Cognitive defusion is a technique that we should all know and apply because the vast majority of us live immersed in a constant flow of thoughts, criticism and internal orders that end up generating a completely unnecessary level of overwhelm, stress or anguish. In fact, cognitive defusion comes from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and helps us disconnect from maladaptive thought patterns that lead us to make bad decisions or generate great discomfort.
What is cognitive defusion exactly?
Cognitive defusion is a psychological technique whose main objective is to help us observe and understand the true nature of thoughts, instead of being blindly guided by them. It helps us overcome cognitive fusion, realizing that thoughts are just thoughts, rather than getting caught up in them.
This technique also teaches us to let go of thoughts, instead of holding on to them, and gives us tools to make decisions by analyzing what works and is best for us, instead of being guided by our subjective interpretations of reality that we assume as absolute truths.
Cognitive defusion exercises to free yourself from the influence of your thoughts
We are programmed to try to make sense of the world, and we do so through our thoughts. The problem is that we often forget that we are the ones who have these thoughts and that they are deeply conditioned by our history, expectations and limitations.
Cognitive defusion allows us to notice the act of thinking, without getting entangled in our thoughts. So we can give importance to those thoughts only to the extent that they are adaptive and help us feel better or achieve our goals.
Framed in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, cognitive defusion allows us to cultivate the psychological flexibility necessary so that we can live with what is unpleasant and not let it control our lives. It is about changing the relationship with our thoughts and emotions, instead of trying to change their content, which is much more complicated.
1. Disobey yourself, free yourself from your “inner dictator”
Cognitive fusion often takes on an imperative character. We assume that simply having certain thoughts is equivalent to putting them into practice. We let ourselves be carried away by the mental dialogue that we have with ourselves.
A very useful cognitive defusion technique is to practice disobedience. For example, we can stand up and say “I can’t walk in this room,” but instead of fulfilling that mental order, we just start walking. We must repeat the order in our mind while we continue walking.
This simple exercise of cognitive defusion will train our brain so that it does not assume thoughts as orders that guide our decisions and behaviors. In this way we will begin to free ourselves from our inner dictator.
2. Turn your thoughts into a movie
When certain thoughts assail us and generate anxiety or fear, we have a tendency to attribute an excessive importance to them. We live them with a sense of urgency that pushes us to act. This cognitive defusion technique helps us calm the mind and distance ourselves from those thoughts.
We just have to imagine our thoughts as images projected on a movie screen, images that flicker and repeat continuously generating different emotions. We are sitting in the cinema eating popcorn, completely absorbed in that movie that generates anger, joy, fear or sadness. We are so immersed in the plot that we forget the world outside. We forget that it is just a fiction, a story built out of multiple possibilities.
Then we simply have to start thinking about the light that makes all those images or thoughts appear and disappear. Instead of paying attention to the meaning of the images, we pay attention to the ray of light that projects them. That ray of light is the equivalent of our mind. When we shift the focus of attention, we may find that our mind will always project movies and stories that hook us and seem very urgent, but this is almost never the case. We just need to take the necessary distance.
3. Give your mind a name
Cognitive fusion occurs when we merge with our thoughts, to the point of believing that they are an absolute truth or a rule to follow. We fall into its trap because it is our inner voice. In other words, when we talk to another person, we value hiso r her message and consciously decide what we are going to do.
With our inner dialogue we are infinitely less critical. We generally agree with almost everything we think. To stop over identifying with our thoughts we can put a name to our mind. That It will help us to take a psychological distance from its speech and adopt a more critical attitude. In fact, scientific studies support that speaking in the third person to ourselves helps us reduce the impact of our thoughts and the anxiety they generate.
When those recurring thoughts kick in, we just have to imagine that we are talking to someone else. It is worth clarifying that the objective is not to minimize the importance of thoughts, but to evaluate them in their proper measure. It is important not to belittle the warning message of many of those thoughts. But when our inner dialogue kicks in and we realize that some thoughts are not beneficial, we simply have to thank our mind for that idea, signaling that we will make another decision.
4. Label your thoughts
Cognitive fusion takes away our ability to think logically, objectively, and detached. With this exercise of cognitive defusion we recover that ability. We just have to learn to label the thoughts that cross our minds. We can apply two types of labels:
1. Descriptive thoughts. These types of thoughts are usually focused on our direct experiences. They indicate the aspects of reality that we perceive with our senses. For example: “it is raining” or “he told me that he cannot come today”.
2. Evaluative thoughts. These types of thoughts are more complex and, although they start from experience, they usually derive in absolute truths because they involve generalizations and judgments. Evaluative thinking acquires a dual connotation, it is usually divided into good or bad, correct or incorrect, fair or unfair. For example: “it is terrible that it is raining” or “it is very unfair that he does not come today”.
The key is to stick with descriptive thoughts and avoid hurtful evaluative thoughts as much as possible. When we have an evaluative thought we must ask ourselves: Are we exaggerating? Am I taking it too seriously? Am I rushing? It is about understanding that these thoughts are interpretations of reality.
5. Visualize your thoughts
There are different cognitive defusion techniques that are based on visualization. The river leaf technique is one of them. In that case, it is a question of imagining the thoughts as leaves that are dragged by a river. Therefore, when we have a thought that causes us discomfort, instead of holding on, we simply let it go.
Another very effective visualization exercise is the “train of thought.” To apply this cognitive defusion technique, we must imagine that we are standing on the platform of a railway station. Sometimes a recording voice will warn us to back up a bit because a train will speed by.
We hear the message and feel the train approaching as a strong gust of wind hits us as it passes. However, we don’t try to get on that moving train, we just let it go. Then another train passes and stops, but it is not the one that will take us to our destination, so we let it go too. We just wait patiently for the train that best suits us for our travel plan.
We can identify these trains with our thoughts, noting that they come and go. And being aware that jumping on a moving train or taking the first train that passes is not the smartest decision.
By practicing these cognitive defusion exercises we begin to let go of those thoughts that have driven us for years but only generate useless anxiety and worries. Thus we learn to see our inner voice as that of an adviser rather than that of a dictator. We understand that our mind itself is not bad or harmful as long as we don’t let it rigidly dictate our behavior.
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Masuda, A. et. Al. (2004) Cognitive defusion and self-relevant negative thoughts: examining the impact of a ninety year old technique. Behaviour Research and Therapy; 42(4): 477-485.