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Intrusive Thoughts and Overthinking: The Skill of Cognitive Defusion 20/30

Navigating Cognitive Fusion and Defusion to Manage Emotions and Fight Mental Illness

  • Cognitive fusion is when a person buys into every thought that passes through their mind, while cognitive defusion is the skill of separating oneself from thoughts and selectively choosing which ones to act on
  • Cognitive fusion can lead to an endless loop of worrying or obsessing over thoughts, while cognitive defusion can be a powerful tool for managing emotions and fighting depression and anxiety
  • Through an example story, it is demonstrated how cognitive fusion can lead to being stuck in one’s thoughts and having unwritten rules that are not noticed, but still color everything
  • A course teaching how to help when someone experiences mental illness is mentioned.

Miguel Learns Cognitive Defusion as a Tool for Better Relationships

  • Miguel was anxious about offending people or hurting their feelings
  • He had an unwritten rule that he couldn’t make anyone feel bad
  • He realized this rule was keeping him from having good relationships
  • Cognitive defusion is the antidote to this problem, as it involves noticing your thoughts without buying into them
  • Examples of exercises to help practice cognitive defusion were provided.

6 Ways to Practice Cognitive Defusion

  • Cognitive defusion is the practice of looking at thoughts instead of through them
  • The leaves on a stream exercise is a great way to do this
  • Naming thoughts can help separate ourselves from them, like giving them a name such as “Billy Bob”
  • Thanking your mind can be helpful when having intrusive thoughts
  • Using singing and silly voices and symbolically putting thoughts onto an object are two more exercises to try.

Unburdening Ourselves From Unhelpful Thoughts: A Guide to Cognitive Defusion

  • Cognitive defusion is the skill of separating ourselves from our thoughts
  • It involves noticing and labeling our thoughts, asking whether they are helpful, and discarding unhelpful ones
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has a skill of challenging distorted thinking while ACT has the additional skill of cognitive defusion
  • Cognitive defusion gives us freedom to ask whether buying a thought makes life better
  • Different people have different ways of representing their thoughts such as carrying rocks, sticks, or horse poop in a bag
  • Using this skill can help create separation between ourselves and our thoughts so that they hold less power over us.

Unlock a Life of Emotional Well-Being with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Course

  • This video teaches the Acceptance and Commitment therapy skill of focusing on living the desired life
  • Provides links to helpful videos, recordings and resources
  • Introduces an entire 30-skill course, “How to Process Your Emotions,” which includes workbook exercises and live Q&A’s
  • Mentions watching and sharing these videos, contributing to Patreon/sponsors helps make this possible, as well as buying the course for access to extra materials.

