Treat Your Anxious Thoughts Like Internet Pop-Up Ads: How to create your own anxiety antivirus software

Dr. Marina Harris by Michael Geiger on Unsplash

Do you remember internet pop-up ads?

Before pop-up blockers, you’d be surfing the internet, minding your own business, when this pesky advertisement would pop onto your screen.

The ad takes over the whole screen — you can’t see around it. You can’t ignore it.

What next?

You have to find the tiny little X hidden at the top right-hand corner. It takes a minute.

You click the X.

The ad comes back because it’s an internet pop-up ad. It’s spam.

And when it comes back again, you hit the X.

Do you spend all day worrying that you didn’t buy what the ad was selling you?


Stop fighting your thoughts

Most people try to change their thoughts. They get advice to “just think positively” or “make your thoughts more realistic.”

I spent a lot of time trying to fight my thoughts. Whenever I thought I was stupid or a failure, I would spend tons of time analyzing the thought. I would pore over reasons why I wasn’t stupid or a failure, trying to convince myself. It was exhausting. I ended up just wasting my energy.

I found it was much easier to stop playing tug-of-war with my thoughts and drop the rope.

This strategy works a lot better and freed up so much of my mental space. by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash

Cognitive defusion

There is a new, third-wave therapy technique called cognitive defusion. Originally developed by Dr. Aaron Beck (then called cognitive distancing) and refined by Dr. Steven Hayes, cognitive defusion is shown to reduce general distress, decrease self-criticism, and help people be more self-compassionate.

Cognitive defusion is all about accepting thoughts for what they are: just thoughts.

Many of us with anxiety are too attached to our thoughts. That means we accept them as truth. We think just because we have a thought, it’s right.

But did your loved one get in a car crash that one time you thought they might? Do you automatically become a failure just because you think it?


Our anxiety just tricks us into thinking that these thoughts are real or true. In reality, they’re just thoughts. Just spurts of electricity fired by our brain neurons.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our thoughts, assuming they represent reality. But that doesn’t serve us well.

If you buy into the spam, you let the virus spread.

But if you accept that your computer is gonna get spammed sometimes, the virus that pops up is a small nuisance but it doesn’t control your life. If you can acknowledge the thought, and distance yourself from it, you can live your life.

You can be your own antivirus software.

Practice cognitive defusion

Practicing cognitive defusion is definitely not as easy as it sounds, but it offers a unique strategy for anyone who finds themselves constantly battling their thoughts.

You can practice cognitive defusion by doing anything that gives space between you and the thought. There are so many different ways to do this. Here are a few, but this is definitely not a comprehensive list. You can create your own ways to distance yourself from your thoughts as well.

Just noticing

Use the word “noticing” when talking about your thoughts. A simple formula is, “I’m noticing __________ (thought).” This subtle linguistic difference can make a big impact. There is a big difference between saying “I’m a failure” and saying “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.”

That space can give you some big relief from the constant barrage of negative thoughts.

You can also use this strategy for feelings or urges. “I’m noticing I’m feeling sad right now” can give you the little bit of distance you need.

Thoughts are not causes

When we are anxious we believe that because we think something, it will come to pass. Just because you think, “What if I fail the test?” doesn’t influence the likelihood of failing the test. Thinking that you’re a failure doesn’t make you a failure.

We can also have thoughts that impede our ability to take action. Sometimes if I think, “I can’t possibly give this presentation” I might avoid doing it. Instead ask yourself, “Can I have this thought AND still engage in a behavior that is meaningful to me?”

Can you have the thought that you’ll tank a presentation and still give the presentation? It’s super uncomfortable — but of course you can.

Don’t let your thoughts stop you from engaging in meaningful behaviors.

How old is this thought?

Most of us have had the same thought patterns for years and years. It is so hard to change our thoughts — if it was easy, you would have done it already.

But just because a thought is 15 or 20 years old, doesn’t mean you need to keep believing it.

When you’re buying into a thought, stop and ask yourself, “How old is this thought?” And ask yourself if you need to continue to buy this thought or pattern of thoughts because you always have.

The answer is no!

Just because you’ve always done it this way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way or that you have to keep doing it.

Mindfulness practices that help you get unstuck from your thoughts

Several mindfulness practices can help you distance yourself from your thoughts.

My favorite is the leaves on a stream exercise, which essentially prompts you to picture a river bed or babbling brook that has leaves floating on the surface of the water. Each time you have a thought, you place that thought on a leaf and just watch it float down the stream. Without trying to speed the thoughts up or slow them down, you just put the thoughts on leaves as they come, and watch them float by. Here is an audio link that I particularly enjoy.

Leaves on a Stream by Therapy in a Nutshell

A similar concept is used with the clouds in the sky exercise. You picture each thought as a cloud in the sky and just watch the thoughts float by as they come.

Drifting Clouds Meditation by Inner Space Meditation

There’s also a metaphor about a sushi conveyor belt!

Sushi Train Metaphor by Dr. Russ Harris

These mindfulness practices have a lot of room for creativity — you can picture the scene however you want, and place your thoughts on leaves or in clouds however you desire.

However you picture the scene, the point is that you are watching your thoughts from afar instead of getting sucked into them. It’s a lot different to watch the tornado from your house, rather than standing in the middle of it. by NOAA on Unsplash

Other strategies

There are tons of other strategies you can use to distance yourself from your thoughts. I know some people who write their thoughts down on index cards and rip them up. I know others who say the thought over and over again until it has no meaning. You can even treat your thoughts like a cell phone from hell — “Excuse me, this is your mind speaking, just calling to remind you that you need to start worrying now!”

There is no limit to what you can try. My favorite strategy is to treat your thoughts like internet pop-up ads.

Treat your thoughts like pop-up ads

When a thought comes up, hit the X.

That doesn’t mean suppress it. That doesn’t mean to try not to have the thoughts.

It means that when the thought pops up, notice it, and label it for what it is — a thought.

Hit the X by acknowledging that it’s just a thought, and then refocusing your attention on whatever you were doing before the thought came.

You can even picture a big red X in your mind and click the button to minimize the thought.

You might even label it. You could say, “Oh there’s my anxiety spamming me again.” Or, “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I’m a failure. Just because I have the thought doesn’t make it true.”

And don’t click on the ad. Don’t buy what the pop-up ad is selling you — don’t buy into the thought as truth.

Just move on with your life, just like you do when you come across a spammy ad.

The possibilities of not buying what the internet pop-up ad is selling you

Think about the possibilities this could have for your life.

What if we didn’t assign meaning to our thoughts? What if we just took them at face value — as just thoughts?

For me, it meant letting go of the stories I was telling myself. That I wasn’t good enough, smart enough. That I was a mess. That I was too anxious to function.

All of those things just popped up onto my brain like spam. And if I listen to the spam, I can’t live my life because I’m so caught up in what the spam means.

But letting go of that gave me so many possibilities. I could just hit the X and move on with my day. I didn’t spend time dissecting what it meant that I had those thoughts. I just knew it was my anxiety talking and chose not to get caught up in it.

How would your life be different if you didn’t buy into the spam stories? Think about how much mental space your worries take up — what could you be doing with that mental space instead? What things could you prioritize over your anxiety?

When you can notice and acknowledge your thoughts as just thoughts, they don’t have to own you. You take the ownership back. You can feel empowered to live your life the way you want.

Don’t let the spam hold you back.

Hit the X.

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PhD in Clinical Psychology | Science-backed advice for living your best life | Expert on eating disorders, relationships, and athlete mental health | Former Division I Athlete


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