12 Cognitive Defusion Techniques from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy
(from the work of Stephen Hayes & Russ Harris)
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Defusion is the ability to observe your thoughts and feelings and experience them, without identifying with them, or to put it another way without getting ‘hooked’ to them and mistakenly believing them to be truth, real and/or facts. We get fused with or hooked on to negative or fearful thoughts and feelings, and this being fused or hooked is what causes us distress. We can hold onto these negative beliefs and feelings so tightly, we forget they are just temporary phenomena that come and go. Because we have been having them for so long and so frequently they have taken on an illusory permanent form and we mistake them for 100% true, even to the point where we can get annoyed if people question their validity.
As Dostoevsky said, “sometimes a man [or woman] is intensely, even passionately, attached to his [her] suffering.” One of the reasons for this is that the old negative thoughts and feelings are so familiar that even though they are uncomfortable and distressing, they feel safe and predictable. Very often we prefer safe and predictable, even if it means suffering, over all the possibilities that come with facing the fact that the future is unknown and unpredictable and we have the freedom to make meaning in our lives in any way we choose. We don’t have to follow negative, fearful or otherwise unhelpful scripts, we only inherited them from others in the first place anyway!
It is often a moment of great relief when we finally find our way to ‘defuse’ or ‘unhook’ ourselves from identifying with negative, fearful and/or self-limiting thoughts and feelings – a bit like taking off a pair of trousers that are way too tight.
Each person has to find their own way out of identifying with and believing their automatic negative thoughts and feelings, to getting the freedom and relief from realising that they are temporary phenomena that come and go and are not facts at all. It can take time to realise there is a big difference between 100% believing particular negative thoughts and feelings and just observing them whilst remaining detached and not identifying with them.
As humans, we are constantly getting hooked in by our negative and/or fearful thoughts and feelings, getting lost in the drama where we forget that everything that goes on in our minds is just a product of our imagination and not a representation of truth at all! We can change where we place our attention, we don’t have to stay focused on the drama of old negative and fearful thoughts and feelings.
What follows is a list of 12 different exercises you can try to help you find your own unique way to getting unfused, or unhooked, from your negative and/or fearful thoughts and feelings, so that you can have them without identifying with them. Without buying into the old drama that they represent you become free of the old negative and fearful scripts that are likely holding you back, preventing you from feeling safe, confident and happy and living your life the way you want to.
Remember, it is not the thoughts and feelings themselves that distress us, it is our identification with and response to them. So, if you are able to stay in the observer position, to be patient and compassionate with yourself and not react to the old dramas being played out through your temporary thoughts and feelings, you will gain immense relief. You will gain far greater control over you emotional wellbeing, rather than being constantly pushed around by the ever changing landscape of negative and fearful thoughts and feelings.
That is not to say that you won’t have upsetting thoughts and feelings and sometimes still feel unhappy or distressed, but you will be able to vastly reduce the amount of time you spend dwelling on these things by staying in the observer position and refocusing your attention elsewhere. In this way you won’t get hooked in so easily. And on those occasions when you do get hooked in, you will be able to recognise this has happened and take steps to unhook yourself.
Some of the following tips/techniques may resonate with you and you may find them extremely useful, others you may not find so helpful, so cherry-pick those that help and leave the others behind you for now. It is also a great idea to get creative and experiment and make changes to any of the tips or techniques so they become better suited to you and your specific situation.
As you go through the process of learning defusion, you may find that different exercises are helpful at different stages of the process. Sometimes it can help to go back and retry an exercise that might have been not so helpful previously. The key is to remain flexible and open, sometimes a strong negative reaction to a particular technique might mean that there is something very important to learn from it if we can overcome our initial negative reaction.
(A quick note about thoughts that start with “What if …” (including just “If …” thoughts) and are followed by some undesirable event/situation/feeling. “What if …” is one of the biggest hooks to keep you fused and believing that your negative and fearful thoughts are facts and true. There is no way to challenge them because they relate to things that have not happened. Take a moment with these thoughts to remind yourself that neither you nor anyone else has the power to predict the future and one of the biggest wastes of time and emotional energy is to try to predict the future by wondering “What if …”! Replace your negative “What ifs …” with something you know it would be ridiculous to worry about, for example, “What if … the moon is made of cheese” or “What if … I turn into a kangaroo”. Every time your mind comes up with a “What if …” keep replacing it with something you know 100% won’t happen – all “What ifs …” are attempts to predict the future and, therefore, it is pointless to worry about them now when they may never happen. If you really still struggle with “What ifs …”, try reminding yourself that whatever happens in the future, you will cope and you will deal with it admirably at the time, there is no need to spoil today by worrying about something that may never happen.)
1) Leaves on a Stream
Sit quietly with your eyes closed. Imagine you are sitting under a tree by a shallow river. Each time a difficult thought or feeling arises in you, imagine yourself placing them on a leaf from the tree and then watch that leaf fall from the tree into the river and flow gently away downstream.
2) Bully / Spoiler Voice
Identify your distressing negative thoughts and feelings as like a playground bully or the spoiler voice you learnt from others outside yourself when you were younger. It feels like this is coming from you but you actually learned this commentary on your life from other people and over time have inappropriately come to identify with it as if it is factual reflection of who you are, but it is not! It is their stuff, not yours! Take back your power by saying to yourself “I’m not going to fight you but I’m not going listen to you anymore either.” When you unhook yourself and stop focusing on your negative thoughts and feelings and let them be without engaging in a battle to get rid of them, they will shrink and lose their strength and power over you.
