What Are Thoughts?
Trying to define thoughts is difficult, due to the fact they are highly complex and there is no general consensus in the professional community of how to define or understand them. In a broad sense, thoughts (also called thinking) are mental processes allowing us to engage in problem solving, reasoning, and decision making in the brain; which is associated with the mind. The mind is an abstract entity with the cognitive functions of consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement and memory; otherwise known as cognitive functions.  What scientists do know, is there is a difference between conscious and unconscious thought processes. Conscious thoughts are the ones we are aware of and can be discussed in a rational way; whereas, unconscious thoughts, are hidden and lie just below the surface of our awareness. These are mental images, pictures, memories, thoughts, and emotions which automatically run through our mind without us being fully aware of them. According to neuroscientists, who have studied conscious and unconscious thinking processes, have discovered that our decisions, emotions and behavior are 95-99% based on our unconscious thinking patterns; while less than 5% of our daily cognitive functions comes from our conscious thinking patterns. 
The unconscious mind having a greater impact in our decision making than our conscious mind, has significant ramifications. It explains why we sabotage ourselves and cannot reach our goals and it explains why we find ourselves engaged in self-defeating behavior; lacking understanding for it. Our unconscious thoughts are ingrained from repeated childhood interactions with parents, family, teachers and other significant others who have spoken into our lives; which develop into beliefs about ourselves. We accept these beliefs as fact, truths about who we are and therefore, we do not challenge them; they take on a self-protection quality and are difficult to change. The problem arises when our unconscious beliefs about ourselves is filled with negativity, then when we encounter similar situations in our lives, we respond to the negativity in our unconscious mind automatically without thinking about it. The negative thoughts and subsequent emotions become a habitual way in which we react to situations and others in our lives. We end up creating negative situations, leading to a distortion of reality; dismissing evidence to the contrary.  On the surface, this research may look dismal; and we, being like puppets, are controlled by the whim of our unconscious processes, without being abel to do anything about it. But the good news is, we can learn how to recognize our automatic thoughts and increase our capacity to make life decisions based on reality and conscious thinking patterns.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Automatic Thoughts
Aaron Beck, M.D., the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the most widely used, evidence-based practice for treating mental disorders; developed the Cognitive Model: “The Cognitive Model describes how our perceptions of, or spontaneous thoughts about, situations influence our emotional, behavioral (and often physiological) reactions. Our perceptions are often distorted and dysfunctional when we are distressed. We can learn to identify and evaluate our automatic thoughts, and to correct our thinking so that it more closely resembles reality. When we do so, our distress usually decreases, and we are able to behave more functionally…” 
The way we feel emotionally and the way we behave are connected with how we interpret the meaning of a situation; the situation itself does not determine how we feel or behave. Recognizing, disputing negative automatic thoughts and finding a more positive reframe, is called cognitive restructuring. Dr. Beck developed a means of cognitive restructuring by identifying, evaluation and responding to our automatic thoughts. Usually our automatic thoughts just pop into our minds without us thinking about them; and we are much more aware of the emotion following our automatic thoughts, than the thoughts themselves. One of the ways we can identify our automatic thoughts is when we notice a shift in emotion; for example, we begin to notice sadness, but do not know why. We can ask ourselves; What was just going through my mind? And if we cannot recall what was going through our minds, we can ask ourselves; What could have been going through my mind? By asking this question, we can help identify our automatic thoughts associated with the emotion we were feeling.
Next, is to evaluate whether or not our automatic thought is valid. Many of our automatic thoughts do have a grain of truth to them; but many are inaccurate and not true; therefore, need to be evaluated. One of the ways we evaluate to see how true our automatic thoughts are is to use a series of questions, called, Socratic Questioning. But before we ask the Socratic questions, it is helpful to find out how much we believe a particular automatic thought; on a scale of 0-100. Then we ask one or two of the following Socratic questions: 1) What is the evidence for or against this belief? 2) Is there an alternative explanation? 3) What is the worst that could happen; and if it happened, how could I cope with it? What is the best that could happen? What is the most realistic outcome? 4) What is the effect of me believing the automatic thought? What could be the effect of changing my thinking? 5) What would I tell a friend or family member if he or she were in the same situation? At the end of asking the Socratic questions, we can re-evaluate how much we now believe our automatic thought, using the 1-100 scale. 
