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Four Practical Tools To Defuse And Redirect Negative Thinking Into More Useful Directions

Written by: Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


In the Dutch language (my native tongue) a 16th Century poem exists, part of which -loosely translated- goes like this:

Man suffers most

From the suffering he fears

Yet which never appears

Thus he has more to endure

Than God gives him to bear

The point of the poem is simple: in our minds, we often create more suffering by negative thinking than our actual life situation warrants. I often do so; in fact, I’m an ‘expert’ at it when it comes to thinking about financial security. And I’m pretty good at it when I think about getting older, and dread becoming frail and ill. Nothing in my present lived reality points towards ANY of my negative thinking having ANY element of truth at all. Still, I seem to create “What if …” and “Yes, but …”, and scary “But suppose that …” stories about how ‘the future’ is going to turn out badly in those areas. And from my counselling experience I know I am not alone.

Why do we do this negative thinking stuff? Well, several theories in counselling and psychological literature exist. Some point to our ‘neuro-biological wiring’. We seem to be hard-wired to prioritise surviving over thriving. Our brains have a tendency to think about worst-case outcomes, so we can prepare for (and survive!) them in case they should happen. Other theories point to previous experiences and lessons, that have formed how we think about life in general, and that have now made us a bit suspicious about the future. Other theories again point to personality. Some people seem to naturally be a bit more focused on what could go wrong than others (think: Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh).

The main problem is that we assign too much truth-value to our thoughts; we believe them. And resistance against them is often futile; you end up in a debate with your mind about the ‘truth’ of a particular thought, and I promise you: you generally lose. Moreover: your neuro-biology takes you at your (thought-)word. Your thoughts are ‘Law’ to your brain and body, so when you think fearful or worrying thoughts, the brain will order a hit of the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol to flood through your body. You will now actually FEEL fearful or worried, as well. And that feels very ‘real’. This often leads to more fearful or negative thinking, and around and around the merry-go-round you go, feeling quite awful about a future scenario that hasn’t even happened yet. This process of connecting our thoughts with ‘truth’ is called ‘fusion’ in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). We have fused our thinking with reality, and think it is ‘true’. The opposite is called ‘defusion’.

A more down-to-earth approach than wondering if your thoughts are true or not could be: are my thoughts helping me or hindering me? Do they help me forward, in a direction that I believe to be more valuable; more beneficial? And you know what? Sometimes, negative thinking CAN actually be helpful; in that case, use your thoughts to prompt you into action to improve your situation. More often than not, though, these thoughts kill our joy and create miserable feelings inside our bodies. That’s not helpful.

So how do we stop that? Well, that’s tricky, as we cannot really ‘stop’ negative thinking -it’s hard-wired, remember. We CAN learn to distance (defuse) ourselves from (the truth of) our thoughts, and to then redirect our thinking towards more valuable and beneficial questions and statements.

Here are four simple starter tools from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) school of thought to get you going in this process:

1. I am having the thought…

Whenever you notice yourself thinking something unwanted or negative, say “STOP!”. Literally. Say or think “stop”. Add “I am having the thought that…” in front of that thought. Even better, say: “I notice that I am having the thought that…”. Ponder that for a bit, and see what it does to your level of ‘truth’ of that thought. So: “this is going to turn out really bad” becomes: “STOP! (I notice that) I am having the thought that this… etc”. Are you now less fused a bit; more defused?

2. Name the story.

Whatever you are finding yourself thinking about, call it out: “this is my: ‘I am going to be financially ruined’-story”; or: “this is the ‘he is going to leave me’-story”. Notice what saying it that way influences you. Does it make you feel ever so slightly lighter, or less ‘fused’ with the truth of that thought?

3. Thank your mind.

In times you are pondering something unwanted, thank your mind. Literally. Say: “thanks, mind”; or “thanks for sharing, mind”. The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) idea is to not be sarcastic or facetious about it, but to purely acknowledge what thoughts you are having, and to defuse from the ‘true-not true?’ question.

4. How is this helping me?

If you find yourself thinking unwanted or negative thoughts, it can be useful to turn your whole frame of mind on its head. Ask yourself questions along the following line: how is this helping me? How is this type of thinking beneficial? What can I learn from this? What can I take away from thinking this way? The idea would be to not stop pondering these questions until you actually find one or more answers. I would suggest writing them down, as well. The aim is to steer your thinking in a different direction; a more valuable one. So don’t give up until you have started going in that direction!

What these -mental first-aid- techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) allow you to do, is to take a little distance from the content and the truth of your thinking, and turn it into a different, more beneficial direction. It’s about not fusing with those thoughts as if they were ‘the truth’. On the other hand, it is ok to acknowledge their presence, and to gently defuse from the seeming truth of them.

Said differently: it’s not a matter of running away from thoughts, suppressing them, or fighting them. It’s more about disconnecting (defusing) from them if they are not helpful (regardless of truth!).

There are many more techniques that can be applied to our thought processes, which will allow us to defuse our thinking from any truth-value they may seem to have in our minds. I will discuss those in another article. I would suggest starting your practice off with the ones mentioned above.

My opinion is that -what I call- healthy dissociation from our thoughts is a very mindful practice. It can help you to not feel whatever it is you’re experiencing as intensely. That ideally allows you to maintain more of a level head, so your next decisions are not based on strong emotions per se, but more on a clearer vision of what is in your best interest. And that, in my professional view, is a good thing.

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Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Marc is a Registered International Counsellor, Supervisor and Educator "with a twist". If you're looking for a run-of-the-mill mental health professional, feel free to contact one of his very capable colleagues. Marc looks at life through a different lens, with a transpersonal, even "spiritual" filter. Expect to discuss your life from a bigger perspective, while still being very practical (Marc is an ex-litigation lawyer, too, so very solution-focused); and expect to work from the inside out: YOU will change before your circumstances will. In order for things to change, you'll be the one to change some things. If that sounds like something you are up for, Marc is ready for you.



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