Cognitive Fusion and Cognitive Distancing

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Getting caught up in our thoughts

A number of years ago the National Science Foundation (USA) estimated that the human brain produces as many as 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts per day depending on how ‘deep’ a thinker a person is. The truth is that many of these daily thoughts are nothing more than random mental activity. People often dwell in the past or the future, obsessing about mistakes they might have made, battling guilt, planning ahead or worrying. Individuals are constantly drifting into fantasy, fiction and negativity. However this mental activity can and often has a significant negative impact on our wellbeing. A major source of our suffering (anxiety, depression, etc.) is related to our tendency to over-identify with our thoughts, amplifying them in our minds so that they seem to be “the truth”. When we become so attached, or fused, to thoughts in this way, it is easy to see how they can feel so very powerful.

Yet thoughts are just thoughts not necessarily reality. This statement is not meant to minimise the emotional impact that thoughts can have or to negate the factual information often associated with thoughts. These are both valid. The point is that thoughts are no more powerful than we will allow them to become. They are words and pictures that float through our minds. We are the ones who give them meaning. Just because you “have a thought,” that does not mean that any action must be taken. When thoughts seem frightening or powerful, there is often a sense of urgency associated with them that may prompt you to jump into action.

Cognitive Fusion

Cognitive fusion explains what we are doing when we become attached to patterns of thinking or specific thoughts that get in the way of leading a full, rich, and meaningful life. In order words, we are fused to our thoughts when they cause significant distress and struggle. When thoughts become paralysing, it is hard to remember the true nature of thoughts. They are nothing more than words and images floating through our minds to which we ascribe meaning. We are the ones who decide what those thoughts mean, not the thoughts themselves.

Identifying Cognitive Fusion

Harris (2009) provides 6 key areas to watch for fusion in your life:

(1) Rules: What unspoken rules do you live by? What stories have you told yourself about how you are “supposed” to feel, think, and behave? Consider the origins of those rules. Where did you learn that it was important to be a “certain” way? What would be the worst case scenario if you no longer followed those rules? How would your life become different if you were freed of those rules?
Example: “If I feel ….., then I can’t do …..” or ”If I do ….., then you should do …..”

(2) Reasons: What explanations do you give yourself (and others) about why you can’t, shouldn’t, or won’t do certain things? As human beings, we are very skilled in convincing ourselves and other people of all the reasons why we “can’t” change. Rather than blindly assume the validity of these reasons, choose to mindfully reflect upon them. Are they really ”true?” How do you know?
Example: “I can’t do ….. because I feel too …..” or ”I’ve never been able to do ….. because I’m just …..”

(3) Judgments: We are creatures of judgment. The judgments we make about people, events, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors inform our decision-making process in many ways. We come to understand the world and make sense of it all through the judgments we make about the people and things in it. Choose to examine what judgments you make and take the time to reflect upon where they come from and how useful they are in helping you life the live you wish to live. Judgments don’t have to cause you to suffer and struggle. Choose to hold them lightly and be flexible to change as new information enters your life.
Example: “I’m a ….. person” or ”Anxiety is awful” or ”You’re mean” or ”Life is hard”

(4) Past : The past is gone. While there are lessons to be learned from what has happened in the past so that you can build a better future, it does you no good to “stay stuck” in the past. Living in the past is like driving a car while looking in the rear view mirror rather than out the windshield. It is choosing to be blind to the present moment and stay fused with and focused on what is behind you. Begin to let go of the past and check back in to the constantly evolving present moment of “now.”
Example: Reliving the “good old days” before life turned “bad” or Taking a trip down “memory lane” where the “grass was greener”

(5) Future : The future is yet to come. We are all living in the present moment. You might as well make the choice to “check-in” to the present moment. When you fixate and fuse with thoughts about the future, you are preventing yourself from taking workable action in the present that will ultimately take you to the places you wish to go in the future.
Example: Worrying and fretting over what “might happen” or Checking out of the present moment by fantasizing about a “better life”

(6) Self : We all have ideas in our minds about what kind of person we are and what we stand for in life. It is valuable to have a strong sense of who you are and what your values are so that you can build a purposeful and intentional life. However, it becomes harmful when you are so fused with your “idea” of yourself that you become rigid and inflexible in your ways of thinking. Begin to mindfully observe your thoughts about “what kind of a person” you are and notice how fusion to those thoughts gets in the way of you stepping out of problematic patterns of behavior. When you let go of who you think you are or who you have to be, you open yourself up to the possibilities of who you can be.
Example: “I am weak/unlovable/worthless” or ”I don’t need help” or ”I am depressed” or ”I’m just not good at …..”
How does your own pattern of cognitive fusion get in the way of you leading your optimal life? Thoughts do not have any inherent power over you unless you hand it over. When you consider the true nature of thoughts as words and images floating through your mind, it seems awfully silly to give them the power to cause you suffering. Make the choice to become more mindfully aware of your patterns of thinking and begin to step out of your old rigid patterns and open yourself up new ways of thinking.