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You have a million thoughts a day, but you don't even notice them; you just believe them. We swim  through our thoughts like a fish swims through water - we don't even notice that the way we think  colors our view of the world. Or sometimes we do notice, right. Sometimes we notice thoughts we  don't like, and then we don't know what to do with them. Sometimes you fight them or you struggle  against them, but you know if, for example, you think, "Oh, I'm such an idiot," and then you  tell yourself, "No, I'm the smartest person in the world," that doesn't necessarily feel any better.  So sometimes you get stuck in an endless loop of overthinking, obsessively struggling against a  thought or obsessively worrying about something. But that's not any better because struggle steals  your attention and your energy. Our thoughts are like glasses: they are the lens through which  we see the world. If you think the world is a terrible, mean place, that's what you'll see.  If you think people are inherently good, that's what you'll find. In this video, you're going  to learn how to get unstuck from your thoughts. You're going to learn how to look at your thoughts  instead of through them. You're going to learn how to take off your glasses, how to look at them and  then decide if you want to hang on to them or if you want to choose a different pair. This skill  is called cognitive defusion. It's the difference between having a thought and buying a thought.  This is such a powerful skill for processing emotions and fighting depression and anxiety.  If you want to improve your mental health, the skill of cognitive defusion teaches you  to separate yourself from your thoughts. And this can give you power over your thoughts  instead of letting them run the show. Do you know at least three people? If so, then the odds  are good that you know someone who experiences mental illness. But if you're like most people,  you may feel anxious and uncertain about how to help. Everyone needs to learn these skills,  but most people are never taught them. So I built a course with 55 short videos teaching how to  help when a friend or loved one experiences mental illness. In this course, you'll learn how to build  a relationship of influence, how to set healthy boundaries, what to say, and what not to say. And  in addition to these personal skills you'll also learn how to help them access resources that you  might not even know about and what to do if they won't get help or if they don't want to talk about  it. You really can learn how to help when someone you cares about struggles with mental health.  If you'd like to learn more, click the link in the description, and you can get started today.  So first, to understand cognitive defusion, we need to understand what is cognitive fusion.  Your brain is a word machine. It says stuff and it thinks stuff all the time. When you  look through the lens of your thoughts, this is called cognitive fusion. It's the problem of being  stuck to your thoughts. Cognitive fusion is buying into every thought that passes through your mind.  It's when you think something, you don't even notice it, you just believe it. In this episode  we're going to talk about recognizing all of our thoughts and separating ourselves from them and  then selectively choosing which thoughts or beliefs you want to act on or buy, as we say,  instead of letting random subconscious thoughts dictate your mood, your choices,  and your ultimate happiness. So let me start with a story to illustrate cognitive fusion  and cognitive defusion. So once I was working with a young man who had a lot of social anxiety,  we'll call him Miguel. And he had a good group of friends, but every time he hung out with them he  would start to feel really anxious. And then when he was at a party, he would make some joke or say  something, and then he would start to worry. He would think, "Oh, did I say the wrong thing?  Did I hurt her feelings?" Or if, for example, one group of friends  split off into the pool and another invited him to the game room, he would panic a little bit,  feeling like terrified. Terrified because he didn't know which group to go with. And then  he'd start thinking, Oh my gosh, I can't believe I'm getting anxious again. I'm such a loser."  And then he'd think, "Oh, don't think that way. What's the matter with you? Don't feel anxious.  Why do you always do this?" And then he would just start going back and forth in his head, right,  fighting his negative thoughts and trying not to feel anxious. And if he couldn't get his anxious  thoughts to go away, he'd feel uncomfortable and he'd leave the party early. Now in this example,  Miguel was fused with his thoughts in two ways. The first way was that when he was trying to hang  out with his friends, he got all wrapped up in trying to make his thoughts go away.  He was focusing all his energy on fighting his thoughts, and that kept him stuck or fused to them  instead of putting his energy into having a good time. The second way that he got fused with his  thoughts is that he had an unwritten rule that he didn't even know about, he didn't notice he was  thinking it, and it colored everything he did. Let me let me show you. So when I asked Miguel why he  would get anxious, he said, "Well, i always worry that I might say something wrong or that I might  offend someone or hurt someone's feelings." And when I asked, "Well, what do you mean?" he said,  "Well, I always overthink everything I say. After hanging out, I always worry that something I said  might have bothered someone or that a joke I made might have hurt someone's feelings,  and I just hate dealing with all the drama." So I said "What drama?"  