It is easy to become overwhelmed by our thoughts. People often describe getting stuck, spiraling, fighting, pushing, or otherwise becoming involved in what often becomes an unsuccessful attempt to control or get relief from distressing thoughts. All of us are prone to negative thought patterns or cognitive distortions, which often operate outside of our awareness and work to limit our psychological flexibility. Eventually, limited flexibility in our thinking can contribute to overly rigid or narrow beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us.
There are a number of techniques that are helpful in shifting our relationship to our thoughts and promoting greater psychological flexibility. Cognitive diffusion techniques are one great way to help us change how we interact and relate to our thoughts.
Cognitive diffusion refers to techniques used in various cognitive therapies and elaborated on in acceptance and commitment therapy. One goal of these techniques is to help improve our ability to cope with distressing thoughts and feelings by allowing us to take a step back from our largely automatic thought patterns and experience our thoughts from a different perspective. These techniques also give us a concrete way to practice and develop skills to reduce the distress that typically accompanies persistent worry.
Cognitive diffusion techniques work by allowing us to change the way we interact with our thoughts by creating an alternative context that diminishes the believability and impact of distressing thoughts or worries. Below are several examples you can try today.
Cognitive diffusion techniques
Label a thought as a thought, rather than a fact.
Label a thought as a mental event, rather than reality or truth.
Label a thought as a cognitive distortion (all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, anticipating disaster, catastrophizing) or as a “helpful or unhelpful” thought.
Say a thought out loud until it becomes a repetitive sound with little meaning.
Sing your thoughts or say your thoughts in an odd voice (perhaps not in public).
Write your thoughts on paper and repeatedly rewrite your worries until they become less powerful.
Using your imagination
Imagine your thoughts as passengers on a bus or an airplane. In this exercise, pretend you are the driver or pilot and your thoughts are noisy and disruptive passengers. They may be an annoying distraction, but you must keep your attention on the road or the runway ahead.
Imagine your thoughts as a train passing you by as you stand on the train platform. Begin by noticing the thought train coming in the distance and the wind rushing past while you remain steady on the platform. The train passes and you remain grounded and still.
Imagine your thoughts as clouds or as a passing thunderstorm. We cannot control our thoughts and feelings as they come and go, much like the weather. Watch your thoughts transform into clouds and pass into the distance. The blue sky always remains behind the storm.
Imagine certain thoughts as images of animals or imagined characters (monsters/ gremlins)
Example: Thoughts about making mistakes at work could be imagined as a work sabotaging gremlin with bright green fur, squinty eyes, and a sinister smile. Imagine your gremlin laughing as it happily collects your thoughts into a sack. Tell the gremlin to take a hike.
Cognitive diffusion usually alters the believability of negative thoughts and the resulting discomfort or distress associated with negative thoughts (see Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). As you might have observed, there is also a component of exposure as you are able to engage and remain present with your worrisome thoughts or fears as the level of intensity dissipates.
Although some of these techniques might seem silly at first, they can be quite helpful in allowing us to change our relationship to our thoughts. As you practice one or more of these techniques on a regular basis you may experience greater freedom and acceptance around your worries and fears. Tell the Gremlin to take a hike as you wait patiently for the speeding train to pass during the thunderstorm.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
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