Cognitive Distancing

“People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.” – George Bernard Shaw.
When thoughts “pop” into your mind or when you have thoughts that you cannot get out of your mind, it is worth applying principles of mindfulness, acceptance, and problem-solving to those thoughts before taking any action.

Cognitive Distancing Adapted from Harris (2009)
The term that some psychologists use to describe the process of separating and distancing from thoughts is cognitive distancing. It involves the following

• Looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts
• Noticing thoughts rather than becoming caught up in thoughts
• Letting thoughts come and go rather than holding onto them

Purpose of Cognitive Distancing

The general purpose of cognitive distancing is to:
1. Notice the true nature of thoughts – they are words or images in your mind
2. Respond to thoughts in terms of taking action based on what “works” rather than what may seem like “true”
3. Notice the actual process of thinking – recognise that thoughts do not dictate behaviors
4. Use cognitive distancing when thoughts are acting as a barrier to living in accordance with what is really valuable to you.

How attached are you to your thoughts? Cognitive distancing does not imply that thoughts are somehow “bad.” The ability to think and process thoughts allows us to function effectively in life. Patterns of thinking become problematic when they are causing significant distress or struggle. You can make the choice to begin to consciously notice your thoughts, rather than becoming entangled and fused with them. Their “power” over you is a self-imposed illusion. How long are you willing to continue to struggle?

An essential part of accepting our thoughts is recognising that they are separate from the events to which they refer. This process is called “cognitive distancing. In a state of cognitive fusion we believe our thoughts as if they were the literal truth. We also take our thoughts to be rules that must be obeyed. When we believe thoughts to be the literal truth rather than just products of our minds they begin to exercise enormous power over us.
Cognitive distancing is a simple skill that requires us to step back from mental process and observe our own thoughts, memory and pictures and recognising them as passing private events. To deal with an unpleasant thought we could simply observe it with detachment, or repeat it over and over aloud, until it becomes a meaningless sound. We can thank our mind for such an interesting thought and then focus on the present moment. These techniques do not involve evaluating or disputing unwanted thoughts. To see how this works, imagine an unpleasant thought such as “I am stupid” or “I am incompetent”. Compare how it feels to hold this thought in your mind with the phrase, “I am having the thought that I am stupid.” This second form introduces distance from the thought. The thought has been reduced to what it is, just words.

Cognitive distancing is the act of perceiving thoughts, images, memories as what they are – nothing more than bits of language and pictures – as opposed to what they appear to be – threatening events, rules that must be obeyed and objective facts.

Cognitive distancing is assisted by an attitude of acceptance. Acceptance simply stated means making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations, urges and other private experiences, allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention. Mario was asked to make himself anxious by imagining himself at an office party. He was asked to observe the knot in his stomach as if he were a curious scientist, noticing its size, shape, vibration, weight, temperature, texture, hardness, and even its colour. He was instructed to make room for the sensation, to allow it to be there, even though he didn’t like it. He reported feeling a sense of being at ease with his anxiety. Homework was to practice this technique with his recurring anxious feelings, to let them come and go without a struggle.

Negative thoughts and emotions are like bees without stingers. They seem scary. Do you really have to run from them?

A Metaphor for Cognitive Distancing

Passengers on the bus
Imagine you’ve been driving a bus called “your life”. Like any bus, as you move along, you pick up passengers. In this case your passengers are your memories, bodily sensations, conditioned emotions, programmed thoughts, historically produced urges and so on. You’ll pick up some passengers you like and some you don’t like; whom you wish would take another bus.

As you’re driving along, living your life, some of the passengers start bossing you around, telling you what to do, where to go. “Turn left,” “Turn right”, “That way’s too hard” and so on. You would really like some of these difficult passengers to get off the bus but because they’re your thoughts, feelings and memories there’s no way of doing this.

If you turn the wheel to go where they say, they’re happy and quiet, but it also means you’re driving your ‘life bus’ in a direction you don’t really want to go. Even turning around to argue with them takes your mind off driving where you want to go. You can end up living a life that doesn’t have much meaning or value to you.
In the end, to have the life you want, you’ll need to find ways to take ALL of the passengers – the likeable and the difficult ones – with you. You need to learn how to keep from making deals with the passengers that turn control of the bus over to them. The aim is to be on the bus comfortably with your passengers – distinct from them and yet willing to carry them, with vitality and presence.

