When your thoughts overwhelm you

The human brain is extremely complex, and we still don't completely understand how our thoughts are generated.  But that doesn't mean that we can't take control of them!  

People suffering from depression and anxiety often find themselves struggling with overwhelming thoughts.  These could range from, "I really messed up" to "I will never amount to anything," or even to thoughts of suicide (If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK).  

In my work with clients, I teach many techniques to evaluate and control thoughts.  The first step in the process, though, is to realize that you are not your thoughts.  

This feels obvious.  After all, we know we have bodies, brains, feelings, thoughts, and impulses..  But try to remember the last time that you critically evaluated a thought or feeling to determine if it is even truthful.  Usually we just accept our thoughts and feelings as they are.  "I'm a bad person" echoes so many times inside our heads that we just believe it, instead of valuing that thought for what it is: a fleeting thought that could be true or false.  We feel fear, therefore we assume there is something to be afraid of.  This explains the feeling of relief after a roller coaster ride - it felt scary, but since you reminded yourself that you were safe, you felt relief.  

Thoughts come and go.  You've probably had this experience with an embarrassing moment: it felt awful at the time and you couldn't stop thinking about it, but now the sting has faded and you hardly think about it at all.  

On the other hand, if you dwell on a thought like "I'm a bad person", you cause it to become stronger.  It's the same way that we try to remember something by reciting it.  You're practicing the very thought that you want to forget!  

So how can you notice the thought but not rehearse it?  There are several techniques for this, but one is called "defusion" by practitioners of acceptance and commitment therapy.  Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith (2011) provide many ideas on this, but I'll share a few of my own and one that works for me.  

Imagine your thoughts as paper boats floating on a stream.  Listen for the sound of the stream, picture it, smell the water and the mud as well as the leaves.  Once you have a good picture of the stream, imagine your intrusive thoughts as written on paper boats that you place in the stream.  Watch the boat float away from you on the stream.  When another thought arises, place in onto the water and watch it float away.  Some thoughts will pop up again - just keep putting them into the water.  Notice that you can have a thought and then watch it leave you.  You're aware of the thought, but you don't have to engage it, and you  don't have to follow it along the same old path of depression.  You can gently release it.  

Don't judge your performance in this.  If you start to do so, just notice that thought and then place it onto the stream.  

If the stream doesn't work for you, you can imagine giving the thought to your higher power or religious figure, or possibly to an ancestor. Some people see the thoughts as dandelion seeds floating on the breeze, or as cars driving past them on the street.  The idea is to distance yourself from them..  

By not following the thought path you've used in the past, you'll soon find that it isn't quite as compelling as it has been in the past.  Make sure to practice your defusion!  

Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2011). Get out of your mind & into your life: the new acceptance & commitment therapy. New York, NY: New Harbinger.

The above is not meant as psychological advice.  See a qualified professional for help.  


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