3) Morphing Your Thoughts
Whenever negative thoughts and feelings crop up, repeat them to yourself using a silly/ridiculous voice, for example, as Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. Repeating the negative/unhelpful thoughts using a silly voice helps you understand they are just words, they are not facts or reality. You can add to the effect by making your silly voice either really fast or really slow. This process of morphing your thoughts can help you change your relationship to thoughts and feelings. Morphing makes you the creator and puts you back in charge of your imagination and in charge of your attention, rather than being the passive receiver. Experiment with being creative to help you defuse and develop a different relationship with your thoughts and feelings where you, the observer and creator, are in charge.
4) The View from Above
Think of yourself and the distressing thoughts and feelings you are experiencing, then zoom out and see yourself in your situation from the sky so you look down on your house and the street you live on. Then zoom out further and see the town or city and the country where you live. Then zoom out further still and see the Earth spinning round the Sun. Then zoom out further and see the solar system, and then the whole galaxy and Milky Way, and then thousands and thousands of galaxies, containing billions and billions of stars and planets. Look around you at the limitless expanse of the universe, glittering with light and energy and the immense possibilities this presents for you, and how small and insignificant those negative thoughts and feelings are once you are able to defuse and unhook yourself from identifying with them.
5) The Sky and The Clouds
To help remember that thoughts and feelings come and go and are temporary phenomena that will all pass, look at the sky and watch the clouds moving slowly across it. Your mind is the sky, the clouds are your thoughts and feelings, they are not permanent features, just temporary visitors that will evaporate with time.
6) Repetition / Semantic Satiation
Some thoughts contain specific words that will have greater negative emotional impact for you than others, as they carry with them a network of implications. We refer to these as “anchor” words. For example, if we think we are a failure with no prospects, the implications may be that we think we will get the sack and die alone on the streets, or any other number of negative outcomes. The anchor word with all the power would be “failure”.
Find the word(s) which carries the most emotional weight for you and say it out loud as fast as you can, loudly, clearly and consistently for about a minute. The repetitions dilute the meaning of the word itself, we become desensitised to it. By reducing the impact of the “anchor” word in this way, the negative thoughts and feelings it forms a part of become weaker and less powerful. If you repeat/write a word many times, over and over, it comes to appear wrong, nonsensical, or alien in some way. This is called semantic satiation.
7) I Am Having the Thought That …
Cognitive fusion is having negative thoughts, such as “I am a failure” and believing them to be facts, rather than understanding all thoughts are just a part of your imagination. Cognitive defusion involves getting distance and becoming the observer who is not attached to and does not identify with negative thoughts and feelings. Changing your negative thoughts slightly by adding to the front of them: “I am having the thought that …” helps slow your thinking down, helps get you off auto-pilot, thus making your responses less automatic and it also puts much needed distance between you, the observer of the thoughts and feelings, and the actual thoughts and feelings themselves.
8) Metaphors to Change Perspective
Metaphors allow you to view your thoughts differently. For example, you could use the metaphor of a charged battery for positive thoughts and feelings and a low battery for negative thoughts and feelings. Negativity occurs when you are in low-battery mode, and you can find ways of recharging your batteries to feel better by, for example, engaging in activities you enjoy. Or, you could liken your negativity to balloons, and imagine yourself popping them. Use your imagination to play around with your thoughts and feelings. Be creative, as all thoughts (and the feelings they give rise to) are just products of your imagination anyway.
9) Change Your Internal Dialogue to the Third Person
Instead of using first-person pronouns like I or me or we, use third-person pronouns like he, she, they and them. For example, instead of saying “I feel like a failure and I will never amount to anything”, change it to “They feel like a failure and they will never amount to anything.” This change creates psychological distance between you and your thoughts and feelings by ‘unhooking’ you and removing you from the context and it also puts you back in as the observer of your thoughts and feelings. As the observer, unhooked from being the thought or feeling itself, you can let thoughts and feelings go more easily. Third-person self-talk reduces the emotional intensity of thoughts and feelings and weakens your attachment to them.
10) Stop and Breathe, Step Back and Observe
a) First, Stop and Breathe: Tell yourself to focus on your breathing so there is less attention available to focus on negative thoughts and feelings. Make a significant change to the physical activity you are doing as well, for example, if you are sitting still, stand-up and move around. Change the context by reminding yourself “I am having the feeling that … “ or “I am having the thought that …”
b) Then, Step Back and Observe: Remind yourself you are the observer, having temporary thoughts/feelings which will pass. Then, bring your attention into the present and what you can observe through your 5 senses: Name the things you can see, hear, taste, touch and smell in your immediate environment. Perhaps go and find some things to taste, smell and touch to really help bring your attention fully in to the present moment. What you can observe through your 5 senses is reality, everything else is imagination.
11) Translate to Eradicate
Translate negative thoughts into a foreign language using Google Translate or similar. Say the negative thought in the foreign language and observe how even though it has the identical meaning, it has no emotional impact on you. Try replacing the negative (anchor) English word with the opposite positive English word, and then observe that regardless of the English words you use, when translated into the foreign language it still has no meaning or emotional impact on you. All words, regardless of the language, are just imaginary symbols the mind can use to make meaning.
12) Make it Nonsensical
Replace the anchor or emotive words so that the sentence becomes nonsense. For example, “I feel like a failure and I will never amount to anything” could become something like “I feel like a table and I will never amount to custard.” In this way, playing around with the language and using your imagination will help you to get more distance from difficult thoughts and feelings, it puts you back in control of your attention as the observer and creator rather than the passive receiver.
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Thank you for reading and sending all good wishes to you.