Stop Fighting Your Negative Thoughts

7 ways to defuse negative thoughts

Posted May 07, 2013

If you're like me, you’ve read countless articles (heck, I’ve probably written one) and books, and tried different techniques to get rid of those pesky negative thoughts – those little gremlins in your mind—that that tell you all sorts of awful things.

Guess what? You can cross learn to get rid of negative thoughts off your self-growth to-do list.

In the book, The Happiness Trap, author Russ Harris says 80% of everyone's thoughts contain some sort of negative content. So it's normal to have negative thoughts. It's part of our evolutionary heritage. We’re constantly scanning our environment (generating negative thoughts all the while) looking for problems to fix.

The difficulty isn’t that we have negative thoughts. The problem comes when we believe our thoughts are true.

Dr. Harris says: consider an article written in a tabloid magazine about the latest celebrity scandal. We read the article and we know it's likely biased. It’s exaggerated, or taken out of context. We typically don’t believe every word in the article, or think we need to take some action as a result.

The thoughts in our mind collectively make up these stories, and they often sound similar to the tabloid articles. The problem is that we become “fused" with these stories--fused as in joined together as a whole. We don't step back to get a better perspective. We don't ask ourselves necessary questions about our thoughts such as:

  • Is this thought true?
  • Is this thought important?
  • Is this thought helpful?

Here are some other little tricks to help you “defuse" from the thoughts and stories in your mind:

Label your thoughts. Instead of saying “I'm a loser,” say, “I'm having the thought that I'm a loser.” Instead of saying, “I'm going to blow this test,” say “I'm having the thought that I'm going to blow this test.” The difference may seem subtle, but it can help you gain the perspective that you are not your thoughts.

Thank your mind. If you're having anxious thoughts such as, “I hope this plane doesn't crash…I hope the pilot knows what he’s doing…” say, “Thank you, mind. Thank you for trying to keep me safe. But there's nothing that you really need to do right now. I’ve got it covered.” I’m big on notes to myself, so sometimes I write my mind a letter of appreciation for its efforts, but also let it know it can take a break.

Let them float away. This one involves imagery. You put each negative thought on a leaf and imagine it floating down a stream. When you have another thought, as you will, you put it on another leaf and watch it float by.

Sing your thoughts. Try singing your thoughts to the alphabet song or to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Your thoughts will certainty sound absurd this way, which is the whole point.

Say them in a funny voice. Try saying your thoughts in a funny voice. Maybe do an imitation of a cartoon character. 

Name your stories. Many times our thoughts are repetitive and involve the same stories. My story frequently is, “I don't really know what I'm doing.” When thoughts come up along that storyline, I can say, “Oh, here’s my I’m Incompetent story, and just let it go.

Do it anyway. Perhaps the most important tip is to remember that you can have a thought and perform any kind of behavior at the same time. If it’s something you care about, it’s worth it to let the thoughts simply be. You don’t have to do anything about them. When I work with clients on their anxiety using exposure therapy (face-your-fear therapy) the most important thing they report learning is, “I can function even when I’m anxious.”

It takes a little practice to get the hang of “defusion” techniques, so don’t give up. Many of my clients use them, and each person develops their personal favorites. I’ve tried all of the above except for saying my thoughts in a funny voice. I’m pretty sure it would be helpful, if I could only get my mind to stop telling me how silly I’d sound.

Defusion techniques are part of what's called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). You can read an excellent overview of its core components by my colleage, Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D, here.

References: The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, by Russ Harris.

You might also like 80+ Self-Care Ideas.

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People

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