Cutting the Fuse: Help for Ruminators


In response to my blog last week, I had a few questions about how one goes about avoiding getting swept up into unhelpful thoughts. This is a very important question and one that many counseling theories do not address at all. As I review my own time in therapy as a client, I do not remember one instance of discussing the process of my thinking. We spend our time on the content of my thoughts, which is what most people expect to do in therapy. My biggest, life-altering, break-through came when I understood the brokenness of my thought habits themselves. As my mentor, Carl, puts it, you might come to understand why you started smoking (or sleeping around, or criticizing yourself, or eating too much, etc…) but no matter how much insight you have about that, you are still addicted to nicotine (or artificial intimacy, or self-incrimination, or food, etc…). I was what we call, a ruminator. And I thought that by ruminating, that I was doing something that would get me better, when actually, it was quite the opposite. Rumination is, “a train of thought, unproductive and prolonged, on a particular topic or theme.” (Osborn, p.44) Rumination can be about anything, but essentially it is a brooding, churning mental activity. And for me and for so many of my clients, it is clearly mood-impacting. Rumination research (yes, there is such a thing) shows that those who ruminate have likely suffered from depression (Kumar, p. 14). This psychological reality is affirmed by the development of contemplative and wordless spiritual practices that teach disciples to notice their thoughts and let them be, while returning attention to an icon, prayer word, or image.

One of the skills that ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) teaches is thought defusion. The term “defusion” counters our propensity to fuse with certain thoughts. Let’s say the thought “I’m a loser” occurs to you. If you fuse with this thought then you may start to consider all the ways you can identify your loserness and begin considering your life’s probable disastrous outcome since you are such a loser. After a few minutes of this, you are understandably bummed out and anxious. To defuse the thought simply means to use techniques that help you identify and let go of that thought rather than diving into the content of it. You might say to yourself, “oh, I’m having the thought that I’m a loser. Thanks for that, mind.” And then you shift your attention back to whatever it is that you are doing. Whether this strikes you as momentously difficult or overly simple, the results can be profound.

Defusion techniques from The Reality Slap by Russ Harris:

  • Identifying your thought as a thought. “I’m having the thought that I’m a loser.”
  • Thanking your mind for the thought. “Thank you mind, for the loser story.”
  • Singing the thought to a silly tune. My colleague uses the song from the old cartoon, “The Flintstones”. “You are….such a loser. You’re the Stonage loser family…..”
  • Writing your thoughts on a paper, putting a thought bubble around them and drawing silly characters saying them.
  • Typing your thoughts on a document and then minimizing the screen—or imagining doing that.

And there are many, many more ways to defuse. The point of all this is to be able to live your day-to-day life more grounded and present rather than being caught up in toxic thought processes.

References: The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination by Sameet Kumar and Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals, Ian Osborn, The Reality Slap by Russ Harris.

I will be recharging my batteries for the rest of July. I will resume blogging in August.

photo credit: kioan via photopin cc


  1. Hey Janice,

    I posted your article on my facebook page and one of my friends left this comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts:

    ‘Interesting! Wonder what comes first the depression or the ruminating! Do you become depressed because of your thoughts or are the thoughts the result of the depression?!’

    1. Cool question! I bet that it is sort of a vicious cycle–both feed on each other. But it is sort of like the question of the chicken and the egg, is it not?

  2. I hope you won’t be ruminating during your vacation about what you’re next blog will be!

  3. I like the idea of putting those thoughts into a silliness context. I bet that works pretty well with ruminating children. 🙂

  4. Janice,
    really helpful, practical, and useful. I passed it along to several people already.

  5. Hello,

    thanks for choosing my photo for your article!! 🙂

    Have a nice day

    (there is an error with the HTML code for the link at the end of the article)

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