Cognitive Fusion and Defusion in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy


In a previous post we looked at some ways to practice letting go of thoughts, but it can often be difficult to let of thoughts because they have such a powerful pull, especially when the thoughts are related to a strong emotion. In my post, What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?, we learned why acceptance is so important in ACT. Cognitive defusion is a way of accepting our thoughts, allowing them to pass into and out of our minds, without getting stuck in our heads.

Steven Hayes, who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), coined the term “cognitive fusion” to describe times when we are so tightly stuck to our thoughts, we become “fused” to them. When we’re experiencing cognitive fusion, we can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts. Our thoughts become our reality. We feel removed from the world outside of our thoughts, removed from our senses, from what we’re doing, and even from the people around us.

The opposite of “cognitive fusion” is “cognitive defusion.” Cognitive defusion involves taking a step back from what’s going on in our minds, and detaching a little from our thoughts. In this state of defusion, we can observe our thoughts and other internal processes without getting lost in them, stuck in them or fused with them. We can simply notice our thoughts, watch them, accept them and let them go if we choose to.

A concept from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) that can help us defuse from our thoughts is the idea that thoughts are not facts: Just because you think something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. When we’re in a state of cognitive fusion, our thoughts have a tendency to become our reality. The notion that thoughts are just thoughts—just mental events—rather than facts can help us achieve cognitive defusion, and simply saying to ourselves, “Perhaps I’m confusing a thought with a fact,” can help you defuse from that thought.

Another way to help get past the belief that, just because you’re thinking something it must be true, is to label your thoughts as thoughts. For example, if you’re thinking “there’s no way I’ll be able to cope,” rather than accepting that thought as a fact, say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that there’s no way I’ll be able to cope.”

  • Instead of thinking, “I’m never going to be happy,” say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m never going to be happy.”
  • Instead of thinking “I’m never going to be able to get all that work done,” say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m never going to be able to get all that work done.”
  • Instead of thinking, “I’m going to embarrass myself at that meeting/social event,” say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m going to embarrass myself at that meeting/social event.”

This process of labelling your thoughts as just thoughts allows you to step back and defuse yourself from the content of your thoughts.

A similar strategy is to give a name to a persistent thought or type of thought you’re having, simply labelling it as “worrying,” or “planning,” or “obsessing.” This takes you a step further back from your thoughts than labelling them as thoughts. Adding the word “just” in front of the label can make it seem less threatening or overwhelming, for example, labelling your thoughts as “just worrying” or “just planning,” or “just obsessing.”

When you label a thought in the form “I am having the thought that I have too much work to ever get it all done,” you are still describing the content of the thought (“I have too much work to ever get it all done”), and by paying attention to the content, you are still engaging the thought on some level.

By giving a more general description to the thought, such as “worrying,” or “planning,” or “regretting,” or “criticizing myself,” you are no longer labelling the content of the thought, but just the type of thought you’re having. This removes you one step further from the actual thought as you’re not longer paying attention its content at all, giving you more distance, and helping you defuse from it.

Below is another exercise from The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook by Sheri Van Dijk that incorporates the strategy of labelling your thoughts into an exercise similar to the ones we looked at in the post on letting go of your thoughts.

In your mind’s eye, visualize yourself standing in a forest, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature. As you stand there, you see leaves start to fall from the trees. Whenever a thought enters your mind, imagine that it rests on a leaf that’s drifting down. As you watch each leaf fall and as the thought becomes visible, see if you can pick up the leaf and place it in a pile according to what the thought is about.

For example, when the thought “I’m not having any thoughts” drifts down on its leaf you might put this in the “worry thought” or “observing thought” pile. When the thought “This is a stupid exercise” appears on its leaf you might label it and put it in the “anger thought” or “judgment thought” pile, and so on.

Letting go of thoughts can be difficult, but the exercises in this post and the post on letting go of thoughts will help you get some relief when you’re in a state of cognitive fusion, and allow you to slow down your mind and defuse from your thoughts. With practice, you’ll be able to step back from your thoughts, get some distance, and eventually to be able to simply let go of your thoughts if you so choose.

Please check out my other video on acceptance and commitment therapy below:

Guelph  Therapist Greg Dorter

I’m a Guelph therapist who specializes in helping people overcome depression, anxiety, stress, anger and low self-esteem. For more information, or to make an appointment for counselling or therapy in Guelph , please call me at 226-500-4086 or email
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