Another way to evaluate automatic thoughts, is to see if we have an error in our thinking. We can do this by seeing if our automatic thoughts fall into one of the following Cognitive Distortions: All-or-nothing thinking; seeing everything in only two categories, black or white, with no shades of gray. I always have to be perfect. Catastrophizing; believing, If I fail a test, I will never be successful in life. Overgeneralization, drawing conclusions based on a small amount of evidence—I do everything wrong. Mind reading, believing we know what others are thinking—He thinks I’m stupid. Emotional Reasoning, believing something must be true because it feels true. I must be incompetent. Fortune-Telling, making negative predictions about what will happen in the future when other outcomes are more likely. I will always be socially awkward. Labeling, putting a globally negative label on yourself. I am a failure for making a mistake. Selective abstraction, paying attention only to the negative aspects of situation instead of considering the entire experience. I messed up my speech, it was a failure. Personalization, taking others’ actions personally when they actually have other intentions. They did that to me on purpose. 
In labeling our distortions, it helps us to get some distance from our automatic thought and also begin to believe, it is no longer valid. If we do come to the conclusion that our automatic thought is valid and true; it can be helpful for us to focus on problem solving, move toward acceptance or investigate our conclusions. For example, if we believe we have hurt our friend’s feelings; the automatic thought is true, but what is our conclusion about ourselves for hurting our friend’s feelings? Do we believe that we are a terrible person? If so, then we can address this using Socratic questions. 
After we have identified and evaluated our automatic thoughts, the next step is to learn how to respond to our automatic thoughts in a healthy manner. We can respond to our automatic thoughts by using a Thought Record: Take a piece of paper and make five columns down the page. The first column label; Situation, What event led you to experience distress? Second column label; Automatic Thoughts, What thoughts went through your mind? How much did you believe it? Third column label; Emotions, What feeling did you experience? How intense was it, using 0-100 scale. Fourth column label; Adaptive Response, What cognitive distortion did you make? How much did you believe each response? Last column label; Outcome, How much do you now believe your automatic thought? What did you do? Sometimes we may find that using the worksheet to respond to our automatic thoughts was not helpful. In this case, using distraction and/or relaxation techniques may be helpful for automatic thoughts triggering highly intense emotional states. 
In one sense, cognitive restructuring is a form of renewing our mind, which the Apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to do. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, NASB). Let us see what else the Bible has to say about our thought life.
What The Bible Says About Our Thoughts
In Proverbs it says; “For as he thinks within himself, so he is…” (Proverbs 23:7, NASB). In other words; as a man thinks within his mind, directly affects how he behaves. “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23, NLT). It is necessary for us to be aware of what we allow ourselves to focus on in our minds. Our mind can be likened to a ships rudder, directing the course for our lives. If we want our lives to go in the direction of the Lord’s will for us, we need to align our minds with the mind of Chirst; to think as He thinks. How do we do this? We do this by taking every thought captive; “…and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NASB).
Without question, there are many human thoughts that need to be taken captive. Numerous ungodly philosophies hold people in bondage, and those spiritual fortresses need to be demolished. The systems of thought that war against us are arrogant obstacles (NET), lofty opinions (ESV), and sophisticated arguments and every exalted and proud thing (AMP) that prevent people from knowing God. In our day, these systems of human thought include the theory of evolution, secular humanism, existentialism, the cults, the occult, and false religions.  We may not believe any of these strong ideologies, but if we our honest with ourselves; there are lies we believe, that need to be demolished; negatively affecting our thoughts, emotions and behavior. We need to come out of agreement with the lies of the world which will prevent us from having the mind of Christ; and replace these lies with the truth. As we replace all lies with the truth, we renew our minds. “Do not copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2, NLT). The way we renew our minds is by dwelling on God’s Word which is the Truth. “…teach them your word, which is truth” (John 17:17, NLT). Our thinking must be changed from the ungodly ways of thinking to new, godly ways of thinking. We will know when our minds have been renewed when our behavior is changed.
While we are in the process of mind renewal, what are we suppose to think about? The Apostle Paul tells us in the book of Philippians; “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV, emphasis added). We are suppose to think on everything that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy! Paul tells us there are many things for us to make the focus of our attention. As we thoughtfully reflect on these truths, our minds will become renewed; our thoughts will change from being carnally minded to being spiritually minded; we will feel differently and our behavior will testify of God’s transformation in our lives.
