Manage Intrusive Thoughts and Worries With ACT Defusion Strategies

Beth Pollack, LCSW on Feb 06, 2023 in Mood and Feelings

Cognitive Defusion — What Is It?

While we all experience intrusive thoughts from time to time (likely centering on future worries or making us cringe as we think of our past mistakes), folks struggling with mental health challenges like anxiety disorders, OCD, or depression tend to battle with these intrusive thoughts on a more regular basis.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) offers strategies on how to treat intrusive thoughts that are effective and that you can put into action the next time that familiar critical or fearful thought pops into your mind. ACT teaches that we have the power to de-fuse from our thoughts and create some helpful distance from them.

Defusion is not about trying to change, fight, or repress our thoughts. Rather, it is about changing how we relate to our thoughts, which tends to make them less powerful. The idea “what you resist persists” is applicable here — often when we put energy into resisting a thought or pushing it away, it only becomes more fused with us and sticky.

Another helpful metaphor is the idea of the finger trap toy. If you remember playing with these as a kid, the first instinct was always to resist and pull your fingers away, which only made your fingers get stuck. The trick to getting free was to gently push your fingers in towards one another. In the same way, ACT teaches us to thoughtfully move towards and not resist difficult thoughts and feelings. Cognitive defusion strategies, like the ones listed below, can help us to loosen the grip that our thoughts and feelings have on us so we can find more freedom and ease in our lives.

Cognitive Defusion Strategies

● Be mindful and “watch” thoughts from a neutral perspective pass by. As the watcher of your thoughts, you can realize that you are not your thoughts.

● Repeat the thought out loud quickly for 30 seconds until the sounds unhook from the meaning. Ex: “I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad…”

● Give your brain or anxiety a name — ideally a name that is funny or endearing to you. You can then say, “Thanks for that scary thought, Sally (or whatever name you’ve chosen); that’s interesting.” Alternatively, you could say, “Sally, I can see you’re really afraid that I am going to make a fool of myself at this party tonight, and you are trying to protect me by showing me all the things that could go wrong.”

● Externalizing thoughts can be as simple as “I’m having the thought that I’m dumb” versus “I’m dumb” (Do you see how the first one creates separation between you and the thought?).

● Repeat the thought in a funny voice. (Think of the “Riddikulus” charm in Harry Potter, where they conquer their fears by turning them into something funny. Ron imagines the spider he fears in roller skates. That was an example of defusion!)

● The intrusive thoughts that come to us also are paired with body sensations and feelings. You can become curious and mindful of those as well — notice what body sensations and feelings are present when a thought arises.

Beth Pollack is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Santa Barbara, CA.

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