Changing Behaviour: Defusing our thoughts
by Sitra Panirsheeluam
The thoughts that we have every from the way we think about our work and our relationships to the way we think about ourselves are the result of our brain being in autopilot. Thought are neurons firing in our brain. The more we think a thought – whether it is good or bad – the more we hardwire this into our brain. This can make it hard to change our behaviours because not only do you have to change what you do, you have to change the way you think about what you do. For example, if you want to exercising to lose weight, forcing yourself to go to the gym may not be sustainable. You need to change your mindset from “I’m overweight” as you may perceive working out as punishment to “I’m getting fit” as this can help to motivate you. Therefore, it is important to change the way we think in order to change our behaviour.
Changing our thoughts may be more difficult than changing our behaviour because many of us are in the habit of identifying who we are with our thoughts. Consequently, we may find it hard to separate from our thoughts and our thoughts become our reality. For example, if a person repeatedly thinks “I am useless”, they tend to believe in it overtime. This thought “I am useless” becomes a fact about themselves instead of just being a thought.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the inability to separate ourselves from our thoughts is called cognitive fusion. When we are in a state of cognitive fusion, we tend to rely too heavily on our thoughts and we may ignore cues from our senses and our environment, including the people around us. Our thoughts become our truths or a rule that yu have to follow. Consequently, you may find it hard to change your behaviour if you are too caught up in the story that you are telling yourself. E.g. “I am useless so there is no point in trying.” You may ignore evidence against it such the things you have accomplished and engage in the same pattern of behaviours that reinforce your belief that you are useless.
In order to address this and change your behaviour, you need to separate yourself from your thoughts. This is called cognitive defusion. This means recognising that you are not your thoughts and taking a step away from them. E.g., “My thoughts tell me I am useless but those thoughts are just neurons firing in my brain. It is no indication of my actual worth.” You observe your thoughts without getting in caught in them. This allows us to let the thought stay or let the thought go if we want.
Cognitive defusion is a skill we can practice. A good way to do this is to write down our thoughts. The act of putting pen to paper helps us to detach ourselves from the thought. It forces us to clarify what we are thinking. Use language like: “I am just thinking about” or “I am just worrying about”. E.g., “I am just worrying that I am useless.” Using the word “just” helps to take away the power of the thought and makes it easier for us to let it go. It helps us to reframe the thought as “I am just having a thought.”
The more we practice observing and letting go of our thoughts, the easier it will be for us to change our behaviours.
Sitra Panirsheeluam is a behavioural therapist at The Mind Faculty, a private mental health clinic in Kuala Lumpur. She can help clients to change negative behaviours such as smoking and emotional eating, as well as combat negative thought patterns associated with depression and anxiety. The Mind Faculty offers a range of services to address depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges in Malaysia.