One of the most effective ways we can manage unhelpful thoughts is by using a psychological tool called ‘defusion’, a technique from a mindfulness based approach to helping anxiety called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Defusion is probably the most powerful psychological skill I've learned and has helped change my life more than any other intervention I've used. In this article I will describe what defusion is and then outline four practical defusion exercises that can help you to manage anxiety, and more specifically anxious thoughts.
At the heart of defusion are words and images. We use words in different contexts:
Words we read are called text.
Words we speak out loud are called speech.
Words inside our head are called thoughts. The thoughts inside our head can also be images; still images like photographs, or moving images like film clips.
We often forget our thoughts are just words or images that we sometimes turn into stories. These stories can be true (facts) or false (lies), but they are normally based on how we see life; through our experiences, opinions, judgements and morals; and are about what we have done in the past, or what we want, expect, or fear in the future.
I want to make it clear - thinking is important - this skill is not against thinking! Thinking allows us to learn from the past and plan for the future. These are key human skills that we need to survive and thrive, but sometimes we can get too caught up in our thoughts and stories, and when they are unhelpful, this can lead to difficulties. An unhelpful thought or story can dominate our mind, take up our full attention, and dictate our behaviour. This is called ‘fusion’ – the act of getting caught up in our thoughts and considering them to be absolutely true.
To counteract unhelpful thoughts and stories we can defuse, or separate, from them — become aware they are just thoughts. When we defuse from our thoughts, we are putting the brakes on unhelpful thinking. We are creating for ourselves a small gap of awareness that allows us to stop, or greatly reduce the anxious thoughts, and the resultant anxiety response.
There are a number of ways we can defuse from our thoughts, and in time and with practice, it is something we can learn to do almost automatically when needed. I’d recommend you try all of the following defusion exercises and see which ones work best for you.
This first exercise is to illustrate how defusion works, but it can also be used as a practice to defuse from unhelpful thoughts and stories.
Defusion Exercise 1: I Notice I’m Having the Thought
Step 1 - Bring to mind a negative thought about yourself, one you have often. Maybe it’s, ‘’I’m a loser’, ‘No one likes me’, or ‘I’ll fail’. Thought of one?
Step 2 - Now ‘Fuse’ with that thought. That is, believe it as much as you can.
Step 3 - Now insert this phrase in front of that thought…“I’m having the thought that…” For example, ‘I’m having the thought that...I’m a loser.’
Step 4 - Next insert an extra phrase in front of that phrase…“I notice that I’m having the thought that…” For example, ‘I notice that I’m having the thought that...I’m a loser.’
Can you feel the thought lose some of its impact?
You’ll notice in this exercise you weren't battling or disputing the thought, you were accepting it, but not letting it influence you. When we defuse from our thoughts like this, we start to realise thoughts are nothing more or less than words or pictures and we can let them chatter away without obeying them. Negative thoughts are normal, so don’t fight them, defuse from them.
The second defusion technique targets the power of stories. The mind loves stories, but unfortunately many of them are unhelpful and negative, such as ‘I can’t do it’, ‘My life is terrible’, ‘I’ll fail’. In fact, research shows about eighty per cent of our thoughts have some negative content, but negative stories aren’t the problem, the problem is getting caught up in them and letting them dictate our actions.
When our mind tells us an unhelpful story, we normally try to change it (‘No I’m not stupid, I’m capable, I’ve done this, this and this’), distract ourselves from it, or blank it out in some way. Trying to change, avoid, or get rid of that story is often ineffective, time consuming, and focuses our attention on the unhelpful story. Instead, simply name a story for what it is – a story.
As a personal example, when considering doing things outside of my comfort zone, my mind would often respond with, ‘Don’t be stupid. You stupid idiot Matthew.’ When I learned about defusion, I called that ‘The Matthew is Stupid’ story. Stories start to lose their impact when we start naming them – then we begin to realise they are just stories.
Defusion Exercise 2: The Power of Stories
Step 1 - Notice when your mind starts telling you a familiar story. It may not always use the exact same thoughts or images each time, but there will be a pattern of thinking or a narrative you recognise.
Step 2 - Name the story (silently in your head) Ah! There it is again the – ‘I’m a Loser’ story, ‘I’m fat’ story, ‘I can’t cope’ story, ‘I’m unlovable’ story, ‘Not good enough’ story. Give it any name you want.