He said, "Well, if a couple of my friend friends invite me to do something with them but they  don't invite my other friend, and then my other friend invites me to do something that same night,  how do I say no to the other friend without making them feel bad?" So I asked a follow-up question.  So I said, "They aren't being dramatic; you're just worrying. And he's like, "Yeah." I said,  "Well, what are you most afraid of? And he said, "That I might make someone feel bad by saying no."  So at that point I realized what was going on, and I said, "It sounds like you have a rule in your  head that you're never allowed to make anyone feel bad." So he thought for a second. He said, "Hmm,  I guess so. I never noticed that I had that rule, but now that you say that I think you're right."  And then he was able to tell me some examples. He said, "Once I had a girlfriend who I wanted  to break up with, but I didn't for like a year because I didn't want to make her feel bad."  And I was like, "Yes, that is a good example." And then he gave me another one. He said if the food  is terrible or it's cooked wrong at the restaurant and the waiter asks how's the food, he always says  great, even um if it's a lie. So this young man, Miguel, he didn't realize he was thinking  this rule, right, I can never make anyone feel bad. And this rule that he didn't even know he had  was making him really anxious. He had bought that thought. He believed it without even noticing that  he was thinking that way. So in Miguel's case, he was stuck to his thoughts. It was keeping him from  being present with his friends. When we buy our thoughts, when we believe everything we think,  it makes it hard for us to change. So the antidote to this is learning to notice your thoughts  without buying them. You learn to look at your thoughts instead of looking through your thoughts,  and you notice yourself as the thinker, the place where these thoughts happen. When when  Miguel noticed his unwritten rule, he could see how impossible it was, how it it was keeping him  from having good relationships. And when he was able to notice that rule, it was like, before he  noticed the rule it was like "Oh my gosh, I have to make everyone feel good or I'm a bad person."  And then he looks at that rule, he's like, "Oh, that's a thought; that's a rule I have."  And he's and he's like, "That's not very helpful." He said "I - and then and then he was able to  replace it with something more helpful. So he he noticed that thought, and he's like "You know  what, instead of that rule, I'd like to replace it with this: I can't control how others feel,  but I value being kind and assertive." So he could see both of these thoughts, and he could  choose which one was most helpful for him. And this helped him feel less anxiety at parties  and helped him focus his energy on being present and having a good time and being kind to people.  Now this this idea of cognitive defusion is kind of a difficult concept to explain,  but it's easier to demonstrate. So you've got to experience it to understand it. So  I'm gonna give you about four exercises that you can try to get a feeling for what it  feels like to look at your thoughts instead of through your thoughts. Now this first activity  is really easy to do with a negative thought about yourself, but I'm not going to do that  on YouTube - partly because I think I don't want to trigger people here where they might not have  been expecting that. So check out the course resources in the full course to experience that  activity. And instead we're going to do a little bit of a a milder version of that activity. So for  the next minute, write down or say out loud all of the thoughts that run through your mind.So for example, you may be thinking, "I don't get this" or "I'm not thinking anything." And then  you just notice like, "Oh, that's a thought too, right." And then I want you to take one of those  thoughts and put the words in front of it "I'm having the thought that..." and stay there for  a bit. Can you notice the thought? Can you see it as the thought that you're having in this moment?Now replay it one more time, but this time add the phrase  "I notice that I'm having the thought that..." So for example, "I notice I'm having the thought that  this is boring." Now what happened? Did you notice that sense of separation or distance between you  and the thought? And see see if you can look at yourself while having thoughts.  While you're noticing yourself having thoughts, take a second to open up your awareness to what  other thoughts you're having. Is work popping up in your mind? Or perhaps the thought, you know,  "How much longer is this going to take?" Or are there other thoughts running through your  mind? And just take a second to notice them and then to notice yourself noticing them.You just practiced cognitive defusion - looking at your thoughts instead of through your thoughts.  