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  • Taylor Webb

How To Cope With Anxious & Intrusive Thoughts- Using Cognitive Defusion to Not Let Your Anxiety Take Over

Have you ever had an anxious or intrusive thought that you can't seem to "get rid of"? It's like the more you try to stop thinking about something, it just gets worse and worse. This is because of something called the rebound effect, whereby suppressing unwanted thoughts actually increases their frequency. So if you've been trying to cope with your anxious thoughts this way, we need to try something else. In this article we will explore a new way of coping with anxious or intrusive thoughts, called "cognitive defusion", so that you can learn to manage your anxiety better and not let it take over your life.



how to cope with anxious thoughts

How To Cope With Anxious Thoughts Using Cognitive Defusion


Before we get into some strategies to cope with anxious thoughts using cognitive defusion techniques, let's first get a good idea of what exactly anxiety is and how it can lead to anxious and intrusive thoughts, as well as introducing this fancy concept we call "cognitive defusion" so that the strategies we cover later will make more sense.


What is Anxiety? 

 

Anxiety is state of worry or fear as a reaction to stress or a perceived threat. When we experience anxiety, we may feel uneasy, nervous, panicked, and have thoughts of worry.


Anxiety can also cause a a variety of physical symptoms including an increased heart rate, high blood pressure, sweaty palms, feeling shaky, nausea, dizziness, increased breathing rate, headaches, and overall tension in the body.


Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and enables our body to engage with the world around us. Mild anxiety can be beneficial and help us to pay attention and be motivated to respond effectively. Sometimes, however, anxiety can become a problem and we may perceive a threat when it is not present or overestimate the severity of threats. 


When anxiety becomes problematic, something we may experience is repetitive and at times overpowering thoughts. When we have frequent anxious thoughts, it can become difficult to separate our thoughts from the world around us, and we may begin to over-identify with our thoughts. When we over-identify with our thoughts, they become amplified, and they begin to create and define our reality.


This experience is known as cognitive fusion and causes us to perceive thoughts to be ‘truth’ and ‘fact’, which allows them to have a strong hold on our lives. Cognitive fusion causes us to see the world from our thoughts, rather than recognizing that our thoughts are just thoughts.


As a result, we may feel removed from the world around us, and have difficulty connecting to the present moment. This removes us from our surroundings, the people we care about, and can make it difficult to engage in activities and behaviours that align with our values.


For example, anxiety might create thoughts such as “something terrible is going to happen”. If we become fused with this thought, it becomes a reality for us that something terrible really is going to happen. As a result, we may avoid or behave in the way that we would if that thought were real. This causes us to act in a way that aligns with our anxiety rather than our values.


Overall, when we are fused with our anxious thoughts, the anxiety can have a deep hold over our lives and impact our ability to live a meaningful life that we value. 


What is Cognitive Defusion? 


Cognitive defusion is a technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that helps us to practice taking a step back from our thoughts. Cognitive defusion directs our attention to the process of thinking and urges us to view the thoughts themselves rather than viewing the world through our thoughts. By recognizing that thoughts are just thoughts, we can disengage from the distressing thoughts that maintain anxiety. This creates space between ourselves and our thoughts, which reduces the influence they have on our day to day lives.


In doing so, we reduce our suffering and can focus on what matters the most to us. This does not mean trying to fight or get rid of our thoughts, but instead change how we relate to our thoughts and choose how much attention you want to give to them.


If you're unsure if you are fused with your anxious thoughts, it might be helpful to ask yourself: 

  • Are my thoughts unhelpful? 

  • Are my thoughts controlling my moods and behaviours? 

  • Is holding onto these thoughts causing me discomfort or suffering? 

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, it may be beneficial to practice cognitive defusion to unhook yourself from your anxious thinking.


Overall cognitive defusion can help us to detach from our anxiety and minimize the extent to which we believe our thoughts are truth. As a result, we can reduce the impact our thoughts have on our day-to-day functioning and improve our ability to stay in contact with the present moment. 


What Are Some Ways to Cope with Anxious Thoughts? 


Cognitive defusion can be incorporated into our lives in many ways, some strategies can include: 


Thanking the thought 

Try thanking your thoughts as they appear. Start with noticing the thought, and then thanking your mind for having that thought. This process allows us to recognize that our mind and our unhelpful thoughts do serve a purpose and may be trying to help us avoid problems (even if they are not always the most effective). Thus, thanking the mind allows us to acknowledge the thought and let it pass. This strategy essentially involves saying “Thank you mind! But I can take it from here”. 


Silly voice

Try writing your thoughts down and reading them out loud in a silly voice. This might involve pretending to be one of your favourite characters, or a funny voice or singing the thought. Practice repeating your thoughts in your chosen voice over and over, and the thoughts will be harder and harder to take seriously and view as reality.  Note- this technique is not for everyone as we need to be careful not to make it come across minimizing or dismissive. Rather, it is meant to undermine the power the thought has over us.


Imagine the thought passing by on a cloud

When a thought pops up, imagine it as a cloud passing in the sky. Notice them as they come and go from your mind. This is a form of mindfully observing thoughts.


Just Noticing 

Notice the thoughts occurring and say to yourself “I’m having the thought that…”


Pop up ad

Each time an anxious thought enters your mind, imagine it as one of those ads that pop on your computer. Notice as they pop up and imagine them disappearing as you click on the “x” to close them. 


Passengers on a bus

Imagine yourself driving a bus, and the anxious thoughts are rowdy passengers in the back who are annoying and getting in the way of you driving the bus safely and effectively. Rather than stopping the bus to fight with the passengers, see if you can keep your attention on driving the bus to your destination. See a video here.


Background Radio Noise

Imagine your thoughts as sounds coming from a radio in the room with you. It can feel impossible to intentionally try and ignore a sound occurring in the same room as us. Instead of fighting with our thoughts, try to direct your attention to the present and let the noise fade into the background.


The Bottom Line

 

Overall, cognitive defusion is a technique that helps us with our anxious thinking by helping us to take a step back and recognize that our thoughts are not necessarily reality. When we take a step back from anxious thinking, we are able to lessen the impact it has on our behaviours and moods and can live a life that is in line with our values and who we want to be. 


If you are struggling to cope with your anxiety and anxious thoughts, speaking to a professional may be a good next step. Sometimes these things can be tricky to tackle on your own!


 

Our team of online and in-person Barrie counsellors provide quality and effective counselling services in Barrie and virtually across Ontario to individuals (6+), couples and families. We also offer an Affordable Therapy Program that provides counselling services in Barrie to individuals (12+) who are facing financial challenges that need mental health support.

 

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