Cognitive fusion can lead us to create a storm in a teacup. As an old Swedish saying would warn: ” Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”
When our worries become recurrent and our thoughts take on the face of absolute truth, they can become obstacles on our path, that generate completely unnecessary psychological anguish and prevent us from enjoying the peace and mental balance that we need and deserve.
What is cognitive fusion?
Cognitive fusion refers to a mental process through which we become entangled in our thoughts, evaluations, judgments and memories, behaving according to these subjective interpretations. In other words, subjective experiences almost completely supplant reality, determining our decisions and leading us to put into practice maladaptive behaviors that cause us discomfort.
Cognitive fusion is the result of our natural tendency to overidentify with our thoughts, amplifying them until they become the truth with capital letters. We become attached or merge with these thoughts, to the point of believing that they are the only possible interpretation of reality and we take them for true, without questioning them.
The trap of merging with our thoughts
Cognitive fusion can be a very dangerous process for our emotional well-being. When our subjective experiences are primarily aversive, cognitive fusion leads to experiential avoidance strategies to reduce that discomfort. The problem is that these avoidance strategies, such as worrying about or suppressing unwanted content, are negatively reinforced and can lead to an unhealthy loop in which proliferate different psychological disorders.
In fact, a study developed at Royal Holloway University in London found that cognitive fusion is a risk factor for rumination and depression, as well as stress and anxiety. On the other hand, psychologists from Auburn University concluded that “Individuals with high cognitive fusion and high experiential avoidance may be particularly prone to experiencing psychological distress.”
Cognitive fusion sets us various mental traps. It makes us believe that our thoughts are:
• An absolute and unquestionable truth
• An order that we have to obey or a rule to follow
• A threat that we need to get rid of as soon as possible
• A very important matter that requires our full attention
• Something that is happening right now, when in reality it refers to the past or the future
• Something we have to hold on to, even if it hurts
Cognitive fusion makes us live in the reality that our mind creates, giving an excessive importance to our thoughts. It prevents us from realizing the true nature of thoughts and understanding that they are nothing more than words and images that create a subjective interpretation of reality, but they are not reality.
How to identify cognitive fusion?
Detecting cognitive fusion is the first step in learning to give our thoughts the importance they deserve, no more, no less. Russ Harris, physician and coach specialized in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, proposed to analyze six key psychological areas to identify cognitive fusion:
What unspoken rules govern our behavior? Where did we learn that it was important to be in a certain way? We need to delve into the origins of the rules that lie at the base of our behaviors and decisions. What stories do we tell ourselves about what we are supposed to feel, think, or do? We also have to imagine what our life would be like without the unspoken rules that we follow without question them. What’s the worst that could happen if we didn’t follow those rules? How would our life change if we broke free from those rules?
We like to believe that we are objective and rational people, but the truth is that we often construct justifications after we have made the decisions, a phenomenon known as choice blindness. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: What explanations do we construct for ourselves and others to justify why we cannot, should or want to do certain things? Of course, we must be careful because at some point defense mechanisms such as rationalization are likely to come into play to convince us why we “can’t” change. Instead of assuming the validity of our motives and reasons, we must question them.
We are creatures of judgment. We criticize practically everything, from the people we know to those we do not know, the events we have lived and those we don’t know. Judgments are so present in our lives that we even come to understand the world and make sense of it through them. However, to detect cognitive fusion we must analyze our judgments and try to understand where they come from. Once we understand its origin we must ask ourselves: Do our judgments allow us to live the life we want or are they an obstacle?
The past no longer exists. Although we can learn from what happened to us, it makes no sense remaining stuck in a time that will not return. Living in the past is like driving a car looking in the rearview mirror instead of looking ahead. It is choosing to close our eyes to the present and remain merged with what we have left behind. Therefore, we need to evaluate those thoughts that keep us tied to the past and prevent us from enjoying the present. We can ask ourselves: How do we identify with the past? Do mistakes, failures, and missed opportunities still hurt us? Do we keep blaming and recriminating ourselves for the past?
The future is yet to come. It does not exist yet. However, when we merge with worries, we begin to live in that non-existent time. This makes us less effective because we do not make decisions with the present in mind, but we just worry or fantasize about what might happen. We could ask ourselves: How do we identify with the future? Do the things we want to do keep us trapped? Are we too busy worrying or fantasizing about the future to be fully present in our current life?
Cognitive fusion also extends to the way we describe ourselves. We all have an idea of the type of person we are and what we represent in life. Without a doubt, it is important to have a strong sense of identity and be clear about our values to build a meaningful life. However, when we merge too much with the “idea” that we have of ourselves, it becomes harmful, causing us to become rigid and inflexible in our way of thinking. Therefore, we must carefully observe our thoughts. What kind of person do we think we are? How do we think the others see us? What are the characteristics that define us? Ultimately, when we let go of who we are, we open ourselves to who we can be.
Cognitive defusion as a way out
Cognitive defusion is a technique that helps us understand that thoughts are just thoughts. Recognizing that reality does not imply minimizing the emotional impact that thoughts can have or denying the factual information that often generates them. Both are valid.
However, we must understand that thoughts have no more power than we give them. They are just words and images that float in our minds. We are the ones who make sense of them, decide what they mean, and give them power over us.
The fact that we have a thought does not necessarily imply that we need to act. It is true that terrifying or powerful thoughts generate a sense of urgency that pushes us to action, but it is not always necessary to be guided by them, especially when it comes to distorted interpretations of reality. Instead, we need to assume a psychological distance that allows us to break that cognitive fusion to see the facts with greater clarity and objectivity.
Xiong, A. et. Al. (2021) Relationship Between Cognitive Fusion, Experiential Avoidance, and Obsessive–Compulsive Symptoms in Patients With Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder. Front. Psychol; 12: 655154.
Cookson, C. et. Al. (2020) Examining the role of cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance in predicting anxiety and depression. Psychol Psychother; 93(3): 456-473.
Bardeen, J. & Fergus, T. A. (2016) The interactive effect of cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance on anxiety, depression, stress and posttraumatic stress symptoms. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science; 5(1).
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Hayes, S. C. et Al. (1996) Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; 64: 1152-1168.