by Dr. Jan Newman
DEFUSION refers to the ACT skill of changing the way you interact with or relate to your thoughts by changing the context or function, instead of the content.
In case you didn’t know it yet, the majority of your thought content is negative.
When you’re experiencing a stress response, that percentage increases because of our helpful negativity bias. Thank evolution. We are the descendants of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens that cared enough and worried enough. The optimists all died out.
Sometimes we can see all of our thoughts and stories about ourselves, the world, and others as:
absolute truths and certainties
urgent commands that must automatically be obeyed
all equally important
helpful for our decision-making because they can’t be wrong
threats that must be acted on or bad things will happen
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, this tendency is called fusion.
Due to a variety of factors—including biology, cognitive biases, and behavioral learning—we can get caught up in our thoughts pretty easily. We can’t see the forest for the trees.
If someone I love disagrees with something that I think is right, I may forget that I love them, and that the relationship means more to me than being right.
Defusion helps us see our thoughts as what they are. Just thoughts.
PLEASE NOTE: if you are struggling with very painful thoughts about shame and trauma, these are likely not the best defusion techniques to use.
These techniques are only for automatic thoughts that on a scale of 1 – 10 of painfulness are a 5 or below. Always speak to your mental healthcare provider first.
The first step in defusion is noticing your thoughts. This means noticing your thoughts like a compassion, nonjudgemental, curious observer. To do this step, you are using the other ACT skill of present-moment awareness.
The default mode network or DMN is the resting state of the brain and was discovered in the 2000’s by scientists who were studying what the brain does when it’s relaxing. They expected to find little to no activity, but instead, they found quite the opposite.
The DMN is an executive functioning network that is usually constantly running in the background.
It’s a little bit like a car idling in park. Our brain spends most of it’s time in this mode. In this mode, our brain can be doing a variety of things—resting and recharging, mind-wandering, brainstorming, and creating. Your brain needs time in this mode to rejuvenate and rest so it can focus again.
However, the DMN is very into itself or self-focused. It LOVES to talk about me and think about me and what you think about me and what others think about me and all of my stories about how I’m this or that.
And what can happen when you leave it unsupervised when you’re stressed and burned out? The psychological equivalent of leaving a child in a scissor factory.
One thing that can happen when you’re brain is negative and self-focused is rumination.
Rumination is the primary thought process that happens in depression and burnout.
Rumination happens when we start rewinding and replaying unhelpful thoughts and memories in our brain over and over again.
Imagine that a stress response is like a fire. You need a spark so a trigger of some kind (can be virtually any stimuli so a person, a thought, caffeine).
You need a heat source or fuel which is the ANS and HPA axis reaction and byproducts (e.g., glucorticoids).
And what else do you need?
Rumination is the oxygen that fuels that fire to keep burning.
Not all of those thoughts are helpful.
Depending on your stress levels and learning history, some thoughts may be more “sticky” than others.
Here are some exercises to help you notice and watch your thoughts so you can put your mind on leash or in a playpen or whatever metaphor you’d like:
Sushi Train Metaphor by Russ Harris
If you’re a Star Wars fan, watching your thoughts like a Star Wars marquee.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . . I was never able to do anything right. These cars won’t stop poking along. I forgot that memo off of the kitchen table.”
Music for Mindfulness of Thought (5 minutes – just use as background for noticing)
2. Name it to tame it.
After you’ve been able to watch your thoughts so you can distance yourself a bit, a second step is naming the thought as a thought.
Let’s take this fun thought: “I am a failure.”
If you say that sentence aloud right now, if you’re like most people, you’ll feel an uncomfortable sensation immediately, a slight stress response. Failure isn’t a word most people like.
Rewind back to that time, “I missed the winning shot in 8th grade = “failure” or “I made a bad grade and my teacher was disappointed in me” = “failure.” That phrase has merely 4 words in it. Yet it is so powerful because of its learned associations.
The word now is way beyond four words it’s potentially hundreds of memories that now trigger memories, and on it goes.
In my relational network of language, that word may instantly connect to painful images and memories before my prefrontal cortex is even aware. Without going into the nuances of explicit and implicit memory, often learned associations are hitting on implicit memories which unconscious.
When they get recalled, I can’t do it volitionally. It often comes like a jumpscare.
Defusion helps us observe that thought without getting caught up with it. It pulls us out of the unconscious associations and into more explicit naming it, so naming it would transform “I’m a failure” to
“I am noticing the thought that I’m a failure” or “Here’s the failure story”
Here are some naming and thanking your mind exercises:
Struggle Switch. If you notice yourself trying to get rid of thoughts, this video might help.
