We all have thoughts. We couldn’t survive without thinking, but that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. Sometimes our minds race and keep us up at night. Other times we have thoughts that make us feel ashamed, guilty, enraged, or hopeless. We might think “I’m so stupid” or “I’ll never be good enough” or “everyone is looking at me”. These negative thoughts can be persistent, frequent, and intense. More simply, these thoughts are just sticky! We all have sticky thoughts. Often we learned them early on in our lives and they stuck around, even though they might be doing more harm than good. Moreover, if we struggle with anxiety or depression, these sticky thoughts are often one of the reasons our symptoms persist or get worse over time. Before you read on, take some time to list three of your own sticky thoughts below. You’ll know they’re sticky because they feel familiar and have an unpleasant feeling attached to them, like shame, fear, or sadness.

Three of my own sticky thoughts are (e.g. “I’m a bad partner”; “I’m too emotional”):

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So, what can we do about sticky thoughts? Certain types of therapy work with sticky thoughts differently. This tip takes an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach, but there are lots of other strategies for managing negative thoughts. This is just one of them. The main idea behind ACT is that the existence of sticky thoughts is not the problem. The problem is that we take them seriously, try to resist them, and give them control over our lives. That makes them more persistent. To illustrate this, picture a yellow jeep in your head. Got it? How many times have you thought of the yellow jeep over the past week? Probably not very much, right? Now close your eyes and try NOT to think of the yellow jeep for the next 30 seconds. Whatever you do, DON’T think about the yellow jeep! Ready...go!

Did you think about it? Yeah, me too. Our minds are tricky that way. When we try to not to think about something, we kind of have to think about it. Trying not to think just ends up making it worse. In sum, what we resist persists. This is really important, and really counterintuitive. If we hate thinking “I’m stupid” because it makes us feel, well, stupid, it makes total sense to want to push that thought away! Your mind is just doing what it was programmed to do. 100% natural. It’s just that our mind’s natural strategy, in this situation, doesn’t work that well. Managing negative thoughts requires a new strategy.

This is where defusing from thoughts comes in. Cognitive fusion, the opposite of defusion, means that we accept our thoughts as true and let them control our behavior. It’s our mind’s status quo. For example, if I’m fused with the thought “I’m stupid”, that means I actually believe that thought is true (that I’m actually stupid) and so I act in ways that are consistent with that belief (I avoid doing things only “smart” people can do). Cognitive fusion really hurts. It means that we feel the emotions that go along with the thought, like shame, whenever we think it, and we have to live our lives as though the negative things we think about ourselves really are true. Cognitive defusion reverses this process. With practice, we can learn to see our stickiest thoughts for what they are: just thoughts, coming and going, but not necessarily helpful or true.

If this idea makes sense to you, it’s time to put it into practice. Defusing from thought isn’t something you learn to do by reading about it; you have to actually do it to form new connections in your brain. The following “milk” exercise is a well-known ACT defusion strategy for managing negative thoughts. In fact, it has been rigorously researched for over two decades! We’ll do it with the word “milk” first, then with one of our sticky thoughts.

Milk, Milk, Milk…

Picture a glass of milk in your mind. The color...the texture of it as it hits your lips...the taste...the smell. Bring to mind all your memories of what milk is like as though you really were experiencing it, right now. Can you imagine that?

Now grab your phone and set a timer for 40 seconds. When you press “start”, begin saying “milk” out loud at a rate of around one “milk” per second. It’s important to say it out loud. Ready? Go!

What did you notice? For most of us, the word “milk” quickly loses most of its meaning. It becomes harder to picture the way that glass of milk smells and tastes. Instead, we’re left with the odd, neutral sensation of saying “milk” with the muscles of our tongue and jaw, and echoes of the way m-i-l-k sounds as we speak it. 

Chances are, “milk” isn’t one of your sticky thoughts. So, now that you understand the exercise, choose the stickiest thought from the list you made above. Answer the questions below:

My stickiest thought is:________________________________________

How distressing is this thought to you right now? ______ (0=not at all distressing; 100=incredibly distressing)

How believable is this thought to you right now? _______ (0%=not true; 100%=definitely true)

Great. Now shorten the thought to one, emotionally-charged word. For example, the thought “I’m a horrible person” would shorten to “horrible”. This will be the word you repeat, just like the word “milk”. Just like before, say your sticky word over and over at a rate of around one word per second. Get you timer ready and...go!

Awesome job. Now, answer the same questions about your sticky thought:

How distressing is this thought to you right now? ______ (0=not at all distressing; 100=incredibly distressing)

How believable is this thought to you right now? _______ (0%=not true; 100%=definitely true)

Your sticky thought might have just become a little less distressing and a little less believable. After all, it’s just some weird mouth sounds and letters, isn’t it? If it didn’t get any less distressing or believable this time, that’s okay, and it doesn’t mean the exercise didn’t work. Defusing from thought takes practice. Our minds are fused most of the time, so learning a new way of relating to thought takes patience and time. Every time you do this exercise, you are training your brain to pause, step back from negative thoughts, and interrupt the cycle of cognitive fusion.

If you like this exercise, try practicing it whenever you notice your sticky thought come up this week. As you get used to doing it out-loud and your brain starts to catch on, you can start doing it in your head in the exact same way, with the same effects. It’s important to note that this is much different from ruminating on negative thoughts, which often makes them MORE believable. When we ruminate, we’re buying into the thought and running over it in our heads as though it’s true. That trains our brain to be fused with negative thoughts, and makes it easier for them to come back. In this strategy, repeating the thought out loud helps us defuse. This makes the thought LESS believable, and trains our brain to stop buying into it. 

Remember, the point of this exercise isn’t to stop having sticky thoughts; that’s kind of impossible anyway (like resisting the yellow jeep). Instead, the goal is to change your relationship with these thoughts so that they (1) don’t make you feel so bad, (2) they don’t seem so believable, and (3) they don’t control how you live your life. Defusing from thought is one small part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. There are also hundreds of strategies for managing negative thoughts with defusion, from saying the thought in a cartoon character voice, to meditation exercises, to simply saying “Right now, I’m having a thought that….” That said, defusing from thought isn’t always enough on its own. To take control of our lives, we also need to practice acceptance, staying in the present moment, expanding our view of ourselves, knowing what we value, and committing to actions that make us proud. If you’re struggling with any of these concepts and exercises, individual therapy can help. You can reach out to one of our therapists and schedule an appointment by clicking here or calling 215-922-LOVE x100.