mind’ and ‘Emotional Mind’ are perhaps the most familiar.

I was thinking about this fact when one of my clients reminded me of the ‘Rational Mind – Emotional Mind – Wise Mind’ scheme which (I think) was first sketched by Marsha Linehan – the founder of Dialectical-Behaviour Therapy. DBT is the treatment of choice for Borderline Personality Disorder and in my view is a very powerful model indeed and I have great respect for Linehan’s work. The purpose of the model is to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder stay in ‘Wise Mind’, avoiding over-analytical thinking and ‘irrational’ emotions and retaining Mindfulness. This is a good strategy for people who are overwhelmed by anxiety, bad moods and tantrums but I think it is too negative about the Rational Mind and the Emotional Mind. It also leaves out ‘Bodymind’ – the real source of emotional intelligence.

So here is my own model:
Continue reading

Change your mind and keep the change

Head1
This is the fifth in a series of articles which teach you how to cut out worry, obsessions and any other kind of negative thinking which triggers anxiety, panic, or stress – about which I have written elsewhere – 30 great ways to reduce stress.

In this article we are focusing on the third step in the 4-step method I am showing you.

The four steps are:

  • Change Position
  • Change Attitude
  • Change Focus
  • Practice Mindfulness

The third step entails changing the focus of attention away from the obsessive, worry, panicky, depressing, addictive thought and towards another activity that engrosses Headmind attention.

For some people this step can be difficult to achieve at first, simply because they have spent so long listening to their negative headmind tapes that they have been conditioned into taking them seriously and, as a result, they automatically have an anxious/depressive/addictive reaction.

Just last week I worked with a 67-year-old client who, since the age of 14, had reacted to every encounter with a stranger with the tape ‘She won’t like me because I am stupid and don’t know what to say’. Not surprisingly, after 53 years of listening to this stuff, she had a minor panic attack going into any new gathering of people. Over time her anxiety response had become pre-programmed on the lines of:

Meet new people > Listen to tape > Wait for panic attack > Seize up > Give up and go home

This programming can be broken up though and sometimes that can happen surprisingly quickly. However, for most people, breaking the pattern can take time, self-discipline and practice. Bear this in mind when using any of the ideas and techniques below: daily practice is essential. Don’t wait for anxiety attacks to happen to you before working with the four steps; practice on minor worries and obsessions three or four times a day and then build up to bigger ones.

The key to making a change of focus work is that you must select an activity which fully absorbs the Conscious Mind in a way that is more compelling than listening to the worry, obsession, guilt-trip etc. You don’t in fact need a technique to do this, useful as those can be. All you need are your ordinary daily activities.

Here are the most popular:

  • Exercise
  • Music (preferably loud!)
  • Social contact (includes texts/emails)
  • Meditation
  • Yoga/Tai Chi, etc
  • Dance
  • Entertaining DVDs
  • Creative tasks
  • Satisfying chores
  • Games (of any kind)
  • Engaging with anyone or anything that makes you laugh

Remember that speed is vital. Do not dally with the thoughts but ignore them and throw yourself into activity. As a general rule, activities that keep you grounded in Bodymind work best, particularly (hard) exercise, dance and laughter.

Some people find that reading books or other intellectual tasks such as research or problem-solving works for them. My experience is that this doesn’t work for the majority because the new focus may not be completely fascinating, thereby giving Headmind space to wander off back to listening to those old tapes again. A similar objection applies to watching TV programmes or doing household chores.

If you are experienced in meditation then that is an excellent way to refocus. If you are new to meditation, or if you are dealing with particularly loud worries and obsessions, then you should use an auditory tape (I provide two for you to use below).

As an alternative to meditation you might consider using a Binaural beat program. I have written about these elsewhere and you can purchase some good ones using the box on the right hand column.

Finally, you could use a relaxation tape or a meditational tape

Here is a short relaxational tape:

Relaxation

And here is a longer, meditational, tape based on sensory awareness:

InYouButMoreThanYou

 

 

 

Killer ways to stop negative thinking

Images3
This is the fourth in a series of articles which teach you how to cut out worry, obsessions and any other kind of negative thinking which triggers anxiety, panic, stress, depression or addictions in you.

