Everyone has negative thoughts at some point in time. Even psychologically healthy people have a fair amount of negative thoughts about themselves and others. And for those struggling with anxiety and depression, beliefs like “I’m a bad person” and “I am fat and ugly” are common.
What are negative thoughts?
Thoughts which cause emotional distress, worsen mood, undermine yourself, paint the future in a negative light, motivate destructive behavior, and prevent growth are usually negative and bad in some context. These can be automatic negative thoughts which intrude your mind or they are long narratives or mental loops. It’s like a bad trip full of overthinking.
Positive thoughts, on the other hand, are neutral, or constructive in nature. They make you feel good and improve your motivation for helpful and healthy behaviors.
Remember – both positive and negative thinking is a part of everyone’s mental life and well-being. The goal here is not to stop all negative thoughts, it’s to learn how to deal with them. Having only positive thoughts is not healthy by itself.
These thoughts have certain properties like believability and emotional distress. For distressing beliefs like “I’m a failure in life,” there is a level of believability – how much you believe it, and level of emotional distress – how much it affects you.
So what can we do to get rid of such harmful thoughts or reduce negative thinking about yourself? You can reduce the intensity of these negative thoughts by using Cognitive Defusion Techniques.
Some of these thoughts are self-referential thoughts (they are about the thinker) and sometimes, they are intrusive (they invade your mind). In many cases, there is a mixture of both: self-reference and intrusion.
Table of Contents
What is Cognitive Defusion?
Cognitive Defusion is a set of mental thinking strategies and activities which reduce the impact of distressing and unwanted thoughts. They do this by changing the stimulus function. Here, stimulus refers to the negative thoughts and function refers to its emotional impact, believability, associated pain, etc. It’s a part of a well-established type of psychotherapy and self-help strategy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
There are 2 ways to look at negative self-thoughts.
- A common way is to look at them as facts, opinions, judgments, and remarks about oneself.
- The other way is to look at them for what they are – just a series of words, sensations, and feelings.
The words we use become our internal narrative and Cognitive defusion techniques attempt to change the nature of this narrative. So what does cognitive defusion actually do?
Cognitive defusion changes the context in which thoughts occur instead of trying to change the thought itself. These techniques can help you distance and dissociate yourself from your thoughts which reduce the emotional distress and believability of negative thoughts. Cognitive defusion changes “You are what you think” to “You are observing your thoughts” and “You are having your thoughts.” The operative words being are, observing, and having.
This change in approach gives you the necessary distance required to reduce emotional distress. Essentially, you accept the thoughts for what they are instead of letting your beliefs pass judgment on you. With this, it is easier to reduce the stimulus functions. In a nutshell, cognitive defusion aims to reduce the pain of negative beliefs and challenge the credibility of negative thoughts by letting them come and go (acceptance).
Let us look at a few evidence-based Cognitive Defusion techniques to reduce the impact of negative thoughts.
Titchener’s Emotional Word Repetition Strategy
Some emotional negative thoughts are grounded in some specific object, feeling, or judgment, and beliefs. Take the example we began with, “I am fat and ugly.” A lot of self-judgment and negativity is about the emotional interpretation and biased implications – fat and ugly means I’ll be single, it means I’ll never have love, it means I’ll die alone, it means I have to work harder, etc. You get the idea, right? The veracity of these thoughts is moot but they exist, often intrusively.
One of the most ingenious strategies is to find the word which directly carries the emotional weight and say it out loud a number of times. Typically, for 30 seconds. In our example, “fat” or “ugly” are ideal candidates. Repeat the word out as fast as you can; loudly, clearly and consistently. Such repetitions dilute and obscure the meaning of the word itself. The word can be considered as an “anchor” for self-referential thoughts. By reducing the meaning and impact of the “anchor,” the related negative thoughts stand on a weaker platform and then they crumble.
One explanation is that repeated exposure to a word or stimuli corresponds to repeated neural firing and repeated neural firing of the same type starts to lose its potency over time. This is called reactive inhibition. Forced repeated neural firing creates an inherent tendency to reduce that firing toward a stop, right after repetition. So if your negative “anchor” word has a lot of emotional meaning, this technique will decrease it.
Fun fact: If you repeat/write a word a lot of times, it tends to appear wrong, nonsensical, or alien. That’s called semantic satiation.
I am having the thought that…
I am feeling like sh*t. I am sh*t. Have you had a thought similar to this one? Notice how the wording of the thought indicates that you, as a person, is sh*t. Cognitive defusion would be to change this description into possession. Instead of saying “I am”, use the phrase I am having the thought that I am feeling sh*tty.
Use metaphors to change your perspective and context
Metaphors allow you to conceptualize and re-conceptualize thoughts. People think of happiness in many different ways – some try to find it, some try to create it, some try to stumble upon it. Each of these is a metaphor based on how people conceptualize happiness. If you call it a journey, you can stumble upon it. If you call it a destination, you can find it. If you call it a creation, you can create it.
