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Cognitive Defusion: 3 Techniques to Free You from Your Thoughts

Thoughts can be tricky. (Talk about an understatement.)

While we can’t control them, we can practice responding to our thoughts in ways that prevent us from getting too wrapped up in them. This is referred to as cognitive defusion.

What is Cognitive Fusion?

To better understand defusion, let’s first talk fusion. To fuse something means to bind it together. In psychology, thought fusion is assigning a belief to a thought.

Let’s look at a simple, easy-to-understand example.

I had a series of delayed and bumpy flights on one airline. Because of this, I determined the airline was unreliable and bad. The other airline I flew happened to have better luck with weather and arriving on time so that airline was reliable and good. I got so attached to those beliefs that I was paying more to fly on that second “good” airline because it was “better.” This is cognitive fusion in action. I was fused (or attached) to my belief which was based on a series of random circumstances. This attachment impacted my behavior. When we get fused to something, our behavior goes with it.

Now let’s look at an example as it relates to worry, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. When the thought “I’m a terrible person” comes into your brain, do you believe it? When it’s, “I cannot do XYZ,” or “The pain I’m feeling will never end,” do you believe those?

If every time your brain spit up thoughts like these, you believed it hook, line and sinker — without questioning them — your beliefs become fused to them. They become truth. These thoughts are uncomfortable for anyone, but when we react to them as if they’re true or meaningful, we feel more anxious and uncertain. Those anxious, uncomfortable feelings make us even more uncomfortable, so we start engaging in mental or behavioral gymnastics trying to get rid of them. We try to stop the thoughts only to find them getting stronger.

We’re stuck.

Using Cognitive Defusion to Get Unstuck.

Defusion, on the other hand, helps give us space between ourselves and thoughts, so we respond differently. It comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which comes under the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy umbrella.

Cognitive defusion helps us get some distance from our internal experience — which could be thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, beliefs, judgements …  anything, really — and learn to see your thoughts as objects or something to be observed nonjudgmentally as you would any of your other senses.

Thoughts are thoughts. They’re mental events just like what you see, hear, feel, taste or touch. You are not your ears, and you are not your thoughts!

The better we are at not responding to the stuff in our head, the more time and energy we free up to be present to other things. When we’re not at the mercy of our thoughts, we can be more intentional about our actions instead of reacting out of emotion.

People often come away feeling empowered, knowing they don’t have to react to everything that pops up. While we can’t control our thoughts, we do have some control if they take us down a rabbit hole. By rabbit hole, I mean thinking … and thinking and thinking …

3 Cognitive Defusion Techniques

Great! Now how do we do that? Here are 3 basic techniques to get your started.

1. Sit quietly and observe what pops up in your head.

When you notice your thoughts, try to grab one. It’s not about digging deep. It’s about whatever thought is crossing your mind. Vocalize aloud, “I’m aware of [insert sensation here],” or “I’m noticing I’m having the thought [insert feeling here].”

Rather than saying, “I’m anxious,” create space from the feeling by saying, “I’m aware I’m feeling anxious.” When you start thinking, bring yourself back to the present by labeling your experience with one word such as “noticing” or “hearing.”

2. Say no thank you.

Let’s be honest. Our brains throw a lot of thoughts, memories, and images at us daily. Rather than battle with them, try gently saying, “No thanks. Not going there right now.”

3. Think of your fears as stories or movies.

Our brains are infinitely creative and catastrophic when it comes to our fears, so practice reframing them as stories or movies. Come up with a title for them to help yourself go on the offensive and gain some distance from those fears.

Cognitive defusion is a great strategy for everyone but especially for those of us who don’t often question our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Most of us assume everything we think is true.

From my own personal experience, and I’ve done LOTS of practicing. It’s been a gamechanger for me. On days I’m feeling effective, I practice this several times an hour. (We have around 6,000 thoughts a day which gives me tons of opportunities.) On a not-so-effective day, I practice is maybe once or twice. It’s not an instant fix. It’s something we need to practice. It really progress, not perfection.

The help of a trained, outside professional can make all the difference. If you live in Ohio, please reach out. If you’re out of state, check out the IOCDF or ADAA websites for providers in your area.