In this article we are focusing on the second step in the 4-step method I am showing you.

The four steps are:

  • Change Position
  • Change Attitude
  • Change Focus
  • Practice Mindfulness

The key to making Step 2 work is to change your reaction to the negative thought. Typical unwanted reactions include getting upset, anxious, uptight, depressed, panicky or frightened. Others include getting obsessional or compulsive – as happens in many types of addiction in which the individual believes she has ‘no choice’ but to go ahead and indulge. Often, these reactions are so automatic that we are only dimly aware of the triggering thought (or image). That is why it is important to identify the relevant Headmind tape which is triggering the reaction.

We are looking to replace those reactions with boredom, ridicule or contempt.

Consider, for a moment, your attitude to a worry that you don’t have but someone else has. For example:

This plane is about to blow up

I just caught a disease from shaking that man’s hand

The government is spying on me

Unless you are one of the few that take these thoughts seriously your probable reaction to hearing about them will be incredulity. ‘That’s ridiculous!’ you might say to yourself. You might go on to wonder: how on earth do people learn to think like that?

It’s exactly that kind of attitude you now need to adopt towards the negative thoughts you have yourself. Remember that, by definition, all worries and obsessions are a kind of fantasy. They have no bearing on reality at all.

There must be hundreds of techniques you can use to change your attitude to the tapes in your head. I am going to mention just three tried-and-tested routines that work for most of my clients.

1. Ridicule

The first way is to make the tape (once you have identified it using this article) comical.

Think of someone who is absurd. That could be someone you have met but it could be a film or TV character. Now imagine that the ‘tape’ is being replayed back through that character’s voice in your head. It helps to exagerrate the ideas in the tape so that they sound ludicrous.

For example:

HomerOriginal tape = “It’s all going to go wrong”

Edited tape = “It’s going to be a total disaster”

Homer’s tape: “It’s not only going to be a disaster but you are going be seriously damaged and in need of psychiatry for the rest of your life. “

When using this method it helps to laugh. It doesn’t matter if the laughter sounds forced – just laugh (you can think of something genuinely funny at this point if it helps).

2. Contempt

Replaying dismissive remarks to yourself about the ‘tape’ works here. For example;

There it goes again. Really don’t have time to listen to this.

Same old same old rubbish. Time to move on.

This is getting boring. I have better things to do.

You can get aggressive about it, too. Once you identify the contents of the tape you say (out loud if you are on your own) things like:

What a load of crap!

Complete bollocks!

Fuck that!

(Anglo-Saxon swear words are particularly useful here as those add force to your new attitude).

3. Boredom 

BoredomIn a less dramatic way boredom is often the most effective response to negative thoughts. The reason for this is that boredom, when listening to tedious, repetitive people who talk rubbish is an emotionally intelligent response dictated by Bodymind. Think of the most tedious conversations, school lessons and lectures you have ever sat through. You didn’t bother trying to work out whether there was any sense to what was being said. Instead, your body pressed the ‘OFF’ button and sent you to sleep.

You can use a variation on the first technique here. Instead of replaying the tape using a comical voice you can use the voice of someone you know (or whom you have watched) who is deeply boring. Be sure to edit the voice so that it sounds slow, monotonous and, of course, tedious. You can help the process along by yawning out loud while you are doing this.

A lot of people burst out laughing when they try to do this – a good sign that the technique is in fact working.

The next article concentrates on Step 3 – Changing Focus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new solution for anxiety, worry, obsessions and lots more besides

Obsess
Research shows that at least 10% of the population, at any one time, suffer from an anxiety disorder. But if you take into account the figures for those experiencing stress-related problems – which are clearly related to worry and anxiety – the figures are likely to be far higher. And most of us have problems with negative thinking: gloomy thoughts about the future, guilt over the past, the idea that we can’t cope with the present and obsessions about having to get it all right.

