What is cognitive defusion, and how can it help you improve your mental health?
Do you control your thoughts, or are your thoughts controlling you? Do your thoughts tend to shape who you are and your life, often in a negative way? You may be surprised to find out that you and your mind are not the same thing.
In short, cognitive defusion is the process through which we disconnect from our thoughts. Once we are disconnected, we are able to see them as what they are — thoughts. What we think isn’t always accurate or helpful, so we must realize that our mind isn’t our identity.
In this article we will learn what cognitive defusion is, plus five defusion techniques that can be practiced anytime. We’ll also have a look at two examples, and learn how meditation can help as well.
At the end of this article you will also find a short summary of everything I’ve gone through, so feel free to skip to the end of the page if you don’t have time to read the whole post.
What is cognitive defusion?
Often, we tend to identify with our own thoughts. We assume that what we think and what we are is the same thing. We also assume that everything our mind generates is the truth.
This is what psychology calls cognitive fusion: your thoughts and your identity become fused — they become one thing instead of being separated from each other.
Cognitive defusion, on the other hand, happens every time we detach from whatever goes on in our mind. It happens when we are aware that even though we experience thoughts all the time, not all of them are positive, helpful, or accurate; and most importantly, that we are not them.
Cognitive defusion techniques will help you pay more attention to your thoughts, and see them as an external entity which can’t influence you in any way, unless you allow it to.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to control some of our thoughts. Think of when you hear a loud, annoying song, and it just gets stuck in your head. Think of when you see an ad that displays a colorful, eye-catching image, and you can’t help being distracted. No matter how hard you try to get rid of a thought, you may still experience it.
However one thing you are always able to control is how you interpret your thoughts, and whether you choose to identify with them. For example, even though a particular image may automatically remind you of your past, you choose whether you are your past or you are simply thinking of your past.
Cognitive defusion will also help you identify whether your current thoughts are helpful or not. Sometimes we have negative thoughts, and even if they are accurate, we want to silence our mind because they only make us feel worse.
You may have the thought that today you haven’t accomplished anything, and be 100 percent right, but does it help you in any way? If it doesn’t, you want to practice cognitive defusion, and detach from your thought until it goes away.
Let’s have a look at some useful defusion techniques you can practice at any time.
Cognitive defusion techniques
1. Imagine thoughts as objects or people
When you have negative thoughts that disturb you, you can imagine them as physical entities that are annoying but cannot influence or harm you in any way.
When you do this, your thoughts can become a bully that stares at you through a window, and you can choose to close the window or simply ignore them.
Your thoughts may be a compulsive talker who keeps you on the phone for hours, and you can choose whether to hang up or pretend you’re listening without paying much attention. Or, your thoughts could be a radio, and you can turn down the volume.
Alternatively, because thoughts come and go, and are always temporary, you can imagine them as clouds on a windy day, or leaves on a stream, or airplanes passing by. Picture them as objects that can be seen or heard right now but will go away very soon.
2. Write down your thoughts
Is there a thought that makes you feel anxious, angry, or depressed? Write it down! By putting your thought on a piece of paper, it will be easier to realize it’s simply something created by your mind — it’s not who you are.
Because we tend to link big, bold characters to concepts that are important, such as the title and subtitles of this article, I suggest you write down your negative thought using tiny characters.
Even the scariest, most intimidating image can become insignificant when we shrink it in size (for example, we may react to the picture of a huge spider, but not a minuscule one). By using tiny characters, your brain will interpret that as an unimportant thought.
Once you’ve written down your thought on a piece of paper, you can either look at the piece of paper, put it away, or even tear it or throw it away. As you do so, you can tell yourself: “this is one of my thoughts, but it’s not useful, so I let it go”.
3. Realize you are not your mind
It may be hard to understand this notion at first, but it’s true: you are not your mind. You want to see your mind as a completely different entity, one that is separated from you.
This entity generates thoughts all the time, even when we sleep, and it’s far from perfect — no matter how smart you are. Some of the thoughts generated by your mind will be positive and inspiring. Other thoughts, on the other hand, will be depressing, intimidating, or erroneous.
Whenever you have negative thoughts, you can say something like: “my mind won’t shut up today”, or “my mind is having all these thoughts, it’s annoying”. If you want, you can draw a circle, and write some of your thoughts inside the circle, to visualize what your mind really is.
