Simple techniques to help you step back from your thoughts
A central idea of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is that psychological difficulties occur because we rigidly believe the literal content of our minds; we fuse with our internal language/thoughts that then leads us to behave in ways that may not be helpful to us. This is called cognitive fusion.
Fusion can be described in various ways such as: being hooked by your thoughts, being entangled in your thoughts, being caught up with your thoughts, buying into your thoughts, holding on tightly to your thoughts, dwelling on your thoughts, getting bogged down in your thoughts.
The fundamental challenge of being human involves learning when to follow what your mind says and when to simply be aware of your mind while attending to the here and now
Hayes et al (2012)
In contrast, defusion is to literally undo fusion (Luoma et al, 2017) - to step back from our thoughts and see them as bits of internal language in our minds. Defusion means that we are looking at our thoughts rather than coming from our thoughts. A sentence is viewed simply as a sentence: a string of words grouped together, rather than a truth to be believed (e.g. I am unlovable) or a command to be obeyed (e.g. I must check the taps again), or a threat to be acted upon (e.g. they can see me blushing so I need to leave).
The Defusion Wheel
The Defusion Wheel is a useful visual of some (not all!) defusion techniques that can help you more easily step back from your unhelpful thoughts. We have grouped them into categories for ease:
Observe & notice
One of the first important steps to helping you step back from your thoughts is to observe and notice your thinking. This can be done in many different ways, but all involve you shifting your attention to your thoughts. This can feel difficult if the thoughts you are experiencing are particularly distressing. Take your time with it, and if it feels too overwhelming to notice your distressing thoughts, start off practicing with some neutral thoughts like "what day do the bins go out".
1. Stop. Pause. Notice & Name
Simply stop what you are doing, pause (taking a slow, deep breath can be useful here), notice what your mind is saying in this moment. What thoughts or images are showing up? If you experience your thoughts as sounds (e.g. an internal voice), just listen to what is there. Then name it: a worry, a prediction, a negative thought, an anxious thought, a judgement, a critical thought and so on.
2. Thoughts like pop up banners on the internet
Think of your thoughts as pop up banners on the internet - try visualising them in your mind's eye as a pop-up banner. You don't need to engage with the pop up if it is unhelpful, just recognise that the unhelpful pop up has shown up, and move your attention to something more meaningful/helpful.
3. Thoughts on a computer screen
Similar to the pop up banners technique, imagine your thoughts are sentences/words or images on your computer or mobile screen. Play around with the font - make it bigger or smaller, change the colour, turn it into word art and so on. The idea here is to help you observe and notice your thoughts for what they are - consonants, vowels, words, sentences - language in your mind.
4. Balloons in the sky
Imagine that your thoughts are on balloons that are floating in the sky. You can be creative and imagine writing your thoughts on the balloons and letting them go, or maybe they just magically appear on the balloons and float into the sky. Notice that the sky can only have a few balloons or many balloons, but each one is floating on by you. You don't need to hang onto any of the balloons, just observe and notice them as you experience each thought.
Play with language
The aim of defusion is to see your thoughts for what they are - language your mind has produced. Playing with different elements of language can be a good (and often fun!) way to help with this.
5. Say it slowly
Take a difficult thought you are experiencing and say it very slowly. Really take your time with it, sounding out each part of the word, each part of the sentence. Experiment with different speeds, how slowly can you say it?
6. Repeat it quickly
The next time you experience a difficult thought, say it over and over again to yourself quickly, for a good 30-60 seconds. This is a classic defusion technique that helps you experience your thoughts as sounds that your mouth, tongue and lips are making.
7. Sing your thoughts
Singing your thoughts to a well known tune can help you take the power out of difficult thoughts. You can use any tune you like as long as you are familiar with it. A good place to start would be the classic songs such as 'Happy Birthday to you' or 'The grand old duke of York'.
8. Silly or funny voice
If you experience your thoughts as an internal voice, saying your thoughts in a silly or funny voice can be effective in helping you defuse. For example, saying your thoughts to yourself as Daffy Duck or Miss Piggy (or any other cartoon character!), or saying your thoughts as your favourite film or TV character.
Rather than blindly following what you mind says, take more of a curious (and where possible, non judgemental) approach to it. Try and see your mind as an organ in your body that produces thoughts.
9. What is my mind saying?
Firstly, try and tune into what your mind is actually saying. What thoughts are showing up? What are you thinking? It can help to actually ask yourself the question: "Right now, what is my mind saying?" or "Hello mind, what are you trying to tell me?"
10. Is this thought helpful?
A really simple question to ask yourself in difficult moments is: is this thought helpful to me? Does it help me live the life I want to live? Does it help me be the person I want to be in this moment/situation?
For example, if you get really hooked by the thought "I can't do this piece of work" is it going to help you in actually doing that piece of work? No! So what is going to help you in that moment? What is going to be more useful to you? First, acknowledging that an unhelpful thought has shown up, then maybe taking a break, getting some fresh air, getting support with the work and so on.
11. If I buy into this thought
Similar to 'is this thought helpful?' - if you do buy into whatever your mind is saying (e.g. I can't do this piece of work), where will it lead you? Will you be more likely to give up, getting more and more frustrated, procrastinate, feel bad about yourself? What would happen if you could step back from the thought, notice you are getting hooked and identify the helpful actions you can take that will move you towards being someone who can get that piece of work done (see no. 10).
How to use the Defusion Wheel
The Defusion Wheel outlines some of the key ways to help you defuse or unhook from your difficult thoughts. Try them all and see which technique is most effective for you. There is no right or wrong and you may find that some techniques are better for particular thoughts, but not others.
What you find most effective will be very individual to you. Try and have a mix of techniques from all three categories rather than rigidly just using one technique from one category.
The Defusion Wheel is a simple tool that brings together various techniques to help promote defusion and to enable you to be less entangled in your thoughts and therefore less dominated by them. If you are less dominated by your thoughts you can then start to more easily choose what you do next, to help you create a more rich and meaningful life, or a life that is more in line with your values.
Below are some of the books we regularly recommend to clients as they outline the principles of ACT, including learning how to defuse from your thoughts:
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris https://www.actmindfully.com.au/product/the-happiness-trap/
The Reality Slap by Russ Harris https://www.actmindfully.com.au/product/the-reality-slap/
Get out of your Mind and into your life by Steven Hayes https://www.amazon.co.uk/Get-Your-Mind-Into-Life/dp/1572244259
Hayes, S., Strosahl, K. & Wilson, K. (2012). Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. New York: Guildford Press.
Luoma, J., Hayes, S. & Walser, R. (2017). Learning ACT. 2nd Edition. Oakland CA: Context Press.