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Decentering - the Key to Overcoming Anxiety


What Is Decentering?

Just what is "decentering"? To put it simply, decentering is the ability to look at our thoughts and emotions objectively, without attaching ourselves to them or identifying with them. It means we see them as they are; as just a thought or just a feeling, without assuming that they are true.

This sounds simple enough, but sadly, it is a skill that can be quite hard to develop fully. And at the present time, I am unaware of any therapy that adequately teaches a person how to develop this skill. Though many therapies (such as CBT and mindfulness-based therapies) often do help a person develop this skill to some extent, it isn’t always effective, and none seem to have a strong enough focus on this area in my opinion.

Before we discuss how to develop the skill of decentering, we want to know why it is so important in overcoming anxiety.

Why decenter?

Recent studies have been examining the importance of being able to decenter when it comes to troubling emotions such as anxiety.

What scientists have done is look at therapies that have been successful in helping people with different types of anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety, and try to determine why many people were helped by the therapy and why others were not.

What they found is very interesting. Among therapies such as Applied Relaxation, Cognitive Reappraisal, Mindfulness practice, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, and Acceptance-based Behavioral Therapy, the common factor that most determined whether a patient's symptoms improved or not was the extent to which they developed the ability to decenter.

Symptom improvement was great, and sometimes entirely, mediated by their development of the skill of decentering. So the greater the improvement in this skill, the greater their decrease in anxiety symptoms.

Exciting, huh?

So how can we develop this ability?

How to decenter

We can think of our thoughts and emotions as clouds constantly passing through the sky in our consciousness. Some are fluffy white clouds, some are plain, some are beautiful, but sometimes there are large, dark stormy clouds. These are our negative thoughts and emotions such as anxiety and worrisome rumination.

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The difference between people who are skilled at decentering and those who aren’t is that the people who know how to decenter habitually see these dark clouds as temporary, non-pervasive, and they don’t necessarily assume that they are true. For example, if someone who often has trouble with health anxiety were to have some stomach pain, it is common for this type of person to think “Oh no! What if it is cancer?!”, they then identify with that thought. This thought is then assumed to be their reality, and rumination and anxiety ensue. A person who is able to decenter, on the other hand, sees it as just a thought. Just another cloud temporarily passing through their consciousness. There is little to no evidence for it, so they don’t make assumptions. They just notice the thought and soon it passes away.

When the sky is stormy, people often forget that just behind those clouds there is still a blue sky and that the sun is still shining. If we were able to get above those clouds we could see that it hasn’t changed. Similarly, when we are overcome by strong anxiety, we have a tendency to imprint it on our reality. All of a sudden the world is a dark and scary place. The truth of the matter is that it is only scary because we are using our anxious thoughts and sensations as a filter through which we see reality. Decentering means we recognize this fact. We know that reality is still the same, our surroundings haven’t changed regardless of what sensations we may be temporarily experiencing.

I like to emphasize these 4 things:

  • Impermanence
  • Non-pervasiveness
  • Objectivity/Suspended Judgement
  • Mindful acceptance

There are many ways in which we can develop this valuable skill. And I have developed an effective training program (which I am writing about in an upcoming book) that is designed to more thoroughly develop the ability to decenter (among other valuable emotional regulation skills). But for this article, I would like to share a simple exercise that can start you on your way to conquering your anxiety.

As with any skill, it will take practice. I will ask that you begin to look at your anxious moments as simply further opportunities to practice. Knowing that you are actually changing your brain over time. It is like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

The following is a sort of scripted mental exercise/meditation I want you to repeat to yourself when you feel anxious. And instead of simply repeating the words, I want you to think about their meaning as well. Recognize the truth behind them. At the same time, I want you to check your body and see if you can feel the sensations caused by your anxiety. I want you to recognize them and allow yourself to feel them, but not judge them as something terrible. Try and see all of this objectively, as it truly is. A thought is simply a thought. A feeling is simply a feeling.

Relax as best you can and repeat the following to yourself (and you can put it in your own words if you’d like):

“This is just a sensation (or thought). It has no more meaning than the meaning I give to it. It is temporary. It is confined to my body at this moment, it is not pervasive. (Notice your surroundings with your eyes) Reality is still the same, nothing has changed. I choose not to identify with this emotion or to use it as a filter to see reality. So now I will just allow myself to feel it, without judgment. To accept it, knowing that it is only temporary.”

I know that this particular exercise might sound gimmicky. But don’t write it off. With effort, I have found that this exercise is extraordinarily effective in reducing anxiety symptoms over time. Just try it the next time you have an anxious thought or feeling. Apply a little mindfulness to it and repeat that exercise. Some may find it more effective if they put it in their own words. But just memorize the meaning and truth behind all of those statements in the exercise and repeat them to yourself as many times as you feel you need to. I think with time you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Jackie Jones

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