Two Techniques for Cognitive Defusion

Are you becoming caught up in your thoughts? Thoughts are powerful. Your thoughts can change the way you feel, lead you to different actions, and dictate the course of your day.

Author: Patrick Carson

Unfortunately, even though we’re always thinking, we’re not always taught how to think about our thoughts. As a result, that power is a bit of a double-edged sword – if we get caught up in unhelpful thought patterns, they can do a whole lot of damage.

Sometimes, we can become “fused” with certain thoughts. They keep swirling around in our head, no matter how much we try to avoid them, and over time they stop feeling like thoughts at all. They start to feel like facts. It’s not a belief or an interpretation that I’m a failure, it’s the truth. Our worries stop feeling like predictions, and start feeling like spoilers. They’re going to happen. I’m going to mess up. They’re going to turn me down. We call this a state of Cognitive Fusion, when we become linked, blended, or fused to our thoughts.

You can probably imagine the consequences of this Cognitive Fusion. Firstly, it can be damaging – if we become fused with negative, unhelpful thoughts, it can have serious impacts on the way we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. Secondly, it’s exhausting – to keep putting ourselves down, berating ourselves, and worrying about the seemingly certain failures that lie ahead – it all takes a huge amount of mental energy. So, let’s look at a few techniques to “defuse” from these thoughts, drawn from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT.

1 – Labelling your thoughts

One way to defuse from our thoughts is to try and create distance by changing our language. The statement “I’m a failure” doesn’t sound much like a thought. It sounds a lot more like a fact. “I’m going to mess up” doesn’t sound like a worry – it sounds like a prophecy. It’s going to happen. And treating our thoughts and worries like facts and prophecies is a surefire path to cognitive fusion.

If we want to start combatting this, we have to accurately label our thoughts and worries for what they are. When you notice that thought of “I’m a failure”, call it out for what it is – a thought. Put a qualifier in front of it.

“I’m having the thought that I’m a failure”.

“I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a failure”.

“I’m telling myself the failure story again”.

We’re not avoiding the thought, or discounting it, we’re just being honest and accurate by labelling the thought for what it is. It’s a possibility, an interpretation, something that could be true. But it’s not a fact.

The same is true for our worries – they’re predictions, possible scenarios that might come true. But there’s also a chance that they won’t. They’re not facts, and no-one has a 100% success rate when it comes to predicting the future.

2 – The Sushi Train

Imagine dining at a Sushi Train. In front of you is a conveyer belt, carrying plates of sushi to all of the diners. The train of sushi doesn’t stop, and you take the plates you want as they come. Some plates might carry delicious dishes you’ve been craving for a long time. Some plates might carry dishes that you’re not fond of, or even dishes you find disgusting. And some plates carry dishes that you could take or leave, depending on your mood.

Our minds are a lot like a sushi train, and we can visualise them in much the same way. However, on the conveyer belt of our mind, those plates might contain thoughts, worries, and memories. Some of those thoughts might be wonderful, others might be painful and exhausting, and many more are simply neutral. However, just because a thought exists, just because it’s going round and round on that conveyer belt, it doesn’t mean we have to take it. You don’t take every plate of sushi that comes your way. You can notice a painful thought, acknowledge it, and watch as it passes on by on the conveyor belt. Maybe that thought will come back, and that’s OK. It doesn’t need to stop you from enjoying the thoughts you’re engaging with. A Seaweed Salad on the conveyor belt doesn’t make your Tempura Roll any less delicious. By visualising your mind in this way, it can help you to notice and acknowledge thoughts without necessarily taking them on board.

There are many more Defusion techniques available, and through practice, you can find a few that resonate with you. Practice makes permanent, and Thought Defusion gives us the power to separate from those painful and unhelpful thoughts that lead us away from the life we want.

Better Self Psychology specialises in helping children, teenagers, and young adults.

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