You are a person that experiences thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions are experiences  that you are having. They aren't necessarily reality; they're just something that you're  experiencing. You can have thoughts without buying them. Another great way to practice this  is through the leaves on a stream exercise. Check out that meditation on my YouTube channel. Another  helpful way to separate ourselves from thoughts is to name them. Like literally, I've had clients who  liked using the term, you know, negative mind to describe the spiral of thoughts.  Or for some people, they might say, "Oh, that's an intrusive thought, right. That's giving it a name.  But it can also be helpful to give those thoughts an actual name, like Billy Bob.  So for example, "Oh, there's Billy Bob popping up into my thoughts today."  And that that just means, you know, there's those thoughts popping in. And you might be  able to identify Billy Bob as kind of a negative character. So it might say things like, "Oh,  you'll never be successful, right." Say, "Oh, there's Billy Bob," or "There's there's the bully,  the bully thoughts coming in and telling me what to think." When we give our thoughts a name,  we're basically saying like, "Oh, I am Emma, and this is a thought," essentially separating  ourselves from our thoughts. So with Miguel, he might be able to look at his thoughts and say,  "Oh, I'm having the thought that I'm awkward, but just because I think that doesn't mean it's true."  Then you could, Miguel could say something like, "Oh, hello thought. Thank you, mind, for making  that thought. But that thought, you know, 'Oh, I'm so awkward' is not super helpful to me right now,  so I'm gonna go back to paying attention to listening to my friend." That's that's another  one. That's another cognitive defusion technique. It's called thanking your mind. So you just say,  "Thank you, mind, for that thought. That's a thought. Just because Ii think it doesn't  mean it's true, doesn't mean I have to act on it, doesn't mean I have to believe it."  Okay, here's another fun act exercise. Um they have hundreds of these, by the way, right. These  are all thanks to Stephen Hayes and Jason Luoma and Russ Harris and all the other great act  developers out there, Acceptance and Commitment therapy. So here's another one: using singing  and silly voices, right. So you take the thought that seems really strong like "Oh, I can't go to  that party if I feel anxious." And then you start to use weird voices to say that thought out loud:  I can't go to that party if I feel anxious. I can't go to that party if I feel anxious.  I can't go to that party if I feel anxious. Okay, I'm terrible at accents, so I should not even try,  right. I can't go to that party if I feel anxious. And the basic idea is that when you start to say  a thought in a bunch of weird ways, it starts to feel like this weird thing, like this weird  jumble of words, instead of feel like just, you know, the water that you're swimming in.  Same thing happens if you say a word over and over again. So if, for example, Miguel is like,  "Oh my gosh, I'm so awkward," then he says the word "awkward" over and over and over again:  awkward awkward awkward awkward awkward - say it with me - awkward awkward awkward awkward awkward  awkward awkward awkward awkward awkward awkward awkward awkward awkward. And at some point,  awkward all of a sudden turns into this weird jumble of sounds. That's a cognitive defusion  technique, right. This is just a word. Your brain is a word machine, and everything it makes up,  some of it's true, some of it isn't. Some of it's helpful, some of it's not. It's just a thought.  And when we separate ourselves from our thoughts, we can create choice for ourselves. Okay,  another exercise that's often helpful is to symbolically put your thoughts onto an object  to give them a tangible form. The easiest way to do this is to write. Write it down on a piece of  paper. Bruce Lee said, "I have a system of ridding my mind of negative thoughts - I visualize myself  writing them down on a piece of paper. Then I imagine myself crumpling up the paper,  lighting it on fire, and burning it to a crisp." In residential treatment, I worked with a whole  bunch of kids who found it helpful to make their thoughts concrete by putting them on an object.  So I had one client who had really low self-esteem - and again, we were not forcing the kids to do  this; they were choosing to uh engage in these uh activities to help themselves. And it wasn't about  shame or like the scarlet letter or anything like that. So she, this woman, this this young  lady with low self-esteem, she decided to get a huge rock, like, you know, like a 10-pound rock.  And she wrote on it "I'm unlovable." And when she believed that thought, when she bought  that thought, she would carry that rock around. And when she chose not to believe that thought,  when she chose not to buy that thought, she would set that rock down. So she made a physical way  to represent this idea of having a thought versus buying a thought. Like that rock might have still  been in the room and she might still be noticing that rock, but just because she was noticing it  didn't mean that she believed it. Lots of thoughts are going to pop up in your head throughout the  day. Average people have intrusive thoughts all the time. We all might have inappropriate  thoughts or negative thoughts or true thoughts or false thoughts. It's okay to have a thought;  it doesn't say anything about you. Your brain is a word machine. But if you're going to buy a  thought, if you're going to believe it and act on it, make that a conscious choice.  