Unhooking from Unhelpful Thoughts: Cognitive Defusion
In a previous post, I describe a helpful organizing framework for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the Choice Point. In this concept, we all have the natural tendency to do things in line with the person we want to become, but can often be pulled off this track by strong thoughts and feelings that dominate our experience. Learning how to engage in actions that are in line with your values is a major component of therapy in ACT, and is aided by two different types of “unhooking skills.”
When we are unhooked from thoughts and emotions, it doesn’t mean that we don’t still have them, that they don’t ever show up for us, but instead it means that they don’t dominate our experience in the same way they once did, and they don’t sway our behavior in a direction we don’t like.
This post expands upon the idea of unhooking from our thoughts (for unhooking skills with emotions, see here) through the therapeutic skill of cognitive defusion.
What is a Thought?
Kind of weird to think about, huh? We don’t often consider the differences between our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations – instead we experience them all together in the big jumble of our consciousness in its moment-to-moment experience. While language is not necessarily required for thinking, human beings’ thoughts are typically dominated by language. It is the “voice in your head” that narrates your day, the voice that says “why do I always do this?” in a judgmental way, and the voice that says “if I order food delivery then I will really be able to focus on my work.”
As human beings, one thing that sets our minds apart from other animals is language, abstract thinking, and planning – and these are also all connected to one another. For the purposes of this post, when I refer to thoughts, I am referring to language-based mental content, aka this verbal voice in our heads.
When you engage in mental visualization (e.g, closing your eyes and picturing yourself on a quiet beach) this is a completely separate mental process from verbal thoughts, and to some degree, doing this is relaxing precisely because it steers your attention off of painful or stress-inducing thoughts.
What’s Meant By Fusion?
In ACT, the concept of fusion describes how we relate to our thoughts. As we go about our day, our word machine in our mind tends to dominate our attention, and we tend to, without recognizing it, strongly associate ourselves with it.
For example, if someone gets a B on a test and thinks “That’s it, I’m a failure” – the thing that’s dominating their experience in that moment is the word failure. When we strongly associate ourselves with our thoughts, we take what the thoughts say as fact. That is, I am a failure because I’m thinking I’m a failure.
When we are fused with our thoughts, we buy into them, treat them as fact, and take them completely seriously. However, I, blog post, am here to tell you that you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are one aspect of your experience of being a human, and when we can learn to see thoughts for what they are, we can learn to interact with them more effectively.
Combine fusion with having a fixed mindset (a belief that our characteristics are static and unchanging), and it’s easy to see why some of us can get so stuck at times in a downward spiral of mental health!
Fighting the Wrong Fight
When it comes to our most distressing thoughts, most of us end up fighting the wrong fight. What do I mean by this? When our distressing thoughts show up in our minds, we struggle with them, contend with them in an endless back and forth that can lead us to exhaustion. If I have the thought:
“I’m a terrible friend, always letting others down.”
Maybe next I think:
“No, I can’t be that terrible. Remember the time I gave my friend a ride to the airport at the last minute. I’m a great friend.”
And then in the next moment:
“No, no, but I am always letting my friends down. I could see that look of disappointment on his face when I said I couldn’t make it this weekend.”
“But I really can’t go this weekend! My brother is in emotional crisis and needs me to be home with him. I’m not a bad friend!”
“It doesn’t matter, you either show up as a friend or you don’t, and this weekend you’re not being a good friend.”
The mind just goes on and on and on – and I say that as someone who loves minds. When we buy into our thoughts we tend to automatically assume that the best way to approach them is to argue with them – to fight fire with fire.
We run into trouble when we treat our thoughts as problems to be solved (which is what we’re doing when we argue against them). However, because our minds don’t work the same way that things in the outside world do that can be problem-solved, this tends to have the opposite effect. The more we take our unhelpful thoughts seriously and the more time we spend fighting against them, the more we find ourselves dominated by the thoughts, like quicksand that furthers our demise.
So if that doesn’t actually work, then what other alternatives are there?
The Art of Cognitive Defusion
In ACT, cognitive defusion refers to the skill of becoming unhooked or untangled from our own thoughts – the skill of being able to detach from them, treat them less seriously, less literally. In a very real sense, it is a difference between interacting with our thoughts in problem-solving mode and switching to experiencing them in observation mode. And it happens by shifting the focus from engaging the content of our thoughts to noticing the process of our thinking.
A key part of cognitive defusion is acknowledging that our thoughts are not always true and not always helpful. When we develop the ability to step back and observe them instead of automatically engaging with them, it allows us the space to choose where and how you want to place your attention. It becomes much easier to unhook from unhelpful thoughts that push you off course from where you want to go in life.
The result of cognitive defusion is usually a decrease in the thought’s power over us. The thought becomes something you don’t need to either believe or disbelieve, but instead is simply something that you would notice. A primary goal of practicing cognitive defusion is to become a little bit more flexible around the thought, and to have a little more distance from it.
It’s true that some thoughts we do need to respond to. Some things we do need to problem-solve (a lot of things, really) - like figuring out where your next meal is coming from. However, the step of noticing the thought first, engaging in cognitive defusion before deciding how to proceed, can become a very quick process over time that can be a way to stay on course when we do have unhelpful thoughts.
Specific Cognitive Defusion Strategies
The following are six different cognitive defusion strategies for changing how you interact with your thoughts:
1. Become an Observer by saying, “I’m having the thought that __________,” and finish saying the thought you were just having. Becoming a witness of your thoughts creates some distance between you and your mind and allows you to see that you are not your thoughts.
2. Redirect your focus to some meaningful activity or value. Physically move into a different room, listen to music, go for a walk, read a book, etc. Redirecting your focus isn’t the same thing as “thought suppression.” Instead, becoming absorbed in something new is a form of mindfulness where you are paying attention to something real in the present moment, and in a non-judgmental way.
3. Name your stories: We all have unhelpful thoughts that appear over and over. Ask yourself: If all of these thoughts were put into a book or movie, what would it be called? For example, having thoughts that “something terrible will happen and my life will fall apart” could be named “My Catastrophe Story.” Naming and noticing when these stories appear for you can give you greater choice in whether or not you engage with them.
4. Visualize the thought as if it were written on a computer screen. In your mind's eye, take the thought and manipulate it: change the font, the size, and the color. You can even picture a little karaoke ball passing over the words in the thought. This technique can help us see our thoughts for the mental content that they are, making it easier to disentangle from them.
5. Come back to the present by saying, “Back to now,” or “It’s not happening right now.” The truth is, past and future imaginings really aren’t happening right now! The thought is seductive – it will appear that if you just think about it a little longer, you’ll have some clarity and then be able to let it go, but that rarely happens. Instead it can be more helpful to redirect your focus to the present moment.
6. De-literalize the thought by saying the sentence over and over and over until the words lose their meaning. You can say it extremely slowly, you can say it in a silly voice (or the voice of a character you like), you can sing it to the tune of a song you like. Doing this can help take much of the power away from the unhelpful thought.
By practicing these and other strategies, cognitive defusion can offer a way out of the endless cycle of engaging with distressing thoughts. In the process of changing our relationship with our thoughts, it can of course be helpful to have the assistance of an experienced therapist (in this case, an ACT therapist) as a guide. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.