5 Ways to Defuse Anxious Thoughts

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A core component of anxiety—be it subclinical anxiety or anxiety that meets the threshold for a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) diagnosis—is anxious thinking that can at times feel uncontrollable.

Psychotherapies for anxiety help people address these thoughts in different ways. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, the roots or underlying (sometimes called unconscious) reasons for anxiety are unearthed. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), thoughts are actively challenged or tested by behavioral experiments (for example, doing something that you are anxious about to experientially learn that the outcome will be okay).

In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), as in CBT, there is an emphasis on becoming more aware of the thoughts as thoughts and not truths. However, the next step in ACT is to learn ways to be “less fused” with the thoughts (That is, if cognitive fusion is the baseline, cognitive defusion is the goal).

By changing the way you interact with your beliefs, you may begin to experience some relief.

5 Ways to Defuse Anxious Thoughts

Here are five cognitive defusion exercises to try. Pick the one or two that most appeal to you, and try them repeatedly over the span of a few days. If it works, keep going with it; if it doesn’t, try another exercise on the list instead.

  1. Your Mind, with a capital “M.” For the sake of this exercise, think of your mind as a separate entity from yourself. Name it “Mind.” When the anxious chatter begins, tell yourself something like, “Well there goes Mind again, chitchatting away” or “Wow, Mind is doing that thing he loves to do, telling me how nothing will ever work out.” By treating the mind as an external, rather than internal, creature you might create enough space between you and your thoughts to feel a bit better.
  2. The car radio that won’t turn off. Imagine that you are sitting in the passenger seat of a car, and the driver has turned on an awful radio station that is playing a soundtrack of your anxious thoughts. You’re not in a position to change it or turn it off; instead, you must tolerate it and accept that the thoughts are there, and that the noise is unpleasant.
  3. A keychain in your pocket. You most likely carry a set of keys with you always. Try assigning each of your most common anxious thoughts to a specific key. When you use that key, make yourself think the corresponding thought. Notice that you can carry the thought and not always think it, and also that when you do think the thought, you can still use the key. It is possible to carry difficulty beliefs with you, and not let them dictate your actions.
  4. A bossy bully. Treat your thought like a bully on the playground of adulthood and ask, “Who is in charge here? Is my thought in charge or am I in charge?” If it helps, get a little angry at the thought—colorful language included—as you assert yourself against the bossy bully.
  5. Thoughts for sale. Distinguish between a thought you are having and a thought you are buying as true. Label your thoughts: judgment, criticism, comparison, exaggeration, etc. Then ask yourself, “Do I want to buy the thought that I am ______________?” Consider what it will cost you and if it’s really a good investment.

Using Cognitive Defusion Exercises

The purpose of these exercises is not to change the frequency with which you experience anxious thoughts (though if that happens for you, fantastic!). Rather, defusion exercises are effective if they decrease your attachment to a particular belief or set of beliefs that are not currently serving you well.

To learn more about cognitive defusion and other core processes of ACT, read this related post by the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science.

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Article Sources

  • Hayes, S.C., & Smith, S. Get out of your mind and into your life: the new Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New York, NY: New Harbinger, 2005.