One of the ways to do this is to just put it on an object, right. I've had clients who have  chosen to carry rocks, sticks, and even horse poop in a bag as a way to represent themselves being  fused with their thoughts. And when they're ready to notice them and separate from them, they would  set these objects aside. When they no longer need that thought, they let go and go of an object.  Sometimes they'll come back to it, but gradually just practicing, you know,  like labeling it and choosing it if they want to, that can help them kind of create that separation.  Cognitive defusion gives you the freedom to ask, "Does buying this thought make my life better?"  That's what act is all about: it's freeing us to live the life we value instead of getting sucked  into thoughts. So you say, "This is a thought. It's just a thought. I don't have to believe it,  I don't have to act on it, I don't have to fight it. I can let it pass through."  So the essential question is "Is this thought helpful to me? Does it help me live my values?"  If the thought is helpful, you can buy it, you can believe it, you can hang on to it, you can  act on it. And if it's not helpful, then you can notice it. You can just have it but not buy it.  It's just a thought. Thoughts pop up all the time, and not all of them are helpful. So for example,  fusion with thoughts says, "Oh, I have to stop being anxious if I want to go to parties."  Or with OCD it says, "Oh, I have to make this thought about washing my hands go away." It traps  us in a cycle of fighting our thoughts or just believing them without even noticing it, right.  With cognitive defusion, we create space between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings so that  they can have less of a hold over us. So you can say, "I can feel anxious and go to that party. I  can have the thought that I need to wash my hands 20 times, but I don't have to buy that thought."  Now let's just take a minute and contrast this with CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, right. So  in section 18 and 19, we talked about challenging distorted thinking. This is a CBT skill.  So you might take the thought like, "Oh, I'm a complete loser," and then you would challenge  that thought. You would say, "Oh, that's black and white thinking. Let's look for exceptions.  What would a kind friend say about that?" CBT gives you the skill of challenging your thoughts,  which is a helpful skill for some people or in some situations. Now for other people,  that leads them to constantly struggling against their thoughts. So with Acceptance and Commitment  therapy, we add the skill of defusion. It's the ability to separate yourself from your thoughts  and to choose your actions. So you'd look at a thought like "I'm a complete loser" and you'd say,  "Thanks, mind." And you say and then you'd ask, you know, "Is this thought helpful for me?  Thank you, mind, for giving me this thought that I'm a complete loser, but this is just a thought.  Is this thought helpful to me?" And if it's not helpful, if it doesn't help you live your values,  then you just let that thought be there. You let that thought pass along, do whatever thoughts do.  And you just look around for another thought that's more helpful to you.  Now it's not that like cognitive defusion is better and challenging cognitive distortions  is worse; it's just that these are different skills, different tools. When you add skills  to your emotional toolbelt, you have more flexibility to find the one that works for you.  So in summary, don't get obsessed with fighting your thoughts,  with trying to make them go away or just worrying about them or reacting to them.  You don't have to believe everything you think. With cognitive defusion, we create a little space  between ourselves and our thoughts. We notice them. We say, "I'm having the thought that  like I'm awkward or I'm a loser." Instead of saying, "I'm a loser," say "I'm having the thought  that I'm a loser." Then we can ask ourselves, "Is this thought, is this thought helpful?  Does it help me live the life I value?" So "Does that thought help me? Oh, I'm such a loser. Hmm.  It doesn't really help me take any action. Okay, I'm just going to notice that thought.  I'm going to choose one thing I can do to, I don't know, make my life better or whatever that is."  So that frees us to choose what's most important and to allow other thoughts to pass through so  that we can focus on living the life we want. The Acceptance and Commitment therapy gurus  have made some great videos and recordings to help people understand and practice this,  so check out a few of them. The links are below. Thank you for watching, and take care. This video  is one skill from my 30-skill course How to Process Your Emotions, where I teach 30 of the  most essential skills for resolving depression, anxiety, and improving mental health. Emotion  processing is an essential skill for working through intense emotions, but most people have  never been taught how to do it. I'm putting every single main video lesson on YouTube for the world  to access for free. You watching these videos, sharing them, contributing to my Patreon and my  sponsors make this possible. If you would like to access the entire course in one place ad free  with its workbook, exercises, downloads, extra videos, live Q&A's, additional short readings,  and links to extended resources, the link to buy the course is in the description below.