Part 1: You Are Not Your Thoughts: Cognitive Defusion to Change Your Mood

“As a man thinkith, so is he,” is a profound statement. Though perhaps not its original intent, this phrase highlights our tendency to become so embroiled with the content of our thoughts that we lose many other aspects of ourselves. The concept of cognitive fusion refers to our tendency as speakers of language to merge our thoughts about events with the events themselves. Put another way, we lose sight of the fact that we are actually thinking and accept the content of our thoughts as reality. While this is useful for a great many tasks, it means that we often lose touch with many aspects of the present moment such as touch, texture and bodily sensations. When we interpret our thoughts as reality in this way, they have tremendous power over us.

Depression, one of the most common mental health issues in the United States, is characterized by negative thinking. Common depressive thoughts are, “Nothing ever goes right for me,” “What’s the point?”, “I’m a failure,” “I can’t handle it anymore.” These negative thoughts become the reality of the world we construct.

One of the most effective psychological treatments for depression, cognitive behavioral therapy, focuses on using techniques to change the content of negative and maladaptive thoughts. Newer cognitive therapies, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, have refocused on helping people change their relationship to thinking using a technique called cognitive defusion.

Cognitive defusion is a process by which we can gain a greater perspective of language and thinking. This creates distance from thoughts and allows for greater freedom and flexibility. Cognitive defusion exercises are particularly useful when you find yourself trying to control your thinking, are generating reasons to justify an unhealthy behavior or are so attached to being “right” that it harms your life in some way. Below are some strategies you can try to gain some perspective on your own thinking;

1.     Create distance from your thoughts. Try to preface problematic thoughts with, “I am having the thought that ….I am a loser.”

2.     Repeat a troublesome thought out loud over and over until it loses its meaning.

3.     Try singing your thoughts or saying them in funny voices.

4.     Visualize a river with leaves floating along. Picture calmly placing each thought on a leaf and watch as it floats down the river.

5.     Picture yourself as a mountain, with changing seasons, storms and all kinds of weather. The mountain remains rooted and grounded, unchanged by passing storms. You can be like the mountain and observe thoughts, feelings and sensations.

For people struggling with depression negative thoughts can be overwhelming. Hopefully, the above cognitive defusion techniques can help to create some distance from thoughts and allow greater flexibility to move in valued directions. In the next installment I will demonstrate how to use these techniques with common negative thoughts.

Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives. 

3 thoughts on “Part 1: You Are Not Your Thoughts: Cognitive Defusion to Change Your Mood”

  1. I especially liked the idea of putting thoughts on a leaf floating down a river!

  2. One of my biggest challenges, and one I believe others may find, is in remembering to "defuse" from our thoughts. I suffer from ADD (primarily Inattentive) and often wonder if my challenges with working memory and concentration keep me from defusing more often. Also, sometimes it seems that I am so FUSED with my negative thoughts that it is very difficult to defuse from them at all. Id love to see a book or publication that addresses challenges that people with ADHD might have with mindfulness, ACT, etc. Take Care!

  3. Richard, I’m autistic and have similar issues with working memory and concentration. I’ve found two things help (not specifically with thought defusion, but with any technique like this).

    1) I have a phone with apps that help me remember tasks. Currently, I use two apps on my Android, a calender/scheduler app and an app called Epic Win. Epic Win takes a video game approach to motivating real-life activities (which works really well for me because I’m a gamer) – you enter something you need to do and what xp you think it should be worth (and which stat to link it to) and when you do that task you can enter that you’ve done it and get the xp. It has the standard exciting reward noises that rpg games tend to have, and you can earn loot with humorous descriptions, and level up and so forth. I’ve put all my counseling tasks under the stat spirit and decided that one of my major life goals (having a baby) will only occur once I’ve gotten a high enough spirit. So each time I do a counseling task, I have a visual cue that shows me I’m getting closer to my goal.

    2) Just because you’re supposed to do a task to reduce your emotional distress doesn’t mean you have to do it when you’re distressed. I know for me, if a counselor says "next time you’re having a meltdown, try to do X", there is no way I’ll remember to do that. So instead I practice the tasks as often as possible (I aim for daily, but don’t beat myself up if I miss a day or two). I’ve already found that I sometimes instinctively do these tasks when I’m starting to get upset, just because I’ve been practicing them so much. For example I’ve started closing my eyes and counting my breaths when I’m stressed out because I’ve been doing mindful breathing exercises regularly.

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