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Counselling 4 Anxiety

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Cognitive Defusion Techniques – a Tool for Better Moods and Well-Being

You may have heard of the word ‘cognitive defusion’ or come across it when reading something. Or someone may have used the term ‘cognitive defusion’ in a conversation because mental health is increasingly becoming a topic of real interest for many people.

The term comes from the third wave of Cognitive Behavioural therapies and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is less about challenging and breaking down thoughts patterns in order to change them (classical CBT work), but more about accepting the thoughts, feelings, emotions and perceptions as they arise; accepting that they come and go, accepting that they may come back in the future, but that they will diminish, and accepting that you are ultimately in control of how much these thoughts diminish in the future by disengaging with them and reducing their energy. Any reduction in the ‘stickiness’ of ruminatory thoughts gives individuals the time to enjoy, engage with and be present within the moment.

Acceptance and Commitment Theory therefore includes the element of cognitive defusion within its structure as a tool that allows individuals to create some distance between the thoughts and their actions. In other words, creating the space so that the action can be adapted and amended from previous ones which re-enforced the initial negative belief or troubling thoughts and feelings.

It is also important to stress that cognitive defusion is a tool that can be practised on feelings and bodily sensations. So, for example, some people with anxiety and OCD may feel muscle tightening in their bodies associated with specific ruminatory thoughts or they may tense and twitch certain muscles. In this instance, cognitive defusion means disengaging from tensing muscles so that ruminatory thoughts do not continue to elicit actual physical reactions which add further weight to the ruminatory process.

Cognitive defusion therefore means what ‘it says on the tin’. This is about disengaging, mentally ‘stepping back’ and having the mental capacity to change previous actions and in doing so, to change the outcome of negative or ruminatory thoughts on your mood and general well-being. So, ultimately, this is about using cognitive defusion to change the lens and the filter through which you may view yourself, the wider world or the people around you.

For some, using the tool of cognitive defusion has been life-changing, and underpinning this process is the following premise; that you are not your thoughts. They are a stimulus, learnt reactions to the past and from what may have  happened to you or how you may have mentally reacted to events in the past and they do not reflect the here and now, the present. Therefore, ruminatory or negative thoughts are symptoms of impacts and events that happened in the past and the automatic replaying of such thoughts does not do justice to the present and also leads people away from the values that matter to them and how they want to lead their lives.

So let us take the example of someone who has consistent ruminations that they are a ‘bad’ person. This leads to their disengagement from social discussions and withdrawal from the present moment, so they become quiet. The action of ‘being quiet’, sustains the heavy meaning of the thought and re-enforces the whole cycle. Cognitive defusion is about training yourself to accept that the thought happens, understanding that it is just a thought and that it will pass, and then making an active decision to carry on with a discussion that adds value to your day and keeps you anchored in the present.

So, what can we do to weaken and move away from the mental filter that funnels us into engagement and mental fusion with negative and ruminatory thoughts. Well, we can:

  • Notice and be aware of the thought. If the thought is ‘I am bad’, then give it a name, sometimes humour works and takes the energy and oxygen out of the thought or alternatively saying, “here comes my usual thought that I am bad”, just minimises it.
  • Sometimes saying the thought also takes its energy away rather than maintaining its internal pull. So, you may want to say the statement, ‘Bad’ repeatedly for about 30 seconds and notice how the word starts to become meaningless and that it is just a sound and a word.
  • Remember that our minds are attuned to look at things through somewhat of a negative lens or risk funnel so that it can protect us. This behaviour has not changed and evolved from the millions of years that we have been on this earth and when we were at risk from dangerous animals on the savannahs. Our minds therefore naturally look at risk as a precautionary mechanism to protect us and in its own way, is trying to keep us safe. It is important to reflect and recognise this.
  • Remember that whist you may have thoughts that highlight risk or threats to you, you are not inherently ‘different’ to many people. The key is being aware, giving yourself space to reflect to disengage from the thought and then carrying on with your engagement with the present moment.
  • Anything that takes the energy out of fusing with the thought is positive. So, saying a word repeatedly that shows you that it is just a noise, a word and that it actually has no meaning without you, is one tool that you can use.
  • Finally, remember that the thought will pass. The less you engage with it through cognitive defusion, the quicker it will diminish and the stronger you will feel rooted in the present moment.

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