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Cognitive Defusion 101 - You are NOT your thoughts.

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

Making the first pivot of ACT: Cognitive Defusion.

"There's nothing to look forward to anymore".

This hopeless and recurring thought popped up again and again when I experienced Depression.

Despite all the evidence against it that I could count with my two hands and feet, be it my wife, my dogs, and my family and friends, this thought continued to have control over me for most of my Depression.

It would make me start to believe that my day was truly empty, devoid of pleasure and hope. Even on a perfectly good day, when my wife and I made plans to do a myriad of wonderful things, the simple emergence of this thought would start to paint everything dark and stormy.

I'm sure you've experienced how powerful a thought can be - whether you're struggling with Depression or Anxiety like I did, or facing compulsive thoughts in disorders like OCD and eating disorders.

Mental afflictions aside, maybe you're reading this because you're stressed out, burnt out, or dealing with a really overbearing mind.

So where do thoughts get their power from, and why did I come to believe that simply phrase as the absolute truth?

Our uniquely Human Blessing and Curse.

Humans rely heavily on language and words. Right from a young age, we learn to associate that furry thing with four legs as a Dog, and a smaller similar furry thing (that looks a bit evil) as a Cat.

Words aren't simply a sequence of letters for us, but they conjure up a series of symbolic meanings.

This morning I had little brown curry puff. It was still piping hot as I held it in my hands. As I raised it up to take a bite, I could smell the powdery pastry, and even a whiff of the curry goodness that's inside. The first bite was crunchy, the pastry crisp flaked and broke in as I took a bite. Then the curry flavours slowly started to fill my mouth, as I tasted the coconutty flavours of the curried potatoes and chicken.

When you read the above, I'm sure you didn't just read the words. You probably pictured the curry puff in your mind, perhaps even remembered what it felt like to hold one. You might even start noticing there is more saliva in your mouth now, especially if you're hungry, as you imagined the thought of eating one.

This symbolic power of our language is what makes books so wonderful to read. For example, if you read the Harry Potter books before the movies came out, you probably created a whole different Hogwarts universe in your mind.

Anything can be imagined with the power of words, and we use words in two different settings:

  1. In public: to speak, listen, write and communicate.

  2. In private: To think.

This means that thoughts are really just words inside our head that our mind brings to life with images, mental videos, and even sensations.

Sometimes our thoughts are accurate and factual, for example, it is a hot day today in Singapore. Other times they are how we see life, and are made of opinions, beliefs, attitudes or even morals.

Thoughts are really like a newspaper, reporting the events that have happened in our day, or even forecasting what the future will be like. The latter no doubt is important in telling us what to do, helping us create plans, strategies, wishes and goals.

However, just like a real newspaper, they can be easily biased, exaggerating a story and making us feel all sorts of lousy emotions.

It's not that important in ACT as to whether thoughts are True or False, but whether they are Helpful or Harmful.

Look at these thoughts below, some of them might even be ones you have:

  • Life feels hopeless.

  • My life sucks.

  • I am so fat and ugly.

  • People are going to laugh at my presentation.

  • I am such a lousy father / mother / husband / wife.

As we lay them all out in words and sentences like above, it seems so plainly obvious that these aren't helpful thoughts. You might even think, who's so stupid to even have such thoughts.

If that's true, think of a thought that's been bothering you. Have you actually reflected whether that's a helpful or harmful thought? Without the aid of having them down in hard words like the screen you're reading, they aren't nearly that obvious, especially when they only exist in our minds.

We react to these thoughts like they are the absolute truth. When I had depression, simply thinking "There is nothing to look forward to" made be believe in the truth of it.

The ACT term for such stickiness of thoughts is called Cognitive Fusion. Cognitive refers to the act of thinking, and so Cognitive Fusion means that we've become so fused with our thoughts that we take their word for it. We believe that :

  • Thoughts are reality.

  • My thoughts are "me".

  • Thoughts are important.

  • Thoughts must be listened to.

  • Thoughts are threats you should be concerned about.

It is this fusion to our thoughts that give them this power. So then, how do we lessen their hold on us, especially when we recognise that they are harmful?

Well, here's the first activity in Cognitive Defusion.

Cognitive Defusion exercise 1: I'm having the thought that...

For this exercise, bring to mind a recent thought that has been upsetting you. It might be any one of the thoughts from the list I shared above, or a recurring thought you're struggling with right now.

It might even be the same thought that bothered me when I had depression - "There's nothing to look forward to anymore", or "Life is hopeless".

Hold that thought in your mind and believe it as much as you can. Repeat it to yourself for five times. Notice how it affects you and what kind of feelings and sensations it brings up in your body. It's scary isn't it, the power of a thought?

Now take that thought, and in front of it, insert the phrase "I'm having the thought that..." Run that thought again with this phrase attached. Repeat this again for another five times and notice what happens.

"I'm having the thought that there's nothing to look forward to anymore".

You probably found that doing so immediately helped you gain some distance from the thought. You could take a step back and observe it for what it is, that it was just a thought. It's almost like a river or stream opened up between you and that thought, and now you're looking at it from the other side.

Try it with different unpleasant thoughts that you are having.

"I'm having the thought that I'm a lousy husband" or "I'm having the thought that I'm getting anxious."

This defusion technique helps you become aware of the process of thinking.

Do this activity often enough and you'll come to realise that thoughts are simply words passing through your head and nothing more. They are definitely not orders that you must listen or follow through and you certainly don't have to obey every single one of them.

Even though they often cause hurt, anxiousness or sadness, thoughts in and of themselves are not threatening. Even the most negative thoughts don't actually cause us pain. They are just words in your mind remember? It's only because we've become so fused with them and believe them that they come to life.

There are many different defusion techniques in ACT - this is just one of them. Try this one out for a while and gain some practice with it.

It's gets easier after while, much like learning to ride a bicycle. You might effortfully need to learn how to steer and pedal at first, but with enough practice, you don't even need to concentrate that hard on it anymore.

Do remember though that the aim of defusion is not to get rid of your thoughts, nor to rationalise with them or to start to like them. The aim is to simply see the thought for what it is - a string of words.

Sometimes, a beneficial by-product of this is that the thought will go away; other times it will hang around for quite a while; sometimes they go away and come back again.

The point is, once you allow them to be there without actually struggling with them, you can put your energy and attention into activities you value.

Just today as I was writing this, the aircon servicing people I called earlier came. The interruption gave rise to a thought, "I'm not going to be able to finish this article today!"

Just like that, I started feeling a tinge of anxiety.

It took a mere moment of defusion to realise, ah, that's my brain going at it again, before I could connect the larger perspective that there's absolutely no hurry at all (we'll get to this stage later).

And on recognising the thought, I could then choose to slowly take my time to finish the article, instead of rushing through it with anxiety.

As we move on, I'll go through other types of defusion techniques. We'll spend some time on handling more powerful types of thoughts, which are known as self-stories.

Well then, let's roll on over to the next chapter where we'll introduce another cognitive defusion technique too. Make sure to try out this activity first! Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul.


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