Negative and positive thoughts can be conceptualized based on metaphors. This is your personal conceptualization. It can be anything – negative thoughts are like balloons. You can pop them and they die. Positive beliefs are like rocks. They exist and robustly stay unchanged for millennia. Negative thoughts can be likened to many other things – sharks, whales, naked seeds, dying plants, low-battery mode, carbs, etc. Anything you fancy. Metaphors can be used to apply a known process, re-conceptualize thoughts, and then find a solution based on that known process.
If negative thoughts are like the low-battery mode, you know it happens all the time but you can always charge your battery. In that case, you can do something which recharges you. If you call them balloons, you need something sharp to pierce them and then deal with an explosion. Once done, they are non-existent.
The point here is that metaphors can be useful or bad. If negative thoughts are like rocks to you, they are going to weigh you down. In this case, you can change the metaphor and call it frozen water. This process can be tricky. If you are unsure about what’s a useful metaphor, seek further advice from a professional or use some of the other methods.
Rate how strongly you believe your thoughts
Let’s quickly go back to a point from the introduction of this article – Thoughts carry a “stimulus function.” These are characteristics of a thought like “believability” & “emotional pain.” Rate your thoughts on a scale of 1 to 100. Not 10. The reason is 1 to 100 gives you more sensitivity.
If it is hard for you to place your thought, use a real thought you’ve experienced to mark what 1 and 100 represents. This will help you calibrate your stimulus function. Rating your thought can put things into perspective. If you feel you are being biased, use other techniques (discussed later) like slowing down your emotional thoughts, cognitive restructuring, and stop, step-back, and observe.
Talk in the 3rd-person
In a previous article, I discussed this strategy with a lot of detail. So I’ll just summarize it here. Here is a full-length description and explanation for why third-person self-talk is an effective emotional regulation technique. You might enjoy this article on emotional regulation too.
This self-talk technique is about superficially rephrasing your thought – Instead of using first-person pronouns like I, me, or We, use third-person pronouns like he, she, they, & them. If you fancy it, refer to yourself by your name as well. “My life is like the origin story of nothing” can change into “Aditya’s life is like the origin story of nothing.” This change creates psychological distance between you and your thought without changing the meaning of the thought. It removes you from the context and puts you back in as an observer and the owner of a thought. Owners can throw things away if they aren’t too attached to their objects. Luckily, third-person self-talk reduces the emotional intensity of the thought making the attachment weaker.
Stop, Step-back, and Observe
Many aspects of meditation and mindfulness are inline with the Stop, Step-back, and Observe technique. If you are ruminating, brooding, or obsessing over unhelpful thoughts and experiences, this method can help you segway into a comfortable mood. You begin by instructing yourself to stop and carry out a different procedure than ruminating.
- Stop: Instruct yourself to stop your thought & stop the physical activity you are doing. If you are just sitting, stand-up.
- Step-back: Change your context. You can leave the room you are in. Or imagine yourself in a different place. Metaphorically walk away from your thought, but don’t ignore it.
- Observe: Remind yourself that you are not your thought, you are having the thought. Observe all the sensations in your situation. What does it smell like, are there other people, what you are doing, etc. Mindfully accept the present but as an observer. Tell yourself that your experience is present in the moment. Now, begin taking a new perspective, challenge assumptions, find evidence to support your feeling and refute your feeling.
Step 3 takes you to a technique called Cognitive Restructuring which we’ll go through in the second half of this article. Stop, step-back, and observe is well-established as a self-help and dialectical behavior therapy skill. Some therapists and self-help promoters combine this with the STOP technique – Stop, Take a deep breath, Observe, and Proceed healthily.
Use a silly and funny voice
There is value in the adage “humor and silliness helps to cope with emotionally uncomfortable thoughts.” Research has shown that there is more to it, though. A funny or a silly voice can morph the contents of a thought into something easier to deal with and more comfortable to accept. The process of morphing your thoughts without changing the meaning (or the words in it) is a core aspect of defusion and acceptance techniques. The activity is also from a creators point of view than a receiver’s point of view. Think about it. When you make a silly voice, you create the voice. When you get an automatic thought, you might feel like you received it. Be goofy for a while.
Slow down your emotional thought
Capture your thought. Exactly the way it is. What does it sound like? Now, mentally repeat that thought, but this time, very slowly. Extremely slowly. The change in the speed of speaking changes a lot of the characteristics of the anxious thought. One important factor is how unnatural the thought sounds because of the speed. The other important factor is how the words begin to lose their inherent meaning and representation. Try it out. Slow-mo thought & speech can make stressful thoughts easier to digest.
Literally imagine or speak-out your thought 3-10 times slower. If it takes 2 seconds to have a thought, sound it out in 6 to 20 seconds.
Your slow-mo thought should be as slow-mo as Kung-Fu Panda’s in this scene.
You might be wondering why these techniques are called Cognitive “Defusion” strategies. In the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy framework, people are “Fused” with their thoughts. They believe their thoughts as if they are the thoughts. These thoughts can be negative in nature, undermine self-esteem (attitude toward yourself) and self-concept (how you define yourself). These thoughts/beliefs, in the form of words or an internal narrative, can influence behavior in negative ways. When people are fused with their thoughts, they are more resistant to helpful changes in their thinking style and behaviors. This process is a part of the Relational Frame Theory (ACT is an application of this) which considers language/words and thoughts/cognitions as context-giving patterns associated with any behavior. It is one of the reasons that changing the context of words defuses the relationship between people and their thoughts.