Later, in Step 5, you will learn why “doing something” with this thought (e.g., writing it on a piece of paper, saying it out loud) can actually pull you out of the DMN and into it’s opposite network—the central executive network (CEN).
You can let go or unhook from most thoughts with Steps 1 and 2. If not, then you can assess the thought to address it.
What’s the first thing we ask?
Is it true? Nope.
Without belaboring this point too much, the reason we don’t focus on truth is what if the thought is true, yet it isn’t helpful? Will my dwelling on it help me?
Let’s say that a college student makes a 60 on a math test, and then he ruminates on the thought “I’m a failure.” He would focus on the truth of the fact that he failed the test as proof. If you try to argue that point, it’s not going to work, right? A 60 is failing.
Yet, how does morphing that into the “I’m a failure” shame bomb serve him? Not at all.
Often, focusing on the truth of the thoughts (our own or others) is, as Admiral Ackbar says, a TWAP! Once we start focusing on the truth, then it can be a rabbit hole for avoidance. We start bringing out our evidence for and against, the pros and cons list, and the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. Yet what are we actually DOING in real life? Sitting still.
The first question is actually:
Helpfulness questions would be things like:
1) If I buy this thought and let it take me where it leads, does it get me CLOSER to my values or FARTHER AWAY?
2) If I buy this thought and act on it as I normally would, what are the consequences—short-term? long-term?
With the “I’m a failure” thought, if I focus on and hook into that thought, will it help me start my podcast or write my book? Yeah, not really. If I focus on it, what might happen? I may convince myself that I can’t write a book or do a podcast and have a trial with a defense attorney and prosecutor presenting their pros/cons, and I take no action. So there’s no data to collect and evaluate. I did that all in my head without any real, lived experience.
If you’re not sure, then you’d want to check in with your inner Antihero.
When you’re replaying the thought, remember to pay attention to the soundtrack, so to speak. If the “I’m a failure” soundtrack sounds like Mozart, it’s a different intensity than if it comes from Linkin Park.
Sometimes, our Inner Critic or Antihero (as I sometimes call that voice inside our head that kicks our tail) can say things that could have some helpfulness except that the language the Antihero chooses can be downright nasty.
Who are famous Antiheroes?
Ghost Rider. Deadpool.
They don’t say nice things. They are sarcastic (Deadpool) and relentless (both). They can make the bad guys cave when they use one-liners (Deadpool) or chains (Ghost Rider).
The Antihero is usually trying to protect you from some kind of harm, but it uses Antihero methods. All that matters is that the ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS. I conceptualize the Antihero as focusing on the brain’s focus as a “don’t get killed machine,” so in that way, the function is to protect you from pain. That is the brain default of defaults.
And what happens when a child is really, really afraid and what’s to avoid pain? Terrified of eating broccoli or trying something new or having to get off the Xbox? Are they crying in a corner? No, the are MEAN!
To figure out if the Antihero is messing with you, I will often advise clients to see if they translate the thought out of Antihero hater-speak and figure out:
If you told an objective and compassionate friend, “Hey sometimes I feel like I’m a failure?,” would they go “No that’s a crazy thought. No one ever thinks about that. Ever.” or would they go, “Yeah, makes sense given that your job emphasizes making no mistakes, man.” (e.g., lawyer, physician, financial advisor, etc)
There’s a basic formula for validating someone.
“It makes sense that you feel X because of Y.”
So, now you’re going to flip it towards yourself.
So, that coping thought would be, “Hey, even though that thought isn’t helpful, it totally makes sense why you’re having it.”
A more advanced skill here is self-compassion, which you can learn more about on this podcast episode.
You can defuse or unhook from many lower-level thoughts with this caution below.
CAUTION: This technique IS NOT recommended for those struggling with painful thoughts due to painful memories of abuse, neglect, or other trauma or traumatic stress, images relating to OCD, or thoughts rooted in shame.
These exercises are meant to help you create psychological distance, but for these very painful thoughts, some people could view these as making light of their pain. That is the last thing ACT is designed to do. We use different techniques for those kinds of thoughts.
Some people may want to use some of the other ideas from the endless ACT playbook.
In my experience, we do best using metaphors and techniques to unhook that really connect with us and our interests and experiences. These are special just like you! For instance, the Star Wars technique above really connects with my clients who love Star Wars, but not with those that hate it. I use the “pick-up ducks” metaphor for thoughts and my son and I have made it pretty elaborate after many trips to the fair, but I mentioned to a friend of mine in New Jersey, and she had never seen that game at a fair.
