We all have worries, and we all have worry thoughts associated with those worries. What if touching that will make me sick? What if I make a fool out of myself in front of people? What if my child gets hurt or sick? What if I can't ever stop worrying? Many of us then go along for the ride that worry thoughts create for us, experiencing a race down the anxiety rabbit hole to more and more worry that becomes harder and harder to handle, and more and more persistent. Help!
If you take a mental step back and think about worry, what worry really is, then you'll see that it's just a thought, or string of thoughts. Just thoughts. Intangible ramblings in your brain. Our brains are good at keeping up chatter, even chatter that isn't true or useful. Worry thoughts are good at supplying messages that are much more fear-based than reality-based. So how can you help yourself when you're caught in the vortex of worry thoughts? Try thought defusion.
I recently had the chance to use thought defusion while on a hike with my family. On a gray day in Humboldt County, my family and I were all hiking along a valley floor with a creek running through and across the trail, forcing us to cross through water and over slippery river rocks to continue on the hike. I'm not an avid hiker, so this was already out of my comfort zone. I watched my sure-footed 20-year-old daughter, decked out in rolled up jeans and flip-flops (flip-flops!) scamper in the creek and across it without a second thought. Then I watched my 10-year-old daughter follow right along. At least she was wearing boots! Watching them, I could have been enjoying the incredible view of lush greenery and the peaceful sound of water over rocks, along with my daughters obviously enjoying being with each other and being in nature.
Instead, my head was filled with thoughts: What if one or both of them slipped on a rock? What if she fell while clambering over a fallen tree?My worry thoughts fed me all sorts of 'What If's' -- head injuries, broken bones, being far away from help. Some of those worry thoughts were accompanied by visions of one of them crying and hurt. These thoughts were terrifying, to be sure, and very uncomfortable. But I know a few important things about worry thoughts: 1) they're something I'm prone to thinking, 2) they are not going to go away because I want them to, 3) I can't talk myself out of them, and 4) they are THOUGHTS. Why is number 4 so important? Because thoughts are not equal to reality.
One way to get through worry thoughts is to acknowledge this, that they're only thoughts. Thought defusion is a technique to help remind our brains that our thoughts are not reality. The thought defusion strategy I used is called Leaves on a Stream. In this case, I was right by an almost-stream, watching some leaves float along above the rocks and others get caught between rocks. This distinction is a perfect metaphor for thoughts. Just like the leaves, our thoughts can get stuck in our heads, creating mental anguish or we can let them float on through. With practice, you can learn to call out your thoughts as "an anxious thought" or a "worry thought" or "there's another thought about her falling," thereby acknowledging it. Then imagine that thought floating away on a leaf on a stream. This is by no means a quick fix, and you'll find that you need to repeat this many times, especially when you are learning the technique. But it works! And even when you're pretty good at it, like I've become, you will need to employ it whenever those worry thoughts threaten to overtake your ability to feel joy and be in the moment doing what you want to do. In my case, I was able to recover my sense of enjoyment, able to feel happy for my girls wandering freely in nature, water, rocks, fallen trees and all, instead of having lost the entire experience to worry. Imagine being able to come back from the dark cave of worry, back into a world you can fully participate in and enjoy!
And my girls on the hike? Yeah, the one in flip-flops did slip and fall, while clambering up a wet fallen tree no less. And she was fine.