Ten Distancing Strategies

The aim of distancing is to observe your thoughts, feelings and urges mindfully, not avoid them, run from them or fight with them. Practicing being aware and noticing is the first step.

By developing distance, between yourself and your thoughts, you can slow down and make choices about how to react, and you are more able to tolerate the pain the thought may bring.

1. TV Screen

Imagine the thoughts &/or images in your mind are screened on a television. You can adjust the colour, walk around it, change the characters or type of program i.e., cartoon, drama.

2. Radio “Doom and Gloom”

Our minds are like a radio constantly playing in the background. Most of the time it’s the “Doom & Gloom Show”, broadcasting negative stories 24 hours a day. It reminds us of bad things from the past, it warns us of bad things to come in the future, and it gives us regular updates on everything that’s wrong with us. Every now and then it broadcasts something useful or nice, but not very often. So, if we’re constantly tuned in to radio “Doom & Gloom”, listening to it intently, and believing everything we hear, then we will end up stressed and miserable. Unfortunately, there’s no way to switch off this radio (even Buddhist Monks can’t stop their thoughts completely). In fact, usually the more we try to turn it off, the louder it plays. But there is an alternative approach. Have you ever heard a radio playing in the background, but you were so intent on what you were doing that you didn’t really listen to it? You could hear it playing, but weren’t paying attention. In practicing DEFUSION skills, we are aiming to do precisely this with our thoughts. Once we know that thoughts are just ‘a bit of language’, it becomes easier to treat them like background noise – let them come & go without focusing so much on them, and without being so bothered by them.

3. “I’m noticing I’m having a thought that…”

When you have a difficult thought, feeling or sensation, the first thing to do is notice you are having it and then either say or think to yourself:

“I am having a thought that …” or “I am having a sensation of …”
Then, you could try to think or say:
“I am noticing I am having a thought that …”

Pick a metaphor that you like and remind yourself of it when you are struggling with your thoughts.

Thoughts are like…

  • Clouds floating by
  • Birds flying across the sky
  • Waves arising from the sea, then falling back in. You can watch the waves from the shore, without being swept away by them.
  • Leaves floating down a stream. You don’t have to dive in. You can watch them from the bank.
  • Trains coming and going while you stand watching from the platform.
  • A waterfall. You’re standing behind it, not under it.
  • Guests entering a hotel. You can be like the doorman: You greet the guests but you don’t follow them to their rooms.
  • Cars passing by while you wait at an intersection.
  • Suitcases dropping onto a conveyor belt at the airport. You can watch them pass by, without having to pick them up.
  • People passing by you in the street. You can nod your head at them, but you don’t have to stop and have a conversation.
  • Wild horses running across the plains. You can admire them but no need to chase them.
  • Bubbles rising in a champagne bottle. They rise to the surface and then disappear.
  • Fish swimming in a tank. Watch them come & go.
  • Children running across a playground. You can stay still and watch, while they run wherever they want to.
  • Actors on a stage. You can watch the play; you don’t need to get on stage and perform.
  • ‘Pop-ups’ on the internet.
  • Text messages on your mobile phone.

5. “Thank you, mind”
When your mind gets caught up in distressing thoughts or images (a ‘story’), it can be helpful to say “Thank you, mind.” & then return to acting according to your values, rather than getting caught up in the distressing ‘story’.

6. Silly voice or sing the thought
Say your difficult thought, feeling or sensation in a silly voice, or sing it to a tune like “Happy Birthday” or “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

7. Leaves on a stream (or moving black strip)
Imagine a stream with leaves floating down it (or a moving black strip). As thoughts appear, place them on the leaves (or black strip) and let them float past. Whenever you get hooked by thoughts gently unhook yourself & carry on. Thoughts will keep arriving. Just keep puttong each one on a leaf (the black strip).

8. Wildlife photographer
Notice what your mind does. Stay on the lookout for any thoughts or images, as if you’re a wildlife photographer, waiting for an exotic animal to appear from the undergrowth. If no thoughts or images appear, keep watching, sooner or later one will.

  • Notice where they seem to be located – out in front of you, above you, behind you, to one side of you, or within you.
  • Notice that one part of you is thinking while another part is observing that thinking.
  • Notice there are your thoughts, and there’s you observing them.

9. Milk, Milk, Milk,
Think about milk and notice all the associations it brings to mind. Then say “milk” “milk” over and over for a minute. What has happened to all the associations you had to the word? Perhaps it just sounds like a strange sound now. If that is how it worked using the word “milk”, you could try summarizing a difficult thought into a few words and then repeating the words over and over for 1 minute.

10. Writing
Write down what is bothering you over and over again, write it in different styles, sizes, colours and mediums.

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