There may be times where we become mentally entangled with troublesome thoughts and feelings. This is when we dwell on self-criticisms, our interactions with others, worries, fears, and memories of mistakes made; which stir up painful emotions, feelings—perhaps triggering urges or impulses, leading to unhealthy behaviors. No matter what we do, we cannot shake our painful, troublesome internal experience.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT was developed by Steven Hayes Ph.D. The primary goal of ACT is to increase Psychological Flexibility, which is the ability to be in the present moment with full awareness and openness to our experience, and to take action guided by our values.
Fusion and Defusion
Fusion means getting caught up in our thoughts and feelings and allowing them to dictate our behavior. Defusion, on the other hand, means separating or distance from our thoughts and feelings, letting them come and go instead of being caught up in them. We can apply defusion through the use of acceptance; allowing our thoughts and feelings to be as they are, regardless of whether they are pleasant or painful; opening up and making room for them; dropping the struggle with them; and letting them come and go as they naturally do.
The whole model of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), rests upon the key concept of workability. To understand the term, workability, we can ask ourselves; Does our behavior lead us toward living a rich life, full of meaning? Is what we are thinking and feeling, helpful? If we answer “Yes,” then we say it is workable, if we answer “No” then we say it is unworkable. In the case of unworkability, we want to consider alternatives which will work better to help us live the life we desire to live and to increase our sense of well-being.
We do not need to judge our thoughts as true or false, right or wrong, good or bad; but rather, consider, whether it is workable or not; Is it helpful? If we hold onto this thought tightly, allowing it to guide our behavior, will it help us become the person we want to become and help us do the things we want to do? The problem is not so much about the content of our thinking, but whether we become fused with our thoughts, which is problematic and keeps us stuck; increasing our experience of struggling.  We can practice asking ourselves throughout our day, when troublesome thoughts and feelings scream for the focus of our attention; Is this a helpful thought? Is this a helpful feeling to dwell on right now? If we answer, “No,” then we can move on and focus on good self-care and engage in activities which nurture ourselves.
Suppression and Aversion
It makes sense that we would want to try to disconnect and push away unwanted, painful thoughts and feelings; to do otherwise, would feel counterintuitive. But that is exactly what our minds do, and it is also the very thing which keeps us stuck in our struggle. In our attempts to deal with unwanted thoughts and feelings, we may engage in two experiential avoidance techniques; thought suppression and aversion of feelings. Thought suppression is where we try to stop thinking about a particular troublesome thought in an attempt remove it from our mind. Aversion is when we are driven to avoid, numb out, get rid of or try to escape feelings we experience as unpleasant. The problem with thought suppression and aversion of feelings is that both lead to a paradoxical, rebound effect, causing an increase in the intensity and frequency of the unwanted thoughts and feelings.  The alternative to experiential avoidance is acceptance.
Acceptance and Defusion Through Labeling
The goal of acceptance is to allow thoughts and feelings to be present, while being engaged in the world around us; moving us toward a values based, meaningful life—worth living. We need to be willing to allow our thoughts and feelings to be present, as they are, without trying to control or change them. We do this through the process of defusion. There are several methods we can engage in which will help guide us toward acceptance of our thoughts and feelings. One such method is for us to label what we are thinking and feeling. For example, if we are feeling sad, with thoughts of being alone; we can say to ourselves; “I’m having the feeling of sadness,” and “I’m having the thought that I’m alone.” Doing so will give us a bit of needed space and help decrease fusing with our thoughts and feelings. Labeling allows us to experience a shift in our internal world of troubling cognitions, making it feel a little less intense and believable.  With practice, we can recognize our troublesome thoughts and feelings, label them and move on with what we value to be important to us in the moment, without trying to suppress, avoid, or become entangled with anything in our internal world. Just as with any new endeavor, which is not implemented automatically; it takes intentional, committed practice. If we find ourselves saying; “This is too hard,” “I can’t do this,” and “I’m feeling discouraged;” we can tell ourselves: “I’m having the thought that this is too hard,” “I’m having the thought that I can’t do this,” and “I’m having the feeling of discouragement.” We can also tell ourselves; “Now isn’t that thought interesting?” We approach our internal world of thoughts with openness, curiosity and an observing stance.
