Imagine you are driving a bus - the bus of your life. You want to drive the bus towards something that's important to you - say, eating a healthier diet by eating less chocolate.
Along the way, you've picked up a bunch of passengers. Those passengers are your thoughts, memories, feelings and urges. Some of the passengers are encouraging:
"Great driving, well done"
"You can do it - one day at a time!"
But a bunch of them have decided they don't like where you are going, and are trying to stop you. They put you down:
"You're rubbish at driving"
"You'll never be able to give up chocolate"
Tell you what to do:
"You're going the wrong way"
"You can't eat that!"
Or give you reasons not to do what you really want to do:
"Don't go that way, stick to this road, it's much nicer"
"Why not treat yourself? You know you want to...
If you try to argue with your passengers, they just shout louder and put you off even more. If you try to force them off the bus, that means stopping the bus and putting your journey on hold. If you change direction, they may quieten down for a bit, but that means moving away from your goal of healthier eating. Over time, you realise that the only way to reach your destination is to let the passengers say what they like, and carry on driving anyway. You are the bus driver, and you have to ignore your passengers and concentrate on driving the bus where you want it to go.
All of us have our own passengers in the back, and at times they can get very noisy and distracting. So what can we do?
Here are three ideas to try:
- Just notice the passengers are there - what are the difficult thoughts? Simply describing them, without acting on them, can be helpful ("I'm having the thought that I really fancy some chocolate")
- Imagine the passengers talking in a silly voice, or singing what they are saying
- Thank the passengers for making their view known, then remind them who is in charge - YOU ("Thank you, mind - but I choose not to have that chocolate right now")
Can an idea this simple really help you kick your chocolate habit?
A *2015 study by Kim Jenkins and Katy Tapper suggests that yes, it can. They took 137 students, gave them a bag of chocolates to carry around with them for 5 days, and split them into 3 groups. One group received a handout explaining the "passengers on the bus" techniques; another group received instructions for another mindfulness-based exercise; and the final group were given a relaxation technique to try out. The group using the "passengers on the bus" techniques were significantly less likely to eat from the bag of chocolates than the other two groups - only 27% of them ate any chocolate, compared to around 45% of the others.
Why does it work?
The "passengers on the bus" techniques help you develop the skill of noticing your thoughts and stepping back from them. You learn to notice them, rather than automatically feeling that you have to act on them. It's the difference between thinking "I fancy something sweet" and automatically finding your hand in the biscuit tin; and thinking "I notice I'm having the thought that I fancy something sweet", and stopping for a moment to think twice before you reach for the tin. The posh name for this skill is "cognitive defusion".
Cognitive defusion has also been found to aid behaviour change in other studies, but the interesting thing about this study is that such a quick and simple exercise can make a difference.
Cognitive defusion - that ability to step back from unhelpful thoughts, so that they lose some of their power - is a really powerful life skill. The good news is that it's a skill we can all learn. My clients often find cognitive defusion techniques incredibly useful to help them deal with worries and anxieties.
I use a combination of cognitive defusion, mindfulness, hypnosis and cognitive behavioural therapy to help you achieve change in your life.
To learn more, please contact me for a chat on 0203 868 6393 or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Jenkins, K. T., & Tapper, K. (2014). Resisting chocolate temptation using a brief mindfulness strategy. British journal of health psychology, 19(3), 509-522.