I previously introduced you to the Hands and Thoughts exercise from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which has been popular with both my online counselling clients and my readers here on this blog. It’s a simple yet effective exercise to illustrate how our thoughts can affect our everyday lives and how we can sometimes feel so stuck in them that we cannot see anything else. This leads us to the question if and how we can overcome negative thoughts. What can we do next time we’re heading down a spiral of negative feelings or when our thoughts are spinning out of control?
Photo: Rebe Pascual, Unsplash
How to detach from negative thoughts
First of all, it’s crucial to notice when we are finding ourselves caught in a spiral of negative thoughts. To do so, we have to observe what we are experiencing and notice the presence of our thoughts.
Naming your thoughts
Once you notice a thought or feeling, try to name it e.g. “I am thinking that I didn’t handle that situation well”. By observing and naming the thoughts, we automatically create some distance between us and the thoughts. We no longer just think, but we also observe that we are thinking. To go a step further in the example above, you could say to yourself “I notice that I’m having the thought that I didn’t handle that situation well”.
Sounds cumbersome? Trust me and give it a go anyway. You’ll likely be surprised at how much such a small exercise can help to distance ourselves from stressful thoughts. The purpose of the exercise is not to get rid of the thoughts entirely, nor will the thoughts disappear simply by naming them. Instead, the little bit of distance this practice helps us to get from our thoughts, the space that opens up in us, can be used to concentrate on what we actually want to do and what is truly important to us.
Thank your mind for your thoughts
Another way to get rid of negative thoughts is to thank your mind, or your inner voice, for your thoughts. This method may seem strange at first, but it truly works! Dr Russ Harris, the author of the book “The Happiness Trap“, presents this method in this short video.
Thoughts are just words and letters
Most of the time, we experience thoughts as a call to action. We think about something and then feel like we have to act on it immediately. Whether it’s to follow an impulse, to implement something, or to get rid of the thought as quickly as possible. How about you instead remind yourself in such moments that what you are thinking right now, what is speaking to you so loudly in your head, are simply words and letters.
Thoughts, feelings, images or impulses?
Sometimes it can help to observe more closely whether what is going on inside us is a thought (i.e. “spoken words”), a feeling (fear, insecurity, anger, etc.), an image (a memory or vision of the future, for example) or perhaps even an impulse? Understanding more precisely what it is that we are experiencing can help us, on the one hand, to detach ourselves from it and, on the other hand, to realise that we don’t necessarily have to follow the impulse and that an image in itself is not as dangerous and threatening as it may feel at first.
We all have such thoughts!
Yes, everybody has these thoughts! We all sometimes feel like we’re “not good enough”, not likeable enough, stupid or even ugly. My clients often react surprised when I tell them that many people feel this way, if not every single one of us. The only difference is how we deal with these thoughts and how much we let them limit our lives. So instead of trying to get rid of the thoughts at all cost (which is incredibly exhausting and rarely successful), we should learn to turn down the inner “radio”, or your inner voice, a little so that we can once again focus on what we actually wanted to do.
If you would like to learn more about detaching yourself from negative thoughts, I recommend reading the book “The Happiness Trap” by Dr Russ Harris. And if you feel like you need more support than that, consider speaking to a psychologist about your struggles with negative thoughts. If you found this article useful, look out for my next post, in which I’ll introduce some exercises from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that can help you deal with negative thoughts!
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash