How to Unsubscribe from Unhelpful Thoughts

The human mind is a double-edged sword. On the upside it enables us to plan, solve problems, create goals and work towards our dreams. But the dark side of the human mind is that it also tends to haunt our inner world with unhelpful and painful thoughts.

For many of us, that voice inside can become our own worst enemy. It ramps up our stress and anxiety, crushes our self-esteem and pulls us into dark moods and reactivity. When we walk through life believing everything our mind says, we can easily find ourselves stuck in a cycle of suffering, stress and disempowerment. A cycle that inhibits us from living our lives fully, and being the person we want to be.

So how do we break free from that, when our inner voice is literally following us everywhere we go?

Through the practice of ‘unsubscribing’ from our thoughts. Using this simple practice, we can become better at regulating unhelpful or negative thoughts and finding more calm, clarity and inner strength.

Hit play on the podcast, or keep reading, to learn how to use this simple practice in your everyday life. It has been one of the most life-changing processes for both me and my students, and I’m confident if you give it a try in the week ahead, you’ll see a noticeable difference in your freedom and peace of mind.

Why our negative thoughts stick: Cognitive fusion

Now we know with email or social media, if we find some of the content coming through unhelpful, we can hit the unfollow or unsubscribe button.  But the original meaning of the word ‘subscribe’ means to ‘express or feel agreement with something’, so therefore to unsubscribe from something means to not express or feel in agreement with something.

The reason we often get caught up in unhelpful thoughts is because we subscribe to them. We agree with them and take them seriously. We believe them.

The psychological term for this is cognitive fusion.

Cognitive fusion is unhelpful because when fused with our thoughts, it means we:

  • Become emotionally reactive to our thoughts
  • Mistake our thoughts for reality. We think they are the ‘truth’
  • Take our thoughts very seriously
  • Obey our thoughts. Automatically playing them out

Unsubscribing from our thoughts with cognitive defusion

Cognitive defusion is where we can unhook from thoughts. In this process, we don’t automatically believe thoughts – we see them as bits of language going through the mind. We only take them on if they are useful or helpful. We don’t automatically play them out. When practising cognitive defusion we:

  • Don’t automatically obey thoughts
  • Don’t emotionally react to them – because they are just bits of language go through our minds
  • See the difference between thoughts and reality

Here’s an example to help illustrate the difference between the fusion and defusion. Imagine you wake up one day. You look outside your window and see that it’s cloudy and raining. Let’s say in that moment a thought pops into your head that says, “What a dreadful day.” Now is it really true that it is a ‘dreadful’ day? No, of course it isn’t! It’s simply raining. 

So, what happens if we subscribe – that is, become fused – with the thought that it is a dreadful day? Well, we’ll probably have a dreadful day, won’t we! If you get fused to a thought like that, you become emotionally reactive to the thought so you start to feel low mood, feelings like grumpiness, bitterness or resentment, and you truly believe it’s a dreadful day. So you play it out, you walk slumped over to work, you complain to the people at work and on public transport. You don’t recognise that it’s just a rainy day. You totally buy into the belief that it’s dreadful, so you experience a horrible, miserable, dreadful day.

But what happens if instead of buying into the thought of “What a dreadful day” when it arises, we simply observe it as a mental event? This is cognitive defusion. So there you are in your bed seeing the rain and clouds, then you watch the “dreadful day” thought arise and then naturally fall away. And since you don’t attach to it, take it seriously or believe it, it generates no negativity and passes by easily without affecting your perception, mood or state of being.

And you’re left there free to listen to the pitter patter of rain on the roof, cosy in your bed enjoying the first moments of morning.

The practice of thanking your mind

So here’s a short practice to help you unsubscribe from unhelpful thought processes. It takes the sting and the power out of them. It helps you defuse from them so they no longer throw you around, draw you in and drag you down. It’s a practice from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy called ‘thanking your mind’.

Whenever you find your mind throwing up unhelpful, mean or negative thoughts – no matter how compelling, dramatic or urgent they seem – just with an attitude of warmth, playfulness and even humour you simply reply mentally to yourself:

“Thanks, mind. Thanks for sharing.”

If your mind says, “You’re such an idiot.” You mentally reply, “Thanks, mind. Thanks for sharing.”

If your mind says “What will happen if no one looks after me when I’m old. It would be horrible.” You reply, “Thanks, mind.”

If it says “This stupid ‘thanking the mind thing’ doesn’t change the fact that your life sucks, you’re kidding yourself!”, you simply say, “Thanks, mind!”.

Your mental strength invitation this week

With this simple practice you are changing your relationship with thoughts in a powerful way. You’re not trying to get rid of the thoughts, push them away or fighting with them (these strategies are ineffective and only amplify and strengthen negative thoughts).

Instead you are acknowledging that these are simply thoughts, not reality, and are opening up more mental space to step back from the thought so it no longer has any grip or hold over you. Research shows that cognitive defusion is a much more adaptive, effective and helpful way to deal with unwanted thoughts

I invite you to take this practice with you into the week ahead, and any time you find you’re getting caught in unhelpful thoughts. Have a play around with it. Remember to do it with warmth and humour.

No matter what your mind says to you, no matter how serious it claims to be, see if you can have a sense of smiling at the mind and just mentally say “Thanks, mind!” And then change the focus of your attention to something more nourishing. That might be a simple refocus of attention to what you are doing in the present moment. Tasting tea, typing on a computer, driving a car or talking to another person. Or it might be changing your thoughts in a different direction, such as gratitude, self-compassion or more empowering thinking styles.

Each time you do this practice you build your capacity to unhook from unhelpful thoughts and bring more lightness, ease, and calm into your days. I hope this is helpful for you.

Thank you for being here and practising becoming mentally stronger. It really is a gift you give, not only to yourself but to everyone you know, everyone you meet, and ultimately, contributes to a happier, more peaceful and more enlightened world.

Are you finding these practices valuable?

If you’d like some more support in becoming mentally stronger, come and check out the coaching and training options I offer. The Mental Strength School offers proven, practical and high quality mental strength training that’s perfect to fit into a busy life. It’s a great place to start.

Or if you’re ready to radically transform your mental strength over 8 weeks of bootcamp style training, join me in Headstrong. It’s my 8-week intensive mental strength program. Headstrong offers the best of everything I’ve learned in over two decades of mental strength training and teaching.

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