Step 3 - Continue to name the story every time you notice it, but try to do it with warmth, and if appropriate, humour.
So when an unhelpful thought or story comes, we need to notice it, name it, and neutralise it. Although this may seem like a very simple strategy, you are training your cortex to be aware of your sticky thoughts and thinking patterns, and in time you will start to see the stories will lose their impact on your behaviour.
Defusion Exercise 3: Thanking the Mind
The third defusion technique is simple, quick, and effective, and it’s the one I personally find most helpful. When your mind comes up with those same old stories or unhelpful thoughts, simply thank it.
Say (silently to yourself), ‘Thanks mind!’, ‘Thanks for sharing!’, ‘Is that right?’, ‘That’s amazing!’, ‘That’s so informative!’ Don’t do this sarcastically or aggressively, but do it with warmth, humour, and genuine appreciation for the incredible storytelling ability of your mind. This simple act of noticing and acknowledging the thoughts or stories will start to reduce their power.
Some people find it helpful to give their mind a name when they thank it, and find the name creates a slighter larger gap of awareness. For example, ‘Thanks for the thought George, thanks for sharing!’
IMAGES AND MOVING PICTURES
If your unhelpful thoughts are coming in the form of images, or video style film clips, of memories and predictions of what could happen, there are a number of different strategies you can use to defuse from them. The strategies are very similar to the previous ones, in that they provide a gap of awareness that allows you to step back and observe your thoughts before taking action.
Defusion Exercise 4: Lights, Camera, Action!
Step 1 - When you have an unhelpful image or video clip pop into your head, imagine there’s a television near you, and put the image or video on the television
Step 2 - Now play around with the image. Turn it upside down, flip it around, stretch it, play the video backwards, turn the colour and brightness up and down. There are lots of ways you can play with it; give it subtitles, a soundtrack, or put it in different locations. It doesn’t have to be a television – you can put the image on a computer screen, poster, or t-shirt – be creative and see what works best for you.
Remember, the aim isn’t to get rid of unpleasant images, but to see them for what they are – just pictures.
HELP WITH DEFUSION
Try out some of these exercises when you’re having unhelpful thoughts or imagining unpleasant images and see which ones work best for you. Don’t expect miraculous overnight changes – although this is possible – it normally takes some practice, but you will start to see progress sooner rather than later. When you first start to practise defusion, just notice your experience without judging yourself; rather than being critical, be curious about it. With persistence you will eventually notice being aware of unhelpful thoughts and defusing from them becomes second nature, and in time you’ll be able to do it without using any techniques.
WHAT IF MY THOUGHTS ARE TRUE?
When first hearing about defusion, people often respond by asking ‘But what if the thoughts are true?’ The thought or thoughts you are having may well be true, but a more important question is: ‘Are my thoughts helpful?’
So for example, when trying to do something new, something you may find difficult, you may have the thought, ‘I’m incompetent, I’ll never be able to do this’. It may be true that you do not have the skills to do that particular task properly at that time, but does holding that thought encourage you to look after yourself or to take action? For some people it might, they may find that sort of thought motivates them. If it does, that’s fine. Fuse with it. However, most people would find a thought like that blaming and demoralising, and it doesn’t encourage them to look after themselves or to take action. It would be unhelpful.
An example of a more helpful thought that could come, one may be better to fuse with, or hold on to, is ‘I can ask for help’’ or ‘With practice I will get better’. Most people would consider that to be an encouraging thought, one that could lead to helpful behaviour. Remember you’re not replacing one thought with another, you’re noticing what is an unhelpful thought and what is a helpful thought, and deciding whether to hold onto and fuse with that thought, or to defuse from it. So what’s important is not whether or not a thought is true, but whether or not holding onto that thought helps you to take care of yourself and take positive action.
THE MAIN PURPOSE OF DEFUSION
People often get the wrong idea about defusion, thinking it’s a clever way to get rid of negative thoughts. This is because, often when we defuse from a thought, it disappears and over time shows up less. However, think of this as a lucky bonus, a by-product of defusion. It may not always happen and is not the main purpose of defusion. The main purpose of defusion is to be present and to be able to take effective action. Defusion isn’t about battling with, blocking, distracting from, or getting rid of thoughts, but accepting thoughts and defusing from them.
There are also skills we can learn to help deal with unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings, which I cover in detail in both of my books.