That is why the ACT framework uses De-Fusion methods to un-fuse people and their thoughts. This separation has a number of benefits:
- Negative thoughts become less intense and less believable
- Words lose their negativity and become neutral
- People can step back and observe their thoughts through a different perspective
- Emotional attachment with beliefs reduces and that facilitates a pragmatic view
- It is easier to challenge existing negative ideas
Wait, point 5 sounds like we achieved nothing. Aren’t defusion techniques supposed to deal with negative thoughts in the first place?
Yes. Sometimes, negative thoughts are so powerful and resistant to change that cognitive defusion is only the first step in stopping/changing negative thought patterns. Recap – cognitive defusion does not attempt to change the thought because it is usually more difficult. A common technique to convert unhealthy beliefs into positive thoughts is Cognitive Restructuring, but it takes a lot more work, introspection, and self-awareness. Cognitive restructuring is one of the most widely used techniques in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) even though it isn’t the easiest.
How do you use cognitive restructuring?
There are 4 steps you need to know to convert negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Positive thoughts are not happy thoughts, they are useful thoughts. That is why this technique restructures damaging and distressing thoughts/cognitions into more useful and less-distressing thoughts.
Step 1: Identify Automatic Thoughts
A number of thoughts we experience are negative, automatic, or instinctive. These thoughts can be destructive, so the first step is to identify them. It’s not the easiest job but there ways to identify them. Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) can take the form of repetitive remarks about yourself such as “I am stupid,” vague generalizations such as “My friends hate me,” or even negative predictions such as “I’m going to screw-up for sure.” NATs usually have a few common characteristics: They occur frequently, lack precision, describe events which haven’t yet happened, cause emotional distress, occur as a quick reaction, etc.
There are many techniques which help to identify NATs. A common technique is mindfulness meditation where one relaxes and brings all thoughts into awareness without any judgment. During meditation, the goal is to identify thoughts in-the-moment. Another technique is to focus on self-acceptance and self-compassion to reduce the potential self-judgment based on NATs. The aim is to just identify NATs.
Step 2: Address Cognitive Distortions
Negative thoughts are usually warped, biased, and inaccurate. Some of these are called cognitive distortions (disrupted, flawed, or misrepresenting thoughts) and some of these are called cognitive biases (tendencies to think in certain ways which lead to inaccurate conclusions).
Cognitive distortions are common in many cases of depression and anxiety and even in our day-to-day lives. Here are some examples.
Selective abstraction: Focusing on only one element of a situation.
Magnifying: Heavy exaggeration of small events.
Mindreading: Guessing what others are thinking even when there is a healthy chance that they are not thinking what you think they are thinking.
Personalizing: Believing that everything is directed at you even when it isn’t or believing that other’s behavior is a consequence of your actions.
Catastrophizing: Predicting negative outcomes and when they happen, thinking that they will be a major disaster. It involves exaggerating mildly unpleasant situations.
All or None thinking: Black and white thinking, thinking in 2 extremes. For example, “if I don’t come first in class, I am a total loser.”
Step 3: Socratic Questioning OR Cognitive Reframing
Now we get to the part where we deal with these NATs and cognitive distortions. A standard procedure is to ask questions based on the thought. Here are a few examples:
- Why do you say that?
- How does it relate to your experience?
- What assumptions are you making?
- Is there any other way to interpret this?
- How does this make you feel?
- What do you believe this means?
Socratic questioning usually leads to gaining a new interpretation and perspective on an experience which generates NATs.
Another approach to reducing emotionally distressing thoughts is to reframe thoughts with a process called cognitive reframing/restructuring. Without adding more jargon, this process simply aims to identify and dispute maladaptive thoughts to gain a new perspective. You can do this by challenging the thought and using different words, isolating assumptions, changing statements into actionable ideas, etc. I call this semantic conversion, this post will walk you through it. It seamlessly takes you to the next step.
Step 4: Accept Rational Conclusions
After Socratic questioning, it is important to accept new interpretations and perspectives but we don’t need to accept them on pure faith. A useful strategy is to search for anecdotal or objective evidence to support a new positive interpretation of an event/experience.
Here is a meta-metaphor. Cognitive defusion is like cooking food and Cognitive restructuring is like digesting food. Because cognitive defusion neutralizes negative thinking or makes negative thoughts easier to deal with, cognitive restructuring becomes an easier process.
Research shows that cognitive defusion works better than cognitive restructuring for reducing the intensity of negative thoughts. So as a starting step to stop negative thinking (by making them neutral), use cognitive defusion techniques.
Many of these techniques can be used on the fly when you identify your negative thoughts. Remember – the goal is not to have only happy thoughts, it is to learn how to deal with the negative ones and not let that negativity control you. De-fuse your negative thoughts from you.