In this blog, Dr. Amy Backos, author of ACT Art Therapy and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Art Therapy, provides a simple diffusion exercise that can help you gain perspective on your thoughts in order to prevent overthinking.
Imagine moving through your thoughts without getting stuck. Instead, you could easily take perspective, creatively solve your problems, and make choices based on your values instead of worries, past experiences, or ruminations about what others might think. This is what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Art Therapy offers. ACT helps you live a life you love through mindfulness, perspective on thoughts, and inspired actions. ACT allows you to spend your time on what is most important to you, instead of just managing the daily grind.
ACT Art Therapy offers incredible potential for what our world could be if we relied on creativity, abstract thinking, present moment awareness, and artistic expression to reduce stress and increase happiness. Combining the modern approach of ACT with traditional art practices expands the possibility for each of us to make positive personal change, increase social justice, and self-actualize. ACT became my theoretical orientation because it meets both the needs of my clients and my wishes as a therapist – it allows us to work together to generate meaningful shifts in perspective and meaningful behavioral choices.
ACT, a third-wave behavioral therapy, is considered one of the most effective and versatile treatments, demonstrating success in both reducing symptoms and increasing psychological flexibility while helping clients pursue a value-based life. As of 2021, ACT has over 600 randomized, controlled trials, making it an evidenced-based treatment for a variety of disorders including depression and anxiety. ACT outcomes are considered equivalent to, or more effective than, traditional Cognitive Behavior Approaches (CBT). Furthermore, ACT has been particularly helpful in addressing PTSD and acute traumas. As such, it is considered an evidence-based practice within the United States Veteran’s Affairs Hospitals and its efficacy is noted around the world.
When I began my training in ACT, I discovered a much-needed “user manual” for understanding my mind. The ACT strategies of mindfulness, present moment awareness and thought defusion helped me manage my emotions as a new parent, while at the same time beginning my internship and residency. I had an over-thinking mind with lots of doubt and self-criticism related to parenting and my career. Through ACT, I began to see that my unhelpful thoughts were repetitive, normal, and just part of what my brain does. Thoughts are just thoughts and not the truth. I immediately added art making to what I was learning about ACT so I could creatively understand and express my new ways of thinking. Once I got a handle on managing my mind, I launched into combining ACT and Art Therapy, increasing the efficacy of each.
Cognitive defusion, a central component of ACT, allows you to achieve psychological distance and perspective on your thoughts. For me, it meant that instead of being stuck in my thoughts, I could observe them with increased curiosity and less criticism. Instead of lingering on negative thoughts, such as my parental guilt or professional uncertainties, I learned strategies to help me quickly shift from negativity and distress, to simply noticing my thoughts, and then purposefully deciding how I wanted to proceed in accordance with my values. Here is a simple defusion exercise you can use right now to gain perspective on your thoughts.
- Write down a thought that often troubles you. For example: “I am not good enough,” “I will never finish this,” “I am a terrible parent,” or “I have too much to do.”
2. Next, put the following words in front of the sentence: “I am thinking…”. Then you have a sentence like this: “I am thinking I am not good enough.” This step draws your attention to the fact that these are only thoughts and not a reality in this moment. If you are having trouble here, imagine if your best friend said an unkind statement about themselves; would you just believe the negative statement about them, or would you know the reality that it is untrue?
I am thinking___________________________________________________________________.
3. Next, put the following words in front of that sentence: “I am aware that I am thinking…” Then you have a sentence like this: “I am aware that I am thinking I am not good enough.” This pulls your attention to your highest level of thinking (awareness) where you are observing your mind without judgement and purely noticing the thoughts your brain creates.
I am aware that I am thinking____________________________________________________.
4. Finally, grab a pen or pencil and do a little scribble of your mind before and after you defuse from your thoughts. What does your mind look like when you are attached to and believe your negative thoughts? What does it look like when you are able to defuse and take perspective on your thoughts? Lastly, give each of your doodles a title and write a little bit about how you would like to relate to your thoughts moving forward.
The more you practice this simple exercise, the more powerful you will become in managing your mind. This is the first step to defining your purpose and taking meaningful actions to fulfil your dreams. My vision is to remind the world how powerful art can be. Through the art and science of creativity and psychology, we can use personal expression and psychological flexibility to solve problems, reduce prejudice, and elevate ourselves, others and society. If this appeals to you, join my community on Instagram @DrAmyBackos and we can grow together.
Dr. Backos is a Licensed Psychologist and Registered Board-Certified Art Therapist living and working in San Francisco, California, USA. With over 25 years of experience as a therapist, educator, and author, she specializes in creativity psychology to help traumas survivors integrate their experiences, heal, and find their purpose. She has authored several books including ACT Art Therapy and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Art Therapy through Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Contact Dr. Backos at www.arttherpycentersf.com, and on Instagram @DrAmyBackos.
ACT Art Therapy by Dr. Amy Backos is now available! Click here to check it out.