Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – Separating Thoughts from Feelings

Our thoughts and feelings can become fused, and when they are, they become distressing to us, but we don’t have to let them rule our actions and the meaning we get from life. 

Fusion happens when we create the following within our minds:

  • Rules
  • Reasons and justifications
  • Judgements
  • Thoughts about the Past
  • Thoughts about the Future
  • Thoughts about the Self

It is often created by the chattering mind, but this is not all there is. There is also the part of the mind, the observing self, which notices it. And it is this which allows us t defuse our thoughts from our feelings. By defusing our thoughts and feelings we can reduce the distress we experience.  The key process to understand here is Defusion.

To defuse, we can start simply by using phrases such as “what is my mind telling me? what is my mind doing, what am I noticing my mind saying?” Which allow us to distinguish between the mind and our own self. We can talk about the mind as an entity distinct from our self, and simply by writing things down it allows us to distance our self from thoughts.

Then ask ourselves, “how helpful is that thought?”, “is it helping me get to where I want, or will it keep me stuck?”.

Ask yourself how fused you are to these thoughts, i.e. “How caught up am I with the thought?”, “do I notice how hooked in I am after that thought?”

Defusion Techniques

1. Say aloud your NAT. Then say “I’m having the thought that (NAT)”. Then say “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that (NAT)”

2. Say aloud your NAT. Sing happy birthday in your head but use the NAT as the words. Use the voice of a cartoon character to say the NAT

3. Repeat the harsh word from the NAT again and again until it becomes a meaningless word

4. Imagine the NAT on a computer screen, then play with the font and spacing etc

5. Imagine a stream and leaves floating on the steam, every thought is out on the leaf and watch it float away in its own speed, if you notice a feeling, then put the “here’s a feeling of impatience” on a leaf. Bring yourself back. Don’t try to control their speed.

6. Focus on breathing. Then notice thoughts. Where are they in space? What form do they take (sounds, pictures), moving or still, what is above and below? Continue to notice and make observations about your thoughts

Letting Go Metaphors

Sometimes leaves on a stream don’t do it for you, so maybe use the other letting go metaphors as below:

  • Bubbles
  • Clouds
  • Suitcase on conveyor belt
  • Birds
  • Trains, cars
  • Waves
  • People walking by

Remember it’s not about getting rid of thoughts or not feeling anxious, it’s letting them be and not fighting but gaining distance. It can help to thank your mind for having a thought, because Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) are natural and there to protect us evolutionarily. 

Go through examples of when we didn’t act on thoughts, I.e. Didn’t punch the bad driver, didn’t quit our job, so thoughts don’t have to control action, we can have the thought and do something different anyway.

Chessboard Metaphor

It can help if we imagine that our thoughts are like black and white chess pieces, battling back and forth. We can simply be the chessboard; in touch with the thoughts but not battling.

The chessboard metaphor allows us to picture the observing self but there is an exercise which illustrates it in situ:

Continuous You Exercise

  • Notice X (thoughts, feelings, sensations, one after the other )
  • Be curious, what do you notice about it?
  • Notice how yes, there is X but there is also you noticing X
  • If you notice X you cannot be X
  • X changes (from happy to sad, from positive to negative, from pain to numbness) but the you who notices X does not change, since you were a child there has been you, and you continue to be you.

Homework

A great piece of homework can be to:

  • Write thoughts on card
  • On back summarise them all into a title of the film, i.e. “The Useless Jane story”
  • Read them through, then read the title on the back, what does it do?
  • Now whenever you have a NAT tell yourself “oh look at that “Useless Jane” story again”
  • And also take the card and carry it with you.
  • 5 times a day read the thoughts then the title

For low self esteem, put the bad thoughts on a card and hold it close to your face then on the other side put the good thoughts and hold it close to your face, making the point that neither really allow us to connect with the world around us.

www.happii.uk is a website providing information about mental health and wellbeing. Happii.uk is provided by Anna Batho, a therapist working in High Wycombe and providing therapy in Amersham and the wider Buckinghamshire (Bucks) region.You can contact her here.

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