How to tackle negative thoughts amid stressful periods
Negative thoughts that cause emotions of stress and anxiety are hard enough to handle outside of exam season, so this post includes some advice on how you can begin to tackle such difficult states of emotion as we approach term 3.
Before I begin, I want to emphasise that the techniques here should not replace professional support if you are experiencing mental health problems; I am not advocating that this advice should ever supersede the importance of talking to a trusted friend or seeking help such as through the Warwick Wellbeing Support Service. Nonetheless, I have found these techniques profoundly powerful in tackling such states of mind.
Most of the insights I talk about come from the book “The Happiness Trap”, based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), written by Russ Harris. I will be focusing on the technique called “Defusion” but before I delve into actionable steps you can practice, Harris’s introduction on page 39 does a great job at introducing the topic:
“Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based upon 6 core principles that work together to help you develop a life-changing mindset known as psychological flexibility. The greater your psychological flexibility, the better you can handle painful thoughts and the more effectively you can take action to make your life rich and meaningful.”
Hopefully, I will be able to cover more of the 6 core principles in future posts but to begin with, principle 1 is “defusion”. Defusion is about relating to your thoughts in a way that they have less influence over you.
I found some of the below techniques more helpful than others, so experiment and see which ones work for you. As they are practised more often and we move closer to a state of psychological flexibility, the technique becomes less prescriptive – these are like the initial handlebars guiding us along that process of becoming more flexible.
Technique 1: “I’m having the thought that…”
A theme running throughout these 4 techniques is moving from the thinking and dwelling state of mind, towards an observing state of mind. When an unhelpful thought comes to mind, such as “I’m not good enough”, change that by adding “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough” and then vocalising the thought. You will probably notice a slight separation from yourself and the thought as you see it from a more third-person perspective.
Technique 2: This is the “I can’t cope story” again.
Another technique is to try and categorise common thoughts of stress into different stories your mind is trying to convince you of e.g. noticing that a particular thought is the “I can’t cope story”.
Technique 3: “Thank you, mind!”
A bit of sarcasm can again help in separating you from the anxious thinking self to the non-judgmental observing self. By thanking your mind for unhelpful thoughts by saying “Thanks, mind”, or “How very informative”, or “Is that right? How fascinating!”, the detachment process is enhanced.
Technique 4: Actionable mindfulness.
Finally, closing your eyes for 60 seconds and noticing where your thoughts are coming from can be a powerful way to tune into an even deeper state of that observing self. When you close your eyes, your attention will inevitably drift, but all you must do is try and picture where your thoughts are coming from: left, right, behind? When you notice the thinking self-dominate (and it will), simply stating “thinking” as if acknowledging this state should diminish it.
There are more techniques to explore under defusion, such as turning the string of words of thought into a well-known tune, as well as the 10 breaths technique, but the above are ones I found most helpful for me.