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. 9)

This is the concluding piece in a series of articles on resilience.

The ninth habit is: Resilient people are (mostly) spiritual people.

This is one of the few habits which has been studied scientifically. Numerous surveys show that people with spiritual beliefs live longer (on average) and manage stress better. They also cope with potentially terminal illnesses more effectively.

By ‘spiritual’ I mean those beliefs through which we live by a higher purpose in (or beyond) this life. A purpose which gives meaning and direction to existence. This could be based on formal religious belief but for many it does not. While some people have a deep sense of the divine at work in themselves and in others, some find this hard to understand. For many people it is enough for them to appreciate the beauty and intelligence in nature and its species; or in the revelations of art, science, mathematics and philosophy. For others still it is enough to know that they are giving service: for the family, for the community, or for future generations.

One reason spiritual beliefs and values aid resilience is that they provide us with a refuge in times of crisis: in tragedy, illness and death. They enable us to keep going even when we feel like giving up. They give us the strength to support others who are in despair. And despair is the enemy of resilience.

A deeper reason relates to personal fulfilment. To know that you are part of something bigger than you are, and that the service you give to others is important, provides you with an inner strength and a will to live that is inspiring to others and fulfilling to you. And, generally speaking, a fulfilled life is not only a happier life but a healthier one too.

9 Habits of Resilient People (No. 8)

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

The eighth habit is: Resilient people take ownership.

What this means is that resilient people take total responsibility for what happens to them. Another way of putting this is that resilient people do not become victims or succumb to self-pity.

This does not mean that ownership for what happens means that you are always the cause of what happened. It may be (partly) your fault if you lost your job, or your relationship, or got into debt. But you aren’t the reason for an airplane crash, a terroristic attack, or the cancer that killed your mother. But in either case you can decide how you are going to respond.

Let us also make a distinction between a reaction and a response. A reaction is usually automatic and predictable and woeful. A response is something that is planned, thoughtful and focused. Reactions may take any of the following courses:

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9 Habits of Resilient People (No. 7)

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

The seventh habit is: Resilient people spend time with resilient people

In article No. 4 in this series I mentioned that resilient people actively ask for help when they need it. The people they ask will most likely be people who are as resilient as themselves. For who better to ask than someone who knows how to deal with a crisis? For that reason resilient people will notice resilience in other people and will recruit them to their network of friends and supporters.

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9 Habits of Resilient People (No. 6)

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

The sixth habit is:

Resilient people practice self-renewal.

By self-renewal I mean that resilient people are never satisfied with the status quo; they are always looking for new horizons. Another way of putting this is that resilient people are continually re-inventing themselves.

Many of you reading this article may recall someone you know who mysteriously gave up their lucrative job in banking, or law, or in industry and went on a trip round the world (or went on a retreat in India, or built a house, or started a charity, or retrained as a teacher, etc.). I can guarantee you that that person is well-equipped to handle life’s disasters. For one thing they have shown already is that they are able to give up their attachments and start over again.

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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:

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9 Habits of Resilient People (No. 4)

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

The fourth habit is: Resilient people know what to do with their emotions.

Another way of putting this is that resilient people are emotionally intelligent. That is to say: resilient people understand what emotions are for, pay careful attention to their own emotions, and practice speaking up about them. I referred briefly to this trait in the first article in this series: Resilient people tell it the way it is.

Emotions are largely related to your own self-preservation and your relationships with other people. If you are following the wrong path in life and doing things which are not right for you then your emotions will warn you about that. If you are in the wrong type of relationship then your emotions will warn you about that too. Similarly, emotions are there to guide you through a crisis.

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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.

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9 Habits of Resilient People (No. 2)

This is the second in a series of nine articles on resilience.

The second habit is: Resilient people have solid boundaries

A common source of what some people call stress is to become over-loaded with demands from other people. Another, equally common is to become so isolated that you have no one to turn to when things get bad.

Knowing when to open up to people so that they become your friends and supporters, and when to say ‘No’ to people when you can’t take on any more is what ‘boundaries’ are for. 

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