How “Cognitive Defusion” Can Help With Anxiety
Learn how recognizing and getting distance from thoughts helps soften anxiety
- With anxiety, we often get so caught up in our thoughts that we don’t even recognize they are just thoughts.
- “Cognitive defusion” means recognizing and gaining some distance from thoughts.
- Using this strategy tends to make thoughts less scary.
One of the root causes of anxiety problems is how we treat our thoughts.
But in order to treat your thoughts differently, you first have to recognize that they are thoughts in the first place. This may sound obvious, but often when we feel anxious, we get so caught up in our thinking that we don’t even recognize the process of our thinking.
Think of your most anxiety-provoking thought and put it in the form of a short sentence. To use an example, let’s say you are afraid that a coworker doesn’t like you. So a good sentence for this would be “Katie doesn’t like me.”
I want you to close your eyes and think your thought repeatedly. I also want you to say it out loud repeatedly every few seconds. So every few seconds you would say your version of “Katie doesn’t like me…Katie doesn’t like me…Katie doesn’t like me.” Do that for about a minute, then read on.
Okay, now I want you to do the exact same thing but we are going to change the phrasing of the sentence a little bit. Now I want you to think and say “I’m having the thought that Katie doesn’t like me…I’m having the thought that Katie doesn’t like me,” etc. Do that for about a minute, too.
Finally, we are going to do it one more time and change the phrasing a little further: this time I want you to think and say “I notice I’m having the thought that Katie doesn’t like me…I notice I’m having the thought that Katie doesn’t like me,” etc. Try that for a minute as well.
What did you notice as the exercise went on? In what way did it feel different to say “Katie doesn’t like me” versus “I notice I’m having the thought that Katie doesn’t like me”?
Most people during this exercise have the experience of gaining some distance from the thought. At first, when you are just repeating the thought itself, it feels the same way as it does when you are anxious: you’re so caught up in the thought that you don’t even realize it’s a thought. You’re just doing your usual worry or rumination about it and are so deep in that rumination that you’re not even aware you’re doing it.
This is what we call “cognitive fusion”: you take the thought so seriously and are so caught up in it, that it feels like a part of you.
You are, in other words, “fused” with the thought rather than recognizing that it is just a thought.
But the changes in phrasing force you to become aware of the process that’s going on. They force you to recognize the fact that “Katie doesn’t like me” is just a thought. The thought may or may not be true, but whether it is or not is beside the point. The point is that what you are afraid of and reacting to so strongly is simply some words flowing through your head, that’s all.
Having the distance to recognize that a thought is just a thought is what we call “cognitive defusion.” You become “de-fused” from the thought by simply recognizing that it is a thought you are having.
That is step one to reacting to the thought differently.
Clients who do that exercise and use this strategy in anxious moments, they often experience not just some distancing from the thought but also a softening of the experience of having the thought.
If it’s just a thought and you can treat it as just a thought rather than as a real, tangible danger to you, anxiety tends to lessen.
You also have an easier time not allowing the thought to impact your behavior and what you are able to do. Try it and I think you’ll find that thoughts start to lose a little bit of their power when you gain a little distance from them.
(About the author: Michael Stein, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who has spent 14 years specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders and OCD using Exposure Therapy and other evidence-based behavioral interventions.)
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