5 Steps for Detoxing Your Thoughts

Now is the time to change your thinking patterns for a healthier future.

Posted May 20, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has made virtually all of us more aware of the ways that a virus can infect our bodies. Our mental health remains vitally important too, however, and often we are much less careful with the ways we let our moods and behavior be "infected" by toxic thought patterns.

Do you suffer from this?

It's time to detox your thoughts.

Your negative thoughts should never define you—and a thought can't be toxic on its own. A negative or dysfunctional thought becomes toxic only when it is invited to stick around, to take hold as something that deserves mental space or is seen as true. There are several steps to prevent this, and many involve the concept of cognitive defusion—teaching yourself to separate from your thoughts, as a gentle, curious observer. When you defuse from your thoughts, you no longer automatically let them sink in as truth, nor do you view them as part of you. Here are some steps to get you on your way, many based on the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

  1. Label your thought as a thought. Just the act of labeling a thought as a thought—"I'm having the thought that this day won't get better," rather than "This day won't get better"—is a crucial first step in disempowering negative thoughts. So many of us learn to think of our thoughts as an indelible part of us, when in reality they can often be viewed as part of a running commentary that will come and go on its own and may not be representative of much at all.
  2. Engage in self-distancing by talking about your thoughts as an observer. You can take the cognitive defusion a step further by not only labeling your thought as a thought, but labeling yourself having it—as an observer in the third-person. It's much easier to step away from your negative thoughts and gain an objective perspective if you narrate them as an outsider. "Megan is having the thought that she's not up to the task" evokes a different reaction than "I am not up to the task," doesn't it? Even if it sounds hokey, observing yourself having the thought can help prevent you from getting sucked into a negative rumination or accepting it as the objective truth.
  3. Recognize when the thought is an unreliable narrator. Once you are viewing your thoughts in a more objective manner, you can further tame their ability to cause anxiety by recognizing the distortions they include. Practice reminding yourself that your own individual thoughts can be just as inaccurate as that political meme that your uncle keeps sending around. It may be helpful to develop a metaphor for these dysfunctional thoughts, like some of my clients have. Are these thoughts hecklers in your mental audience? Drunken loudmouths behind you in the stadium? The more objectively you can dismiss them as being inaccurate and invalid, the easier it will be to do so in the future and build the habit.
  4. Notice what the thought brings about in your body. The anxiety cycle is about more than thoughts—a large part of it is perpetuated by your body. Notice your own individual sensations of anxiety and where they show up for you physically. Butterflies in your stomach? Clenched jaw? Tight fists? Hot chest? Any given physical sensation has a counterpart to help it calm down—from diaphragmatic breathing to progressive muscle relaxation, from visualizations to light stretching. A calm body helps calm your mind, so start learning how to intervene in your own particular anxiety cycle.
  5. Work on recognizing your blind spots. Even if you are already recognizing that individual thoughts are unreliable narrators, you still may be sinking into larger patterns of thinking that are problematic, perpetually, without your even recognizing them. Do you engage in all-or-none thinking? Have a problem with forgiveness—of yourself or others? What about learned helplessness? There are many examples of these common cognitive distortions. If you engage in them, that doesn't make you flawed—it just makes you human. But learning to recognize them and counteract them is one further step on the long-term path toward emotional change.