In all forms of cognitive behavioural therapy, 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 baby guinea pig separated from the mother at 3 months old to become someone else’s pet, promptly getting pregnant a couple of months later due to being wrongly sexed and sold with a different gender cousin, and the experience of a baby human separated from their mum at 3 months old, even for half an hour while she has a shower solo (never mind for life). From experience, that baby guinea pig copes far better than that baby human in my house. Or perhaps a better analogy would be one by Louise Hayes where she compares a child and a puppy reacting to the same experience of being locked out of the house for the afternoon, unable to contact anyone about it. The child might feel sad that they can’t play with their toys, watch their favourite TV programme and eat their favourite snack which they know are in the house and can think about it, and may also have thoughts of resentment that nobody comes to let them back in. They might well keep thinking about this, and feeling worse, until someone does, and continue to think about it afterwards. The puppy on the other hand might enjoy digging up the garden and chasing the rabbits and birds until someone comes to let them in and feed them, only showing gratitude for being allowed back – whereas the child might continue to be sad and feel hurt for a while. 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.
An important part of relational frame theory is our ability to build associations between words and experiences. It’s helpful to consider here how children learn language. Most parents will have had the experience of walking with a toddler who is learning what different animals are called, and over-extending the use of one animal label to one 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 parenting context, one of my examples came up after I had my second child. Up until then, the belief that I was a strong person and could cope pretty well by myself had for the most part been adaptive for me and I could support it with evidence. However in the early days with two children, there were uncomfortably regular moments when someone would offer me practical help I really could have benefited from but my – I now realise – unhelpfully fused belief that I can and should cope alone kept popping up and I kept reacting by getting tense and refusing all help – and not always politely. I was then able to reflect on this alongside my knowledge of defusion and consider holding the thought that “I must cope alone” a bit more lightly from now on would be more helpful. So if you’re reading this and know me, you might well be thinking “yeah you’re still terrible at asking for AND accepting help” but at least you’ll know I’m aware of it and trying to work on it – and it’s not your fault for offering help, it’s my struggle with my own thought going on.
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 parenting 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.