Thought, thought and more thoughts. That is the normal state of mind of any brain. Brains are thinking machines, they are constantly scanning for threats and trying to prevent and solve problems that could happen in the future. This is exhausting because often we are entangled with those thoughts and believe that their content is true. We follow them, answer them, debate with them, and sometimes even try to suppress them. But nothing works, they keep coming back.
When we are entangled with our thoughts, the only thing we can see is that, the thoughts. Our focus of attention becomes very narrow, and the constant stream of thoughts doesn’t allow us to connect with others and the world. This can be overwhelming!
Sometimes we ruminate on the same thoughts over and over as a way of escaping the underlying emotion. For example, you can try to come up with solutions to a problem just to get rid of the anxiety you are feeling. Or you might engage in thoughts to distract yourself from the sadness you have in your chest. Other times, we realise that thinking is the cause of our uncomfortable emotions, and we try to suppress the thoughts.
This is a common activity and tendency of the mind, but therapists know that both suppressing thoughts or keeping them too close is just unhelpful behaviour. Now, there is an alternative: detachment from your thoughts. This is not about eliminating thoughts or paying them attention, it is about letting them come and go, without judgement and without getting entangled with them. It is about letting them in the background while we do what matters to us. The result is that the thoughts lose their impact on us, which allows us to behave and put our energy into the actions that take us closer to the life we want.
This post is about using tools employed by therapists to detach from your thoughts. Here you have some strategies:
Ask yourself if this thought is helpful
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a widely known type of therapy that can help you recognise when a thought is helpful or not. Why keep the chat alive with your thoughts if they are not helping you to live the life you want?
Is your mind telling you “What if I lose my job?”. Ask yourself, does this thought help me to be a better professional, learn more, and succeed professionally? If not, move to the next strategy.
Maybe the thought that you are struggling with is “I am a bad person”. Is this thought helpful at all in being a good person? If not, let’s move on!
Name the thought
Now you are more aware of what thoughts are helpful and which ones aren’t. For those that aren’t, this technique coming from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be ideal for you.
Stop for a moment and think about what thoughts your brain often torments you with. Write those thoughts in a paper. Your mind might be saying “I am stupid”, “I never do anything right”, “Nobody loves me”; or “I am lonely”.
Read those as if they were true, entangle with them.
Now, add the phrase “I am noticing the thought that…” before each thought. So, for example, “I am noticing the thought that I am stupid”. See what happens, do you feel distanced from that thought? Do you see the thought as something different than you? Observe and repeat each time you need.
Sing the thought
Another way to detach from your thoughts is by singing it. It might sound weird, but I encourage you to try it. This tool also comes from ACT therapy.
First, choose one self-critical thought that has been bothering you lately, a recurring theme for your mind. A thought that says something about you. For instance, “I am stupid”.
As you did before, entangle with this thought, think about it, believe in it, and notice how it feels in your body to do this.
Now, you can do this with any song, but for the sake of illustrating the tool, think of the Happy Birthday tune. Then, as a next step, sing the Happy Birthday tune using as lyrics the thought “I am stupid” (or whatever thought you choose)
Notice what happens. What happens in your body, what happens with your relationship with the thought? Do you feel some space between you and the thought? Explore and get curious.
If nothing happens, choose another thought, and try again.
Also, remember that not every tool will work effectively for you. You need to try and keep the ones that work.
Name the story
The last acceptance and commitment therapy tool I am going to give you today is thinking of your mind’s thoughts as stories. The brain is a fantastic storyteller, and he creates all these thoughts. A different way to detach from these thoughts so they have less impact on you is by giving them a name.
Consider them a story, what title would you give to that story? It has to be something that represents the topic of the thought. For example, you can name the story as “the lonely student”, or “the looser employee”.
Next time you notice a thought related to this story, you can tell yourself, “Here it is my mind with “the lonely student” again”
Mindfulness is a big component of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This approach teaches us how to be in the present moment while calming down our busy minds. We learn to observe thoughts as words or mental events that have nothing to do with us. Through mindfulness, we practise seeing the thoughts without judgement, which helps us to detach from them.
These techniques seem simple, but they are not. They require practice and training, like a muscle. Focus on these three tools until you master them, don’t try to apply too many things at the same time. Keep it simple.