Separate yourself from your worries by observing them from a distance.
You may be spending a lot of time fighting with your worried thoughts or trying to get them to stop. What if, instead, you try another strategy? One particularly effective approach is what psychologists call cognitive defusion. Defusing worry is a tactic in which, instead of actively engaging with your worries, you effectively unfollow them. This involves detaching yourself from your worried thoughts and observing them objectively from a distance.
Defusion is a strategy that asks you to identify your worried thoughts simply as mental activity in your brain. You become an observer of your thoughts rather than a victim of them. This involves mindfully noticing these thoughts without judging or reacting to them.
How do you defuse or unfollow your worried thoughts? Notice that you are having them and label them “thinking.” For this moment, you are merely noticing the fact that you are worried without judging it or reacting to it. To defuse your worries, simply identify that a worried thought is just a thought and that it is OK to feel worried.
It can be particularly helpful to view your worried thoughts and feelings as information or data. When you notice that you are having anxious thoughts and feelings, try telling yourself, “This is interesting.” Describe to yourself what you are noticing in your mind and body without judgment.
Another incredibly helpful and concrete way to engage in defusion is to utilize imagery and metaphors. Engage the part of your brain that uses imagination and try to visualize your thoughts as objects. The following are examples of this:
Picture your worry as a leaf going down a stream, a ball going into a net, a package going down a conveyor belt (or anything else that moves). Let it float away.
Imagine that you are a mountain. Your worries are clouds surrounding the mountain. Storms may come and go, but the mountain is unaffected. You are strong. You notice the clouds, but they do not bother you. Like a mountain, you remain rooted and steadfast.
Think of your worries like a wave in the ocean. You can surf this wave and allow it to come down on its own. Ride the wave of your anxiety, knowing it is going to pass. You are riding this wave instead of being wiped out by it. Hang ten!
Imagine you are the judge of a reality music show like The Voice. Each worry comes to the stage to “perform,” and you are not satisfied. Examine each worry that comes up and quickly dismiss each one as you say: “Thank you. Next!”
Pretend each worry is a person in a Zoom meeting, and you are the moderator. Click “mute” on each worry one by one and witness the noise of each worry fade away . . . then leave the meeting altogether.
Think of your own calming imagery, and imagine each worry as something outside of you that passes by or floats away.
One additional, powerful strategy for defusing or unfollowing your worry is to change the language that you use to describe your worried thoughts. The next time you notice that you are feeling very anxious or worried, try a “Mad Libs” approach and silently rehearse the following statements, filling in the blanks with your own personal examples:
I am having the thought that _______________________________.
I am having the belief that _________________________________.
My anxiety is telling me that _______________________________.
My brain is suggesting the idea that _________________________.
Filling in these blanks allows you to distance yourself from your thoughts rather than fuse with them. If you can unfollow accounts on social media, you can do the same with your troublesome worries by distancing yourself. Unfollowing your worries does not mean blocking them—it means taking a break from your anxiety and creating some space.
For some anxious people, defusion is a particularly beneficial strategy because it removes the element of control. Instead of trying to control (modify) your thoughts and feelings, you are allowing them to be present. You accept that there is nothing wrong with having negative thoughts or feelings; letting your thoughts simply exist as they are can be incredibly freeing. Further, doing this promotes psychological flexibility, which enables people to be more resilient.
In addition, research shows that people who stop attempting to suppress anxious thoughts and simply mindfully notice their thoughts and feelings in an unconcerned way feel more calm. One of the reasons for this is that thought suppression is notoriously ineffective. In fact, attempting to shut down your worried thoughts may even lead them to rebound and become more intense. Simply put, panicking or overreacting to worried thoughts can only make them stronger.
Ultimately, mindfully giving yourself permission to have a worrisome thought, versus trying to suppress it, can be a remarkably effective coping strategy for anxiety. Unfollow your worries today!
Portions of this post have been excerpted from my book, Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.
Blog as published in Psychology Today on 5/19/23.