What is cognitive fusion?
Cognitive fusion is a state of close identification with thoughts or feelings. The person is caught up in them and believes they are completely true. Sometimes she is not even aware she is thinking these thoughts or having these feelings. Thought and individual become inseparable, and thoughts dominate the behaviour. Russ Harris, a therapist, author, and ACT expert explains in his book “The Happiness Trap” that in a state of fusion, it may seem like:
- Thoughts are reality – what we are thinking is happening at the moment
- Thoughts are a complete truth – we need to believe them
- Thoughts are important – require our immediate attention
- Thoughts are orders – we need to obey to avoid negative consequences
- Thoughts are wise – they know what is best for us
- Thoughts are threats – not engaging with them can have a negative impact
What is cognitive defusion?
Cognitive defusion is a technique used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) based on the idea that thoughts, images, beliefs, and feelings are only mental events we can separate from. Defusion is one of the principles of the ACT Hexaflex Model, which goal is to help people relate with their thoughts differently, rather than identify too strongly with them, standing back and observing them as mental activity.
Defusion is not about reducing or eliminating unpleasant thoughts or feelings, but to learn to live with them more peacefully, by accepting them, while distancing from them and letting them come and go without engaging in their chatter.
In a state of defusion:
- Thoughts may or may not be true
- They are not a rule to be followed
- They are not a threat
- They are not something happening in the physical, or real world
- They are not necessarily important
- They are not necessarily going to negatively impact your life
The notion of workability
In ACT what matters is not if a thought or emotion is true or not, but if it is helpful or not. This concept is identified as workability, and it is at the very heart of ACT. The therapist constantly works with workability questions:
- If you let this thought guide your behaviour, will that help you create a richer, fuller, more meaningful life?
- If you engage in this thought, will this help you to become the person you want to be?
- Is what you are doing helping you to create a meaningful life?
- Does this thought help you to live the life you want?
Questions of this type are used to understand whether a thought is helpful, and is worth paying attention to it, or if it is not helpful and, in that case, is best to defuse it.
Cognitive defusion technique
Developed from mindfulness methods, cognitive defusion is designed to step back, separate from the thoughts, images, memories, or feelings, and see them as what they are: brain activity.
The goal is to allow these thoughts to come and go in your brain, without engaging in the chatter. It is like listening to the TV while reading a book, you allow the background noise of the TV without paying pay attention to it, as you continue reading your book, which is what is important at that moment. You can’t eliminate a thought, but you can let it be in the background without paying attention to it, while you do the things that are meaningful to you. To defuse in this way, it is important to learn to separate oneself from the thoughts, create space and observe these mental events as separate from the self.
Cognitive defusion is a practice because the brain tends to believe these thoughts, images, memories or emotions are important truths that need immediate attention. Most of us are very used to being fused with our thoughts or emotions, and often we are not even aware of this.
Cognitive defusion exercises
To help with this, here we propose some exercises to practice defusion:
Name the thought or feeling
A simple defusion technique to separate from your thoughts or feelings is naming them. Instead of saying “I am stupid”, or “I am anxious”, try adding to the phrase “I am having the thought/emotion…”. For example, “I am having the thought that I am stupid” or “I am having the emotion of anxiety”.
Inserting this phrase gives an instant sensation of distance. Try and notice what happens when you do so.
Give a name to the story
Russ Harris describes our brains as fantastic storytellers. Some people don’t like the word story, but without invalidating our thoughts, he argues that our minds are creative and capable to develop the most creative and believable stories. Some of them can be scary and feel true, and usually, these stories are the same and are repeated once and again. By giving these stories a title, we stand back and see them as just narratives and words, not necessarily the truth.
Give it a simple title so that you can remember it whenever your brain is replaying the same narrative. For instance, “the not good enough student”, “the businessman that will always fail”, “the dangerous world” story, etc. Every time your brain is thinking these thoughts, you can tell yourself “here it is my mind telling me the not good enough student story!”, and let the thought be, while you move on to other matters.
Sing the thought
Sing the thought or thoughts that you want to defuse from using the tone of the happy birthday song or any other song you know well. Be as silly as you want. Singing won’t eliminate the thought but can bring a sense of humour to it, reducing its importance and seriousness and allowing you to get some distance from it.
Instead of singing a song, you can also modify that thought in your mind using a cartoon voice, such as Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny. The idea is the same, reducing the importance of the thought and seeing it with a different, less attached perspective.
Thank your mind
Our minds’ job is to protect us from danger, and they are good at that. Although sometimes that means they will create a lot of noise and unpleasant thoughts, they only do it because they operate in a better safe than sorry mode. It is better to worry too much than too little, just in case.
As such, another defusion exercise consists of thanking our minds for doing their job. This can help us to see the thought as an external mental event that our brains create to protect us while making peace with our brains.
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