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How To Free Yourself From Unhelpful Narratives (Cognitive Defusion)

A common pattern that is both symptom and cause of stress is negative thoughts and narratives repeatedly playing in the head. These can trigger difficult feelings – which then reinforce the thinking patterns in turn. For example, when you're anxious you might think, “everyone thinks I'm stupid”. Believing this would create anxiety, but at the same time you only really believe it when you're feeling anxious.

In my Stress Resilience Blueprint I present five key mind-body skills which form the foundation of emotional resilience, and one of these is letting go in the sense of separating yourself a little from your own thinking, so that you start to differentiate your thoughts and beliefs about the world from the world in itself.

In CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) the emphasis is on changing negative or unhelpful beliefs, which can sometimes be very difficult, but you may not have to go that far. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, it's enough to create this sense of mental separation. In ACT the process is known as cognitive defusion.

Cognitive defusion is an aspect of acceptance, which just means letting go of internal struggle or resistance. This is acceptance in a positive sense, not just resignation – so for example forgiveness is a kind of acceptance.

Another example might be helpful. One of the negative or unhelpful beliefs that sometimes holds me back is that people aren't interested in what I've got to offer. As a child I was very shy, and as a way of coping I held myself back in group situations, as though I were invisible. The result was that people mostly ignored me – they acted as though I were indeed invisible! Although in the short term this helped me avoid awkwardness, I developed a semi-unconscious assumption that no-one was interested in what I had to say. Not very helpful when you're trying to promote a business!

I don't really believe this any more, but in times of stress I can still catch myself thinking it – and when I do it adds to the stress. The problem is, I can get so sucked into that unhelpful story that it appears just the way the world is.

In this article I'm going to suggest a few cognitive defusion techniques. There are lots, so I'll stick to a few that I find effective personally.

Cognitive Defusion Techniques

Again, the key thing is not necessarily to change your belief, but to change your relationship to the belief. If you can open up that space, then the feeling-response weakens to the point that the thought is just a thought, and even if it still seems true, then “so what?”.

I'm having the thought that …

When you catch yourself in the grip of a negative thought, you can shift perspective and reflect that you're having the thought that … whatever your story is. Even if you still believe it, you're seeing it as a thought about the world rather than the world itself, and so at least you've opened up the possibility of being wrong. A metaphor might be, rather than seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses, you can take the glasses off and see that they are rose-tinted.

Radio doom and gloom

This is really a metaphor for the mind. Thoughts are often automatic, like a sort of radio station playing in the background of the mind.

Thank you, mind

Behind this technique is a similar reframe. There's a part of the mind that comes up with thoughts quite automatically, and that part isn't the real you. In a way you dis-identify with it. Of course this only goes so far. This other part of the mind is still part of you – just not the whole of you.

Write down the belief or narrative

Again this is just another basic step in creating the initial space.

Repeat it over and over

Read out loud what you wrote, over and over again. After a minute or two, check how it feels. Often this dissipates the feeling.

Is it a description or an evaluation?

When you ask this of the thoughts you've written down, you'll probably find most are evaluations. If so, can you come up with a simple description of whatever happened, e.g. “I'm terrible at presentations” → “I gave a presentation and it didn't seem to go down too well” (still rather evaluative) → “I gave a presentation and stumbled a few times and forgot a couple of things I'd planned to say”.

You can start to see that, (i) it's the evaluations that tend to be painful, and (ii) evaluations come from you and not the world. Even if your evaluations are valid in some ways, at least you're opening up some space.

Rate the degree of belief

For each thought you've written down, ask to what degree you believe it right now (on a percentage scale, 100 = absolute certainty).

Think of a time when you were less sure of the belief

The point here is that your beliefs are conditional, not absolute.

E.g. right after the presentation you believe 98% that you're terrible at presentations. Later when you've calmed down, it's only 75%, and after one you gave last year that went well it was only 50%.

Can you deliberately fuse then de-fuse?

For your narrative, can you really step into it so that it feels real and live, then step out of it again, so that it seems like just another story to some extent?

Doing this helps loosen the power the narrative has over you.

Awareness First

Cognitive defusion techniques can be valuable but clearly you first need to catch yourself having had a negative thought (i.e. you need a degree of self-awareness). This is not necessarily easy, but the good news is that the more you practise mindful awareness the easier it gets, in part because you can see it's often the same old thoughts popping up.

Let Go Physically First

This is probably the best piece of advice I have for letting go of unhelpful beliefs and narratives: if you let go physically first, it's much easier and the techniques I've listed above are more effective.

This works because to the degree that some particular thought or belief is hurtful, we tend to tighten up around it – i.e. literally our muscles tense. If you can notice this, and then release the tension, letting the breath go all the way out, the thought starts to feel like just another thought and you're already well on the way to defusion.

My Stress Resilient Mind Programme aims to develop skills in letting go, and hence cognitive defusion, using EMG or muscle tension biofeedback.

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