Using Thought Defusion to Cope with Teenage Anxiety.

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Erin O’Donohue, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist at Fox Valley Institute

Being a teenager isn’t easy. Self-consciousness seems to bring attention to your inadequacies and it can feel that everyone is aware of them. Now more than ever, there is 24/7 access to social media and the potential to compare yourself unfavorably to others. It is hard to escape the beliefs you’re not good enough. Who you should be and how you should live your life is a constant struggle. Thinking about the future and worrying about the unknown can lead to anxiety. Thoughts can be both productive and unproductive. They can be based on fact or fiction. Thoughts are ways of understanding your world, yet can oftentimes be based on perceptions and judgements that aren’t grounded in reality. Thoughts are words and images that typically focus on the past or the future, and neglect the present moment. When you buy into your thoughts and get hooked, this is known as thought fusion.

This can be helpful when the thoughts are directing you towards a more meaningful and purposeful existence, yet when the thoughts are claiming you’re a failure or you’re incompetent, this judgement can impact your self-esteem. When you learn to defuse from painful and unpleasant thoughts, they will become less overwhelming and disturbing, and have less influence over your actions. For example, it can be more productive if you are able to put some space between you and the thought, i.e. say to yourself, “I’m having a thought I’m a failure”, and recognizing thoughts for what they are. For one you are accepting you are having the thought and you aren’t trying to ignore or push it away, and two you are allowing the thought to come and go without fusing and over identifying with the thought. Realizing a thought is a string of words and allowing it be present without criticizing yourself or struggling with the thought, will allow the thoughts to come and go more freely.

Another technique to assist with thought defusion is the use of imagery. Imagine yourself standing by the ocean. Now see the thought you are having etched into the sand without judging yourself. Visualize a wave coming up and washing away your thought. See the next thought you have written into the sand, and without getting stuck on the thought see the next wave erase the thought. Continue doing this exercise for five minutes and practice daily. The more you practice thought defusion skills, the easier it will be to initiate these strategies when flooded with a wave of emotion or when preoccupied with unproductive thoughts.

**For more information on thought defusion and other ways to manage anxiety, please check out Russ Harris’ book The Happiness Trap (

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