Your thoughts are lying to you (And so are mine!)

Being Well

by Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW

Let me be real here for a minute — this column almost didn’t happen this month. I thought and thought about what, as we approach a year of pandemic life, I could possibly share with you to bring a little hope. Honestly, I’m not feeling a lot of hope. 

Sure, there’s a vaccine now — that’s good news! But even then, we’re not sure that vaccinated people can’t still spread the virus, new variations are being discovered, and we need to keep following social distancing guidelines. Right now, it feels like the pandemic will never end, my kids will be trapped in the house with me forever, and my husband and I will never have a date night ever again.

Luckily, what I have learned in my years of training as a psychotherapist sometimes has some application to my own life. One tool that can be helpful in this kind of situation is thought defusion. Thought defusion is a way for us to get some distance from our thoughts, so that when they are not helpful we don’t keep buying into them.

For instance, the thought, “this will never end,” is objectively unhelpful. It is also not true — things always change, and furthermore there is evidence of declining infection rates across Minnesota and the country that suggest change is on its way. So what can we do with an unhelpful thought like the notion that this will never end? 

First of all, recognize that it is just a thought.  Thoughts often try to trick us into believing them, but a lot of time they are just noise, like static on a radio. Our brains come up with so many thoughts each day — most unremarkable, some downright weird, and some distressing — and while we must stay attuned to ourselves, we must also be attuned to how our biological biases can hurt us. Distressing thoughts, for instance, tend to draw our attention because they represent a threat, a trait that served our species well in the wild but can often backfire today. 

For instance, being a light sleeper who is woken up by every noise you hear at night would have been quite a boon to your community back in the day—maybe even preventing you and your family from being killed by a bear. But in an industrialized world, when you have to wake up at 6:00 am to get to work, it is not at all helpful. Similarly, being attentive to every distressing thought may hold you back.
Once you have recognized a thought and determined that it is unhelpful to you, there are several things you can do to induce defusion from that thought. One is to say the thought out loud to yourself, identifying your role in it (i.e. “I am having the thought that this will never end”). That removes it by one degree. To get even more distance, you could say, “I am noticing that I am having the thought that this will never end.” When we get more distance, that reduces the emotional impact of the statement.

There are several other ways to distance ourselves from your thoughts — some people find it helpful to sing their unhelpful thoughts to themselves to make them feel less serious. More visually inclined people sometimes like to picture the unhelpful thought as an image on a TV screen. You can turn the image upside down, change the colors, distort it, anything to make it less threatening and to help yourself understand that it is just a thought — not reality.  

When I realize that I have been stuck inside for a week during a record-breaking winter frost, I remind myself that this cold snap, like this pandemic, will end someday. Perhaps neither will end as quickly as we would like them to, but they will end. Until then, be aware of the thoughts that tell you it won’t, and do what you can to take the teeth out of them. After all, they’re only thoughts.

Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist living and working in the West Seventh neighborhood. You can learn more about her work at www.erinbdlicsw.com.

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