This is one of an occasional series of articles about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the therapeutic approaches that I often use in my practice. ACT involves six core concepts that make up the ACT Hexaflex: Acceptance, Cognitive Defusion, Being Present, Self as Context, Values and Commitment. This week’s blog unpacks the Cognitive Defusion concept.

To a certain extent, most of us live in our heads. We identify with our thoughts and generally, without being aware of it, perceive them as the truth. This is why negative thought patterns can be so powerful and destructive. People struggling with anxiety, depression and a host of other mental and behavioral health challenges are often at the mercy of these painful thoughts, which can become all-consuming.

Cognitive Defusion is an empirically supported strategy in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that helps people recognize their thoughts and step back to observe them.

Leading ACT clinician and researcher, John Blackledge, Ph.D., explains it further in an article for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS):

“Normally we are not even aware that we are thinking or ‘having’ thoughts. You experience something, and you view what you think about that experience as a simple reflection of reality. From this perspective, there are no thoughts you are aware of—simply a direct experience that has been perhaps dramatically altered or embellished by the ‘unseen’ thoughts you have wrapped around it. Something as basic as being prompted to notice, one by one, each thought you are having about that experience can help you begin to approach those thoughts more tentatively, to take them less seriously…to start noticing that there is rich, direct, tangible experience, and then these flighty, intangible, suspicious little words that don’t adequately capture that experience.”

Cognitive Defusion helps individuals:

• Create more distance from their negative thoughts.

• Become more mindful so they can observe thoughts rather than be overcome by them.

• Be willing to take their thoughts less seriously so they can recognize that thoughts don’t correspond to the breadth and depth of reality

• Focus more on direct experiences such as feelings and observations.

How does this work in practice?

There are numerous exercises and strategies that ACT practitioners use to defuse the power of intrusive thoughts.

The first step is to help clients pay attention to their thoughts in a mindful way. They are encouraged to notice the thought, separate the thought from themselves, and minimize its impact over time.

One such technique is prompting the client to call out and label their negative thought. For example, someone struggling with depression might have the thought “I’m a loser.” As that thought continually runs through their mind, it becomes a fact to that individual. But when the individual is encouraged, by their practitioner, to say out loud: “I am having the thought that I’m a loser,” it involves them taking conscious notice of what is going through their mind and explicitly labeling it as a thought and nothing more.  (For additional examples visit the ACBS website).

Cognitive Defusion effectively creates the space that allows us to see negative thoughts for what they are and how they make us feel. It does not eliminate them but provides an additional tool for limiting the extent to which these thoughts have the power to control us. If you want to know more about how I use Cognitive Defusion in my practice, give me a call at (303) 542-0180.

Photo Credit: Slphotography, Getty Images Pro

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