On that subject the National Institute of Mental Health – NIMH – calculates that around 1% of the population in the USA suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – or OCD – (that’s over 3 million people). But millions more are bothered by obsessions about work, about our personal appearance, about our success or failure in life and anything else that might have to do with the Ego. Incidentally, obsessions are also the driver for addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling, about which I wrote in my last series of articles.

I have recently been carrying out renewed work with clients suffering from chronic worry, panic attacks, OCD, negative thoughts and anxiety. As a result I have been refining my method of working with these problems. The next few articles show the way out.

The method comprises four basic steps as follows:

  • 1. Change Position
  • 2. Change Attitude
  • 3. Change Focus
  • 4. Practice Mindfulness

For any worry, obsession or negative thought you first change your position to it. Instead of identifying the thought as coming from you, instead you change to seeing the worry as coming from IT – meaning Headmind at it’s worst.

Next you change your attitude to these ‘Headmind tapes’. Instead of getting upset by them you learn how to get bored with them, or to laugh at them, or to treat them with the contempt they deserve.

Then you change your focus of attention, immediately engaging Headmind with something focused, productive, entertaining or calming to do.

Finally, you practice Mindfulness on a daily basis. This could entail Meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Qui Gung, Sensate focusing or a myriad other ways of focusing on Bodymind or on present moment awareness. This isn’t strictly a ‘fourth step’ but a way of making the other three steps easier to practice.

More on this method in the articles that follow.

So stay tuned.

28 annoying thoughts

Thinking The universe is too complicated to make final conclusions possible

Self-pity is the worst sin

Your perceptions are based on your biography

The illusion of free will is based on vanity

You are only innocent when you live in the now

Serial killers are extremely boring people

Much of what happens to you is down to chance

Anger and disgust protect you

Alienation produces psychotics, revolutionaries and fundamentalists

Evil people don’t understand what they do

Life is so simple that a child of five could get it

Who and what you are is reflected in your behavior and in your face

Sex differences are bigger than we imagine

Most people would rather be right than happy

The Self is just a label – perhaps no more than your name

History reveals no progress at all

Moralising is for the small-minded

Democracy is tyrannical

Chemicals have a bigger influence on people than many of us realise

Mind doesn’t exist in the Head – it’s something you were born into

Your past is a made-up story

Medical science prolongs life but doesn’t improve it

There is something divine in you but its outside your control

Your inner self is genetically coded

Madness is another word for defeat

‘Success’ and ‘failure’ are a matter of dates, places and opinions

Your body knows more about you than you do

Your life journey is not determined. If it were you would have been told what to do and where to go.

Image by Tumitu Design

38 provocative thoughts

Much was decided before you were born.
You don’t choose what happens  in life.
Your actions are driven either by passion or by regimentation.
Regimentation comes from failed cultures.
Passion belongs to the divine in you.

You didn’t choose your gender.
Men and Women are from different species.
The correct attitude to the opposite sex is playfulness.

You didn’t choose your race.
Racial differences are really cultural.
The correct attitude to other cultures is curiosity.

You didn’t choose your parents.
You maybe didn’t get the parents you would have chosen.
The correct attitude to your parents is objectivity.

You didn’t choose your education.
Much that is taught in schools is based on ideas that were once alive but which are now dead.
The correct attitude to teachers is scepticism.

You didn’t choose the Law.
Laws are created by people in authority.
The correct attitude to the Law is caution.

You didn’t choose the Society in which you live
Social rules are based on customs.
The correct attitude to those customs is pragmatism.

You didn’t choose the people who love you.
Your relationships chose you.
The correct attitude to relationships is love.

You didn’t choose your Body.
Yet your Body decides your health, your emotions, desires, moods, and temperament.
The correct attitude to your Body is wonder.

You didn’t choose your gifts, talents, or your inner self.
The core of who you are is determined by your Daimon.
The correct attitude to your Daimon is obedience.

You didn’t choose your actions.
Your actions are decided by the needs and expectations of the moment.
The correct attitude to past actions is amusement.

You didn’t choose God.
God is another term for whatever it is that keeps the universe in being.
The correct attitude to God is silence.