Getting "unhooked" from upsetting thoughts
Human beings rely heavily on thoughts. Thoughts tell us how we are, what we should be doing or not doing, how our life is going, and how we should live it. We can think of ourselves as swimming in a river of thoughts. Unfortunately for our mental health, many of our thoughts tend to be negative in nature rather than positive.
Why is this? Human beings evolved in rather dangerous environments with threats to life potentially lurking behind every rock and tree. Survival depended on continuously assessing the environment, anticipating danger. In other words, the person whose mind was continually questioning whether that figure in the distance is friend or foe, or assessing whether that clump of trees contained a ferocious beast, was more likely to survive than the person who was admiring the scenery or looking forward to dinner!
Through the process of natural selection then, our brains have developed into a “don’t get killed” machine, constantly trying to warn us of things that could go wrong. This is perfectly normal, and in modern terms, these warnings and negative
predictions can be thoughts like “she isn’t going to like you” and “you’d better do a good job here”.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses the phrase “cognitive fusion” for the state of being “hooked” by these kinds of thoughts: the word cognitive means a product of our mind, and fusion means a blending together, so “cognitive fusion” means that we are fused or blended with our thoughts. In a state of cognitive fusion our thoughts seem real, true, important and wise, and are experienced as orders or as threats. Therefore, if we are in a state of cognitive fusion we react to thoughts such as “I am useless” as if we actually are useless, and we react to thoughts like “I am going to muck this up” as if failure is a foregone conclusion. Often our thoughts “beat us up”, telling us stories about how stupid, incompetent, and ugly we are. Being fused with or getting hooked by these kinds of thoughts can lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and so on.
So how can we “unhook” from these kinds of thoughts and avoid these unpleasant outcomes? ACT teaches people how to relate to their thoughts in a different way, and develop a state of “cognitive defusion”. In a state of cognitive defusion, thoughts are seen as merely sounds, words, bits of language passing through our head, which may or may not be true, important, or wise, and are certainly never seen as orders or threats. Cognitive defusion allows us to step back and see thoughts as they really are – a string of words – and to allow the thoughts to be there without fighting them.
The important consideration from an ACT perspective is not whether thoughts are true – but whether they are helpful. We ask such questions as: “Is this thought helpful or is my mind just babbling on?” and “Does this thought help me take effective action?”
There are a range of strategies and metaphors used in ACT to help with the process of cognitive defusion. Even using a simple technique like saying: “I am having the thought that I am going to muck this up” rather than “I am going to muck this up” goes a considerable way towards helping unhook from the distressing thoughts and achieving cognitive defusion.
If you are troubled by distressing or self-downing thoughts that lower your self-esteem, confidence and mood, or cause you anxiety and stress, please consider making an appointment with me so that we can discuss how ACT strategies might be helpful. Please also refer to my article About Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.