Here are some techniques for neutralizing thoughts:
If it feels right for you, you can play around with some type of visualization, taking the feared thing and transforming it’s nature or context so that it creates distance for you.
Ridikulus! by Harry Potter. I came up with this one working with kids and teens, but most of my adult clients now love this one. Use the one with Ron Weasley with the boggart using the Ridikulus charm in Prisoner of Azkaban (not a dementor like Harry, definitely not like Harry).
Baby from Waterboy. Henry Winkler uses this one with his rival in Waterboy.
Visual Metaphors. Drawings by Joseph Ciarrochi.
Doom and Gloom Radio. Conceptualizing your negative thoughts as a channel on Sirius that only plays negative thoughts 24/7. You could invent a DJ and everything.
Negative Thought Playlist. It’s like a playlist that is full of negative thoughts. You can swipe left to play another song.
Titchener’s Repetition. Titchener’s repetition is named after Ed Titchener (1916) who found that if you keep repeating a word more than 50 times it begins to lose its’ meaning. It becomes more a sound than a concept.
It’s now a classic ACT technique for taking the power out of words. This technique involves repeating the word over and over again until it loses meaning. So, saying, LEMON, LEMON, LEMON, LEMON, LEMON.
With our example of failure, taking the word and repeating it: FAILURE, FAILURE, FAILURE, FAILURE, FAILURE, FAILURE, FAILURE, FAILURE . . . could create distance from all of the negative learned associations your brain has with that word.
One of my favorite acronyms for defusion with the word fail is FAIL = First Attempt in Learning.
Google Translate. My clients tend to like this one. We take the triggering word and feed it to Google Translate or a voice changer app and see what happens.
The word “failure” sounds much better in French (échec) and looks quite lovely in Chinese (失敗).
Lastly, and most importantly, the hands-down BEST way to get out of your head is to get in your life. If you can make this pivot first, do that. If not, the steps above might help you get to this point.
Let’s explore the situation that typically happens in chronic stress or burnout.
Here’s an example. Usually, one cognitive process rules them all in burnout—rumination.
To facilitate parasympathetic recovery in burnout, we’ve got to turn down the oxygen.
Rumination is the oxygen that fuels that fire to keep burning.
Rumination is one of the less helpful by-products of the brain’s default mode network mentioned above. This is the car running in park. The engine is turning, but you’re not going anywhere. The DMN loves thinking and talking to itself and telling stories, great for creativity, but not when you’re stressed.
There are two other brain networks, collectively called task-related or task-positive networks. One is the central executive network or CEN also called the “decider of deciders.” This network is active when we’re engaged in tasks especially higher-order executive functions like planning, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility and in a flow state.
For most* people, you can either be in the DMN/resting mode or in the CEN/task-flow mode. Not both at the same time. So the car is either sitting idling or driving. It can’t do both at the same time.
The other task-related network is called the salience network (SN) which acts as the relay switch between the two. Like the moderator of a debate, the SN decides which network is active when and how long each gets to speak.
To switch off the DMN, engage in a task.
This turns on the CEN.
To leverage it further and target a flow state:
choose a task that is aligned with your values,
novel or interesting, and/or
just enough to challenge you but not so hard or big it feels impossible.
Current research suggests that this technique works.
A recent research paper suggested that just 20 minutes of focused, goal-directed activity each day could engage the CEN and reduce rumination.
What is ONE thing you could do right here, right now towards what matters to you?
Think about what matters to you. Review your domains, it might be your health, work, or relationships. How do you want to be right now? Self-compassionate? Present? Accepting?
Identify what matters and then do ONE thing right now toward what matters to you. As discussed in this article, taking action towards what matters increases dopamine and helps us be more successful. We also know that it helps tame rumination.
Here are a few ideas:
Try a present-moment awareness exercise and/or physical movement especially if your SNS is activated. Responding quickly to your nervous system, and eventually front-loading recovery is key here.
For example, if you notice cognitive fatigue, this could mean your default mode is getting ready to switch on. Stand up, and leave your desk then, not 5 minutes from now. If you can’t leave, take the call on your airpods and walk around the room or outside.
Try an activity that engages your mind and/or body.
Walking to grab coffee
Speaking to a colleague with intention (e.g., ask about their day, practice validating)
Taking a crossword puzzle or Sudoku outside
Doing a 5 senses awareness exercise in your office
Working a puzzle with your child
Working out or walking your dog
Mindfully eating ice cream, drinking coffee, etc.
For more ideas, check out this list of pleasurable events.
To leverage some ninja DBT skills, you actually try to schedule these activities throughout the DBT to “cope ahead” to avoid the situations that fuel rumination.
Cognitive Fusion Questionnaire
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