Another method to facilitate defusion, is we can use the following metaphors of our private experiences of troublesome thoughts and feelings: seeing them as clouds passing by, leaves floating along a river, or as cars driving past our house. We acknowledge their presence and allow them to come and go, without becoming entangled with them. As we do this, we may find that a troublesome thought or feeling decreases or disappears. If this happens, great, but this is only a side bonus, not the goal. It is important to point out that the goal of these defusion mindfulness methods is not to try to get rid of our thoughts or feelings, but to prevent us from fusing with them, allowing us to move toward living a valued, meaningful life. If we make the goal to get rid of our internal experience, then we are engaging in controlling or suppression techniques, which is not the goal of mindful defusion. 
According to CBT, it is not the event that causes us emotional distress, but our interpretation of the event which causes our distress. It is about the meaning we attribute to the event which can keep us stuck in a negative frame of mind. It can be helpful for us to learn to reframe our thinking, which is an alternative way of interpreting and behaving to decrease our psychological distress.  Reframing helps us create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning. We do this by taking a step back and asking ourselves; “What’s another way for me to look at this situation,” or “What’s another meaning I can attribute to this situation?” For example, if we did not do well on a test; instead of thinking of ourselves as being a failure, we can reframe our thinking, by telling ourselves, “I didn’t get the grade I wanted, but I’ll adjust my study habits and do better on my next test.” Or if a friend forgets to call us when they agreed to, instead of thinking to ourselves; “My friend doesn’t think I’m very important,” or “My friend must be upset with me.” We can remind ourselves, that our interpretation of our friends’ lack of calling, is only one way to look at it. We can take a step back and think of three or four alternative possible explanations for our friend not calling us. Perhaps the reframe we can tell ourselves might be: “I’m disappointed my friend did not call me, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt; perhaps she became ill,” or “Perhaps she had a more urgent situation she needed to take care of,” or “Perhaps she may have been swamped and simply forgot,” so as not to think too negatively of her. By reframing, it allows us to get some space from our previous negative interpretation and potentially keep us from heading down the slippery slope into negative rumination.
We can also reframe our emotional states. For example, if we are feeling anxious when engaging in a social event, we can tell ourselves; “This is the feeling of opening up my world and making new friends.” Or if we are grieving the loss of a close family member, we can tell ourselves; “This is the feeling of saying goodbye to my family member.” Or if we become discouraged while doing homework for school, we can tell ourselves; “This is the feeling of advancing my education.” In all these examples, we take the negative feeling state and put a positive reframe on it; without denying or trying to make our feelings go away. This helps us to get a bit of distance from the painful emotion, and we are kept from fusing with our emotion. We maintain our footing on solid ground, remain grounded and move forward.
When we learn to have a different relationship with our thoughts and feelings through engaging in defusion techniques, it allows us to have a different experience with our internal world. This is especially true, when we find we are no longer stuck, but able to move on with activities we find life-giving and pleasurable.
1. Article; “Outline of Thought”, Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_thought.
2. Article: Power Tool: Conscious vs. Unconscious Thoughts” (2014, December 14). International Coach Academy. Retrieved from coachcampus.com/…/jennifer-gastelum-power-tool-conscious-vs-unconscious-though.
3. Article; “Cognitive Model: A thought process for developing healthier thinking.” Theory of Psychopathology, Beck Institute Retrieved from https://www.beckinstitute.org/cognitive-model/.
4. Beck, J. Ph.D. (2011) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 2nd Edition, New York, NY pgs. 137-197.
8. Article; “What does it mean to take every thought captive?” Got Questions, Retrieved from https://gotquestions.org/take-every-thought-captive.html.
9. Harris, R. Ph.D. (2009) “ACT Made Simple” Oakland CA New Harbinger Publications, pgs. 22-23.
10. Ibid, p. 25.
11. McKay, M. Ph.D., Davis, M. Ph.D., Fanning, P. (2011) Thoughts & Feelings. Oakland CA New Harbinger Publications, p. 13
12. Harris, R. Ph.D. (2009) ACT Made Simple, Oakland CA New Harbinger Publications.
pgs. 115-116, 134-135.
13. Beck, J. Ph.D. (2011) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 2nd Edition, New York, NY .