Thoughts Are Just Thoughts |

5 min read


Learning to create mental distance from unhelpful thoughts is a useful skill to practice and cultivate. The technical term for this skill is cognitive defusion, a core clinical process of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Cognitive defusion means “de-fusing” or distancing from unhelpful ways of thinking.

It is natural to over-identify with our thoughts, amplifying them in our minds as “the truth.” When we become attached, or fused, with our thoughts this way, they become more powerful and can lead us to act unhelpfully. Cognitive defusion allows unhelpful thoughts to arise without acting in unhelpful ways.

Thoughts are just thoughts. This statement is not meant to minimize the emotional impact that thoughts can have or to negate the factual information that can be associated with thoughts.

However, language and words often fall short of accurately representing reality, and thoughts are no more powerful than we allow them to be. They are words and pictures that float through our minds. We are the ones who give them meaning.

Cognitive defusion helps us to relate differently to bothersome thoughts. Just because you have a thought does not mean that any action must be taken. When thoughts seem distressing or powerful, there is often a sense of urgency associated with them that may prompt you to jump into action.

When thoughts pop into your mind or when you have thoughts that you cannot get out of your mind, it is helpful to practice taking a mental step back by noticing and observing thoughts before taking any action.

The general aim of cognitive defusion is to mentally detach from unhelpful thoughts and reduce their influence on behavior. Practicing creating mental space from your thoughts enables you to respond to your thoughts in a manner that facilitates helpful and values-based behavior vs. automatically allowing the thought to dictate your behavior.

When practicing cognitive defusion, it is understood that:

  • Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories, and bits of language passing through our minds.
  • Thoughts may or may not be true. We don’t automatically believe them.
  • Thoughts may or may not be important. We pay attention only if they’re helpful.
  • Thoughts are not orders. We don’t have to obey them.
  • Thoughts may or may not be wise. We don’t automatically follow their advice.

Ways to Practice Cognitive Defusion

Cognitive defusion is about noticing thoughts rather than getting caught up in or buying into a thought. It is the practice of letting thoughts come and go rather than holding onto thoughts.

There are a lot of ways to practice cognitive defusion, and using imagery can be helpful:

  • Give your mind a name and talk to your mind as a separate entity from the rest of you. For example, “There goes Mindless Mary chattering on again.”
  • Say thoughts in a silly voice or sing them aloud.
  • Imagine thoughts as junk email. You may get the email, but don’t have to read it.
  • Imagine thoughts as pop-up ads on the internet that you can close.
  • Picture a sandy shoreline, visualize your thoughts written in the sand, and then watch the waves gently wash them away.
  • Imagine yourself sitting in the passenger side of a car driving down a highway and watching your thoughts pass by on billboards.
  • Imagine sitting in front of a TV or a large screen in a movie theater and imagining your thoughts like the credits at the end of a movie. See them on the screen, and then just let them scroll up the screen.
  • Imagine standing at a luggage carousel at an airport and you can take your thoughts and place them on the carousel like a suitcase and just let them move down the carousel.
  • Imagine yourself sitting by a stream, placing each thought on a leaf, and letting it float down the stream.
  • Imagine your mind is the sky, and your thoughts are clouds or birds in the sky that slowly move by.
  • Imagine you are sitting in a house with both a front and back door, and both doors are open. Your thoughts are like guests coming in the front door and eventually going out the back door.

You can use any image that is helpful to you and allows you to practice letting your thoughts come and go. Please note that you are not using the image to push your thoughts away.

Rather, you are simply letting them pass by at whatever pace they want to move at and realize that they will likely pop up again. That is OK. Just keep letting them come and go.

Practicing cognitive defusion will help you understand that thoughts are just thoughts, not reality. In turn, you will create more flexibility in your behavior and be able to focus on acting in a way that is helpful and meaningful to you regardless of what your thoughts say.

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