4. Use the word “thought” or “story”
We’ve learned that our mind makes a lot of mistakes, and it’s not who we are. The fourth cognitive defusion technique involves labeling your thoughts as… thoughts, so you can evaluate them better.
The easiest way to do this is to use the phrase “I’m having the thought that (…)”. For example, if you catch yourself thinking: I’m a failure, tell yourself that you’re having the thought that you’re a failure. Alternatively, you could tell yourself it’s the story of you being a failure.
It can be a thought, a story, an idea. Whatever the case, it has nothing to do with who you are, and it doesn’t need to be true. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing our mind is always right, but as I mentioned, your mind actually makes mistakes all the time.
You want to be analytical and challenge all your negative thoughts, and to do so, you first have to tell yourself they are, indeed, thoughts.
5. Picture someone else saying your thoughts
We’ve learned that some of our thoughts are not accurate, and don’t help us in any way, however at times our ego may find it difficult to accept this notion. So what do you do?
You simply picture someone else saying what you just thought out loud. Make it as real as possible. Imagine their body, their voice, posture, and hand gestures. Ideally, you want to picture someone who is ridiculous, such as a cartoon character. This will make it easier to see your thought as what it really is.
Because we believe our thoughts are who we are, it can be hard to ridicule them. However if we picture a funny character saying our thoughts out loud, eventually we will realize our thoughts aren’t as important as we believe they are.
Let’s now have a look at two examples of cognitive defusion, specifically the second and the fourth technique.
Rebecca suffers from social anxiety. She finds it hard to socialize and interact with others. Sometimes her anxiety gives her nausea, stomach pains, and tension headaches.
One day she finally finds the courage to talk to a therapist. During the session, she realizes she keeps having the thought that she isn’t worthy of other people’s care and attention.
She also learns about the process of cognitive defusion and, as an exercise, she writes down her thought on a tiny piece of paper. She then leaves the piece of paper in a drawer in her room.
Whenever Rebecca opens the drawer, she sees her own thought, and realizes how insignificant it is. It is the same thought that prevented her from socializing, talking to others, meeting new friends, or even asking for help. However now her thought is gone; it’s not part of her identity anymore.
Because Rebecca isn’t “fused” to her own limiting beliefs anymore, she is able to gradually beat her social phobia.
Sam suffers from depression, and his negative self-talk doesn’t help. Too often he dwells on his current situation, and keeps telling himself he’s a failure, a loser, someone who will never be happy and successful in life.
His therapist suggests he labels everything he currently believes about himself as thoughts. Though Sam finds it strange, and doesn’t really believe it will help, he follows the advice.
During the following days, whenever he notices negative thoughts, he says to himself things like: “well, it looks like I’m having the thought that I’m a failure”; or “my mind thinks life is too hard”; or “right now I have the thought that I will never have a fulfilling life, it will go away soon”.
Eventually he realizes that his mind was his worst enemy. He couldn’t get rid of his depression because he identified with his thoughts, and his thoughts were often too negative. Thanks to cognitive defusion, Sam learns that he is not his mind, and his outlook on life and himself gradually improves.
Cognitive defusion and meditation
If you practice meditation, you may have experienced cognitive defusion many times already. The more you meditate, the more you understand that you are not your thoughts. You also realize that your mind tends to generate thoughts all the time, and it can be hard to silence it.
Through meditation, you have the opportunity to look at your thoughts — see them come and go, almost randomly — until you reach the state in which your mind is calm and quiet.
Practicing meditation can help you become more aware of your mind and your body, thus having more control over them. If you are consistent, you will also notice other benefits such as better sleep and reduced stress. If you are a beginner, you can check out the easiest meditation techniques.
Cognitive defusion: summary
When we disconnect from our thoughts, we are able to question what goes on in our head, and we’re not overwhelmed by our thoughts anymore.
To do so, you can use cognitive defusion techniques. You can try to:
- Imagine your thoughts as clouds or planes passing by, or someone who looks at you
- Write down your thoughts on a piece of paper, then put the piece of paper away, or tear it
- Realize you are not your mind and say things like: “my mind won’t shut up today”
- Use the phrase: “I’m having the thought that (…)”
- Picture someone else saying your thoughts out loud, ideally someone who has a funny voice and makes you laugh
Cognitive defusion can happen during meditation as well. Typically, during a meditation session you increase your focus and awareness, and observe your thoughts until your mind quiets down.
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