What Cognitive Defusion exercises are there in ACT?
As you’ll probably know, Cognitive Defusion is one of the six behavioural processes in psychological flexibility. It is part of the Openness pillar, closely related to Willingness or Acceptance. More about that later.
What is cognitive defusion?
Cognitive defusion is a process that addresses your struggles with your thoughts. Many of our thoughts are helpful, and many of them are unhelpful. Unhelpful ideas tend to have too much control over how you operate.
For example, your mind may worry that you aren’t a good practitioner. If you get caught up or hooked by these thoughts, you’ll probably feel more tense, frustrated or ashamed. When I have these feelings and get preoccupied with judgements about my skills, I can lose track of where I want to go.
When you get lost in your thoughts, it is called cognitive fusion. When you fuse with your mind, it exerts more influence over what you do.
In Contextual Behavioural Science, we are concerned with how you can predict and influence behaviour change. As you can see, we can predict that cognitive fusion may increase your distress and interfere with your performance.
Cognitive defusion undermines fusion by altering the context, i.e. the environment where your thinking occurs. ACT predicts that you can build up cognitive flexibility by practising cognitive defusion. In other words, you can get better at disengaging from unhelpful thoughts.
How do you defuse from thoughts?
There are many cognitive defusion techniques and exercises. When starting, it is natural to wonder what is the best defusion exercise for someone with obsessive thoughts, panic or depression. An ACT consistent response to this question is…well, it depends.
To understand why it depends, it first helps to know two things:
- What is functional contextualism?
- What are the sub-processes of cognitive defusion?
Functional Contextualism (FC) is the scientific philosophy that sits underneath ACT and CBS. The truth of FC is that you can only understand the helpfulness of behaviour once you know the context. Without knowing the background, you neither comprehend why you are doing something nor whether it has worked.
If I was to say to you the best defusion exercise to use with OCD is leaves on a stream, then I may not be correct. Firstly, I know nothing about the person you are helping, what they want to accomplish or how their obsessions influence their behaviour.
In the book – The Heart of ACT – Robyn Walser talks about how there are two types of knowledge; doing and reflecting. One only knows the best cognitive defusion technique by doing it and then tracking what happens. I can theorise that this technique works best for that, which is informed by my learning history. My hypothesis may be correct, but being right is over-rated. The spirit of ACT is in living from the feet up, not from the head down. Track your experience to learn what works.
What are the sub-processes of Cognitive Defusion?
Ruth Baer’s work on the Five Facets of Mindfulness describes a process called Non-reactivity. In the book, Inside this Moment, Patricia Robinson and Kirk Strosahl highlight some similarities between psychological flexibility and the five facets of mindfulness. I have found this helpful work, and it has shaped my practice, hopefully for the better.
They suggest that the process of ‘letting thoughts be’ is comprised first of disengagement and, secondly, non-reactivity. To defuse from your mind it often helps to slow down your attention. By slowing down, you can enter an observing mode that allows you to stop ‘thinking’.
When this happens, you start to look at your thoughts rather than from your thoughts. You have some space between you and your mind.
You add some distance to the context, and we can predict that it will help you choose what to do next.
When you have added some distance, you can continue to practice non-reactivity. It can be tricky because your mind often pulls you back in. Many of my clients talk about not being able to do mindfulness exercises because they can’t concentrate. Their minds wander, which is what they do.
When this happens, keep it slow and breathe. Now you can add further ingredients to the context that help you sit back from your thoughts. You can label them: I am having a thought. You can see the words on a computer screen, moving up and down, left to right, changing size and colour. Or, sing the thoughts out loud to a happy melody.
You may want to welcome your thoughts. Greet them, say hello. Maybe even thank your mind for advising you. As you do this, slowly breathe in and out to help you stay disengaged and in this observing mode.
How is willingness related to Cognitive Defusion?
Experiential avoidance is the opposite of willingness or acceptance, and fusion is the opposite of defusion. Avoidance and fusion have similar functions because they close the door on discomfort. Our emotions are valuable sources of information. They tell us what we need and help us communicate with each other so that we can work together.
By routinely closing the door on your feelings, you deny yourself the opportunity to learn from them. Willingness and defusion are tools that help you to be more open. When practised, you get better at adapting to different situations. When you let go of control, it helps you to tolerate ambiguity. It gives you the capacity to navigate complexity.
In evolutionary science, it is called variability. Animals are more survive and thrive when they adapt to the environment. I’ve heard Steve Hayes describe defusion as a method for increasing cognitive flexibility. When you play around with the context, you take power out of your thoughts. You change how you relate to what is happening in your mind. And if you practice it regularly, you retain it. It becomes part of who you are.
There are many valuable textbooks around where you can learn the format of various defusion exercises. ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris does it well. To get a little deeper into the processes, I recommend Learning ACT by Jason Luoma, Robyn Walser and Steve Hayes.
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