Unhelpful Thoughts - Counselling Newsletter

Published: 24 Sep 2018

Unhelpful Thinking

Most people have had the experience of being caught up in their thoughts. They may have a particular worry they weren’t able to let go of or a self-criticism that repeats itself over and over in their head. Unhelpful thoughts can easily take our attention away from the important things in our lives, such as loved ones, work and most commonly, study. One way of unhooking from unhelpful thoughts is via cognitive defusion.

Cognitive Defusion

When we are very anxious or depressed instead of recognizing or identifying our anxious or depressed thoughts as what they are (just thoughts), we experience them in the same way that we would experience the real-life events that the thoughts refer to. When this happens, the thoughts are said to be ‘fused’ with their referents. For example, a man who has a disagreement with his girlfriend might have the thought ‘what if she breaks up with me?’ While this is only a thought and refers to events that may in fact be unlikely, the man might feel many of the same emotions he would experience if he were in fact going through a break up. Similarly, the person who is having a panic attack might have the thought, ‘I am going to die’, and experience as much anxiety in response to that thought as they would if their life were actually threatened.

An essential part of accepting our thoughts is recognizing that they are separate from the events to which they refer. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, this process is called ‘cognitive defusion.’

Defusion means learning to step back or detach from unhelpful thoughts and worries. Instead of getting caught up in your thoughts, or pushed around by them, or struggling to get rid of them, you learn how to let them come and go - as if they were just cars driving past outside your house. You learn how to step back and watch your thinking, so you can respond effectively - instead of getting tangled up or lost inside your head.

Let’s practice some defusion techniques.

I’m having the thought that …

Put your negative self-judgment into a short sentence of the form, ‘I’m X.’ For example, ‘I’m boring’ or ‘I’m stupid’.

Fuse with this thought for 10 seconds – get caught up in it, give it your full attention and believe it as much as you can. Now silently replay the thought with this phrase in front of it: ‘I’m having the thought that ...’ For example, ‘I’m having the thought that I’m a loser’. Now replay it one more time, but this time add this phrase ‘I notice I’m having the thought that …’ For example, ‘I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a loser’. What happened? Did you notice a sense of separation or distance from the thought? If not, run through the exercise again with a different thought.

Singing and silly voices

Use the same negative self-judgment as you used before or try a new one if the old one has lost its impact. Whichever you choose, put your negative self-judgment into a short sentence of the form ‘I’m X’ – and fuse with it for 10 seconds. Now, inside your head, silently sing the thought to the tune ‘Happy Birthday’. Now, inside your head, hear it in the voice of a cartoon character, movie character, or sports commentator.

What happened this time? Did you notice a sense of separation or distance from the thought? If not, run through the exercise again with a different thought. Variations on the theme include singing the thoughts out loud, saying them out loud in a silly voice, or saying them in exaggerated slow motion.


Metaphors can also be used to defuse from your thoughts and see things in a different way.

Passengers on the Bus

Put yourself in the driver’s seat whilst all passengers (i.e., thoughts) are noisily chattering, being critical or shouting out directions. You can allow them to shout whilst you can keep your attention on the road ahead.

The River

Stand on the bank of the river watching items floating by, like leaves or bits of mucky debris (i.e., our thoughts, feelings or images). Instead of struggling to stay afloat we stand on the bank watching our thoughts or sensations float away.

The Beach Ball

We can try to stop our thoughts, like trying to hold a beach ball under water, but it keeps popping up in front of our face (like intrusive distressing thoughts). Instead we can choose to allow the ball (i.e., our thoughts), to float around us.

The Thought Train

We can think about sitting on the train, watching the scenery (i.e., thoughts, feelings, images), go by as we look out the window or we can be standing on the station platform watching the train pass by—we don’t have to jump on it.

The Mountain

Whatever the weather or whatever happens on the surface of the mountain, and even within it, the mountain stands firm, mostly unaffected. Strong, grounded, permanent. We can be like that mountain, observing our thoughts, feelings and sensations, and yet know inner stillness.

Extract from the Act Mindfully Website: http://www.actmindfully.com.au

UNSW Resources: https://student.unsw.edu.au/resilience


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