In all forms of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), of which ACT is one of the third wave variants, thoughts are considered important in beginning and maintaining distress. Thought management tools are therefore considered of value in reducing psychological distress. In traditional CBT, people are encouraged to aim to balance their thinking by watching out for “wonky” thinking, or “hot thoughts” that on examination, do not seem helpful, and to then spend time learning strategies to challenge these.
ACT takes a different approach rooted in a theoretical understanding of language development called Relational Frame Theory. To better understand this theory, here is hopefully a link to a tutorial on the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science website – https://contextualscience.org/rft_tutorial.
So you can follow why defusing from thoughts would be useful and follow this post though, here’s a nutshell version. Humans are distinct from other animals both in the way we use language to think, talk and communicate about our experiences with each other and also in the way we experience distress. For example, compare the experiences of the cat left behind with a friend when the couple who care for the cat normally go on honeymoon and how the wife might feel if the husband flew off on honeymoon and left her behind. Suffice is to say the cat would likely purr a welcome home and the wife would not. And why? Because the cat – without thoughts – would be satisfied to be fed, watered and stroked by someone else for the week and the left-behind-wife would have a week to stew on thoughts of outrage and revenge. The newly married couple’s relationship would likely be on the rocks before it really started, whereas the cat might contentedly curl up on their favourite cushion by the fire in the couple’s house for years to come. Our powers of thought allow us to think about the past and future as well as the present, which can have advantages and disadvantages in dealing with distress. In this example, if you were that wife it may be an advantage to have feelings of outrage to alert you to unreasonable behaviour and thus give you the choice not to tolerate it. If however there was some missing information that helped make the husband’s actions forgivable when put in a fuller context, it may be a disadvantage to have difficulty letting go of hurt feelings if a cycle of repetitive arguments arose and threatened to chip away at a fragile marriage.
An important part of relational frame theory is our ability to build associations between words and experiences. It’s helpful to consider here how we learn language as young children. A toddler who is learning what different animals are called often over-extends the use of one animal label to another that doesn’t go in the category – for example, calling all big cats at the zoo lions. Consider how this might work in terms of how we organise our memories and experiences in our minds. For example, a girl whose boyfriend cheats on her may have the thought that “all men are b******s”, get fused or stuck in thinking that way – particularly if her friends reinforce the view over a few glasses of wine – and be wary in her next relationship of the next man doing the same. So what’s the answer? For lots of us, at first glance its to avoid the source of the pain – which makes perfect sense if the problem is you put your hands in the campfire as a toddler and realised it was a bit ouchy. It causes more problems for us though if we try to avoid emotional pain by avoiding life. Because of our minds working by storing associations, to avoid the pain of being cheated on it would be necessary to avoid all further relationships and all further dates. That may still not be sufficient however, as meeting up with friends might come with the risk that they might want to offload about being cheated on, or even gossip about someone else’s partner possibly cheating – so maybe you’d need to avoid friends too. Even then, reading social media sites like Facebook might bring it up – so maybe avoid them too. And what if work colleagues might talk about it? Avoid work too then? And magazines might write about infidelity – so stop buying them? You’re probably getting the point – while avoidance might seem like a comfy go-to coping strategy, to make it work to avoid distress the life you’ve got left to engage in gets really small. So if you want to live a life that you care about, avoidance is not your friend. So, neither is getting rid of your thoughts. Arguing with them to reduce their intensity just keeps you in contact with them for longer. So rather than avoid or fight with your mind, you want a gentler solution.
The problem is when you’ve got fused to an unhelpful thought and haven’t yet noticed, and its bossing you around and getting you to do stuff you don’t really want to do. In a miscarriage context, one of my examples came up after I had my first miscarriage. I fused with the thought that I shouldn’t talk about it. I allowed the convention of not sharing pregnancy news before a twelve week scan to unhelpfully silence me by fusing with that. Gradually opening up and sharing with more people opened my eyes to the reality that a lot of women go through miscarriage, trouble concieving or infertility but there’s a sort of taboo that prevents open discussion of it, in the same way that people don’t talk as comfortably about their mental health as they would their physical health. Since I value social justice and compassion, challenging stigma is a much more satisfying fit with living a valued life for me – hence starting this blog website. So now I choose to hold any thoughts my mind wants to offer about the risks of talking openly about miscarriage a bit more lightly. My mind is offering these thoughts to try to protect me from the perceived risk of judgement or criticism, so I can gently thank my mind for the input, but choose to respond with openness rather than silence.
So – if you have your own thoughts you feel unhelpfully fused with or trapped by – and of course you do, you’re human too – here are some ideas of what can help to defuse from tricky thoughts:
Metaphors – ACT is big on metaphors. You could consider for example – thoughts as like boomerangs – you can try to throw them away, but they’ll come back equally hard at you. Or consider pushing thoughts away as like stuffing a beachball under water – you’ll end up ducking yourself under instead. You could also try visualising your thoughts as written on the carriages of a passing train as you watch from a mountain above, or visualising your thoughts floating past on lilypads on a fast moving stream. Below is a link to a you tube clip of a classic ACT metaphor “passengers on the bus” which suggests we try to see difficult thoughts and feelings as passengers onboard, where we ourselves are the driver and can choose to attend to them or not –
Art and craft exercises – if your thought was a monster, what colour would it be? What shape and size? Would it be furry, prickly, feathery, scaly, slimy? Would it have a voice – what tone would it have? What sounds might it make? What would it wear? Could you draw or paint it? Or draw a cartoon of it?
Or – could you throw it a birthday party on a piece of paper – draw it some cakes, balloons, presents? Throw some paint splodges and glitter over it?
Or if you like writing – and if you’re a blogger, guessing you do – you could try typing it out and changing the font style, colour and size.
Another idea from an ACT training day I attended is to write a thought you’re fused with on your forehead and walk around like that all day. At a training day where everyone else does that, it’s still exposing but other people know why you’re doing it and are in the same boat, so not likely to be judging, but you might want to consider a twist on this like only doing that exercise at home with people you’re very comfortable with around while you do it, or carrying the thought around on a note in your handbag instead. Another thing you could try right now is to write it down then watch this clip on youtube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHGBeg6AnMo which will hopefully reassure you that whatever you wrote, you are not alone – the post it notes in this clip are all thoughts that therapists had during an ACT training exercise.
Humour is a very effective tool also to defuse from difficult thoughts or feelings. Depending on your taste and style, you might want to try saying the thought in Bart Simpson’s voice, making up song lyrics around your thought, composing a “bad news day” news feed item about it or writing a comic strip. I thought I would link to Nathan Pyle’s facebook page here as he has several comic strips that I personally have found helpful for defusing from stress spots –
“Get out of your mind and into your life” is a helpful book to read in particular for defusion ideas, but the others in the ACT book list in my Further Help section are also good.