Saturday, 22 March 2014

Mindfully Overcoming Thinking Traps

“We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds.”
~ Pema Chödrön

I recognize that I am wasting my time fighting a battle that I can’t win but how do I stop?  This is a very common question I am asked in my role as Counseling Psychologist.  And a question that I have certainly asked myself, more than once.  In my last post Two Common Thinking Traps, I looked at two common traps that the vast majority of us get caught up in.  Thought fusion is when we get completely hooked by the monsters in our mind.  And that is all that we can see- monsters, only monsters.  Thought suppression is akin to the “yellow jeep” effect- we are trying so hard to not think about something that this becomes the primary focus of our attention.  For a more in depth description of these common traps, please take a look at my previous post Two Common Thinking Traps. 

In this post, we will be looking at ways that you can start to unhook yourself from this never-ending battle with the monsters of your mind.  This isn't about getting rid of your monsters, nor is it about feeling better.  If either of these two strategies worked I’m guessing you wouldn’t be sitting reading this now.  This approach is more around how can you learn to cultivate the skills of mindfulness and compassion towards yourself and your monsters while also being willing to do what it takes to create and live the life you want to live.

The strategies I share here come from an evidence-based therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or Training, (ACT).  I will share three classic defusion strategies that you can try and I have accompanying MP3 audio files to make it easier for you to practice this key skill at home.

Words of Warning- please be aware of the “deep end effect” where people choose something too evocative to start off learning a skill and inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot.  And please also be aware of the “yellow jeep effect”, which happens when you do these exercises in an attempt to make the thought go away.  This usually results in you thinking the though even more than you did before.  If you notice you get caught in either of these traps, first give yourself credit for spotting these common traps we all fall into and then come back to the exercise with an air of childlike curiosity.

Here is a link to the two audio files if you would prefer to be guided through audio.


Ways to Overcome Thinking Traps

  1. Put the phrase “I'm having the thought that” before the thought you’re struggling with.  For example, if you’re struggling with the thought “I’m not good enough”, then saying “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough” either out loud or in your minds eye.
  2. You can expand on this by then putting the phrase “I notice I’m having the thought that” before your thought e.g. “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.
  3. And if you really want to go another layer again, thirdly putting the phrase “I’m aware that I’m noticing I’m having the thought that” before your thought e.g. “I’m aware that I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.


Simply notice if you’re any more or less hooked in the struggle against your monsters now after doing this exercise. 

There are some ACT classic exercises that sound a little wacky or zany when you hear them for the first time.  They are grounded in scientific research though and the purpose isn’t to ridicule or demean your thoughts in any way.  Rather the aim is to look at your thoughts from a different perspective.  If you’d like to try this out, here are some strategies you can try.  I would suggest doing these strategies with thoughts that are not overly evocative for you.

  1. Close over your eyes or fix your gaze at the floor.  Bring your favorite cartoon character to mind.  Now imagine the cartoon character saying your thought out loud with all of their usual mannerisms.  Simply notice what that’s like for you.
  2. Use the Talking Tom Smart Phone App and say your thought into the phone and then mindfully listen to Talking Tom repeating your thought back to you in his voice.  Simply become aware of what this feels like for you. 
  3. The last strategy I’ll share with you today is the Happy Birthday strategy.  Take three mindful connected breaths.  Now imagine singing your thought along to the tune of Happy Birthday in your minds eye.  Gently notice what this feels like. 



There are many thought defusion strategies.  There isn’t one particular strategy that works for everyone.  Although, most people will find one that works for them.  I will share more defusion strategies in the future.  Hope you found some of this useful.  In my next post, I will share how you know when defusion works or doesn’t work from an ACT perspective.  There will be an audio in my next post that requires me to sound a little silly.  Just wanted to give you the heads up. 

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