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April 25, 2024
ACT & Cognitive Defusion: What Are They?

Samantha Fogel

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Breaking Down Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

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So, what is ACT? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a type of therapy that focuses largely on mindfulness and learning to accept, rather than struggle with or deny, the full range of our emotions, experiences, and thoughts. A primary goal of ACT is to support people to accept their hardships and commit themselves to taking meaningful action that will ultimately lead to a more fulfilling life, no matter the difficult moments we all inevitably encounter.

One of the most important concepts in ACT is cognitive defusion. Cognitive defusion operates from the premise that the ways in which we have a tendency to latch onto our thoughts greatly influences our emotional experience, ultimately impacting our lives and self-concept in harmful ways. By working to change how we react to these thoughts and feelings when they happen, shifting away from the content and focusing on the process of thinking itself, we can gain distance from them, taking away their power over us.

If cognitive defusion could be helpful for you, below are some techniques that I like to use with my clients:

1.“I notice I’m having the thought that…”

A highly effective ACT cognitive defusion strategy is to work on simply noticing and consciously acknowledging when you are having a thought. A common thought many people have is “I am not good enough” or “I am a failure”. What we often don’t consciously realize we do when we have these thoughts is that we buy into it and take it as fact, often spiralling us into shame, anxiety, self-doubt, etc. What this strategy aims to do is create some space where we do not have to buy into the thought and take it as truth. Instead, we would say “I notice I am having the thought that I am not good enough/I am a failure”. See if you can identify a thought that usually sends you into a spiral, and try this out for yourself. You may start to notice the intensity of your emotions and negative self-talk starting to dissipate rather quickly.

2.Defusion metaphors

Another helpful strategy is using metaphors to help you develop a new perspective on your thoughts. One metaphor I like is the “thoughts are like trains” metaphor. With this metaphor, you want to imagine that your thoughts are like passing trains at a train station, coming and going. You will imagine yourself sitting on the platform watching the trains come and go. However, you do not need to get on the train and ride it, you can simply continue watching as they pass by. This is what we would want to aim for when we have challenging thoughts, simply observing them as they come and go without having to get stuck on them. Another common metaphor is the “thoughts as clouds” metaphor. For this exercise, you are going to imagine that your thoughts are like clouds in the sky, passing through with the wind. Like trains in a train station, the clouds will come and go naturally if we simply observe their natural tendency. Try this out for yourself and see if imagining these metaphors can help you drop your struggle with your thoughts.

3. Leaves on a stream

This technique utilizes mindfulness and your imagination to support you in dealing with difficult thoughts and the feelings that can arise from them. First, start by closing your eyes and taking some deep belly breaths. From here, imagine that you are sitting or standing by a stream. Use your senses to make it feel as real as possible. Then, imagine that there are leaves floating along the stream. Every time you have a thought that comes into your mind, whether pleasant or unpleasant, imagine that you are taking that thought and placing it upon a leaf and watching as it goes down the stream until you can no longer see it. Many people who try this exercise find that it creates a feeling of relaxation that allows them to better regulate their emotions. If you feel you might need some additional support with this exercise, you can head over to YouTube and find several guided meditations you can follow.

4. Using a silly voice

The last exercise I will share with you requires using a silly voice for your thought. Think of a movie or TV character that stands out to you who may have a distinct and/or silly sounding voice. Characters like Spongebob, Goofy, or Homer Simpson are some examples. Once you have identified the character that feels best for you, imagine how their voice sounds, and try to recreate it as best you can. You can write your difficult thought down on paper or on your phone, and read it out to yourself at least 10 times using your chosen silly voice. In doing this you might immediately notice your feelings of distress subside and that your thought doesn’t hold as much weight as it initially had over you.

An Important Reminder…

It may seem silly or awkward at first to try these strategies out, but if you give them a chance, you may start to notice changes in how you relate and react to your thoughts. Keep in mind that as with most things in life, in order for these techniques to really be effective we need to make time to practice them, and be patient with ourselves throughout the process. When we are so used to letting our thoughts consume and control us, it can be hard initially to bring our awareness to the process of thinking as it is happening. However, with time and practice, you may find defusion becoming a more natural response. I am hopeful that from reading this blog, you have learned some helpful strategies that you can implement into your mental health tool-kit. If you want to learn more, consider booking a meet and greet or initial session with me!


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