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Understanding the Difference: Cognitive Fusion vs Defusion in ACT Therapy

Updated: 2 hours ago


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that emphasizes acceptance of one's thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to change or eliminate them. It encourages individuals to identify their values and commit to actions that align with those values, fostering psychological flexibility and resilience. By developing mindfulness skills and practicing acceptance, you'll be able to learn how live more fully in the present moment while pursuing meaningful goals.

One of the main 6 concepts of ACTS is cognitive defusion, accompanied by cognitive fusion. By the end of this article, you'll now the difference (and the importance) or the two, and how you can use them in your own self care journey.


What's Cognitive Fusion?

Cognitive Fusion - often just called fusion - simply means that our thoughts take over our behavior in a way that is harmful to our mental health. There are times when we feel as if our feelings "hook" us; they hook our attention, fling us around, and pull us off track.

So, how does Fusion show up?

There are two main ways cognitive fusion shows up:

  1. When our thoughts take our the way we do physical actions in problematic ways. In response to these thoughts, we may say or do things that don't align with the life that we want to build up. For example, in response to the thought "I'm stupid", I cancel going to a important lecture or lesson.

  2. When our thoughts take away our awareness in problematic ways. This occurs when we feel like we get "pulled into" or "lost in" our thoughts, so our awareness is reduced and we aren't paying attention as much as we should. For example, there are times when I get so caught up in worrying that I can't focus on important tasks like a test, and end up making lots of mistakes.

In general, the term "fusion" is only used when the thoughts lead to problematic, negative behavior. When our behavior becomes so rigid it becomes ineffective and self - defeating, (e.g., the behavior makes life worse in the long term, makes your health worse, and pulls us away from our values), the term fusion is used.


What's Cognitive Defusion?

Cognitive defusion in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a technique aimed at changing the way individuals relate to their thoughts. It involves creating distance from, or altering the impact of, unhelpful or distressing thoughts by recognizing that thoughts are simply mental events rather than accurate representations of reality. This process helps individuals detach from the content of their thoughts, allowing them to observe them with curiosity rather than getting entangled in them.

Through various exercises such as metaphor, repetition, or visualization, clients learn to see thoughts as passing phenomena rather than absolute truths. By practicing cognitive defusion, individuals can reduce the power that thoughts hold over their emotions and behaviors, enabling them to respond more effectively to challenging situations. This increased psychological flexibility fosters resilience and empowers individuals to live in alignment with their values even in the presence of difficult thoughts or emotions. Overall, cognitive defusion is a crucial component of ACT, promoting a healthier relationship with one's inner experiences and enhancing overall well-being.


So, what's the difference?

Imagine your thoughts are like clouds in the sky. When you believe every thought you have is true, that's called "cognitive fusion." It's like thinking every cloud is solid and real. But sometimes, thoughts are more like passing clouds, not always true. When you learn to see thoughts as just thoughts, like watching clouds float by, that's "cognitive defusion." It helps you not get stuck or upset by your thoughts. Instead, you can choose what you want to do, even if some thoughts try to stop you. Essentially, the two concepts are opposites: cognitive fusion are the bad thoughts, or clouds, and defusion is watching those clouds helps you understand your thoughts, and not letting them affect your behavior negatively.

Being able to defuse from those thoughts allows us to see the thoughts for what they are: a group of words or pictures "inside our head". We recognize that it:

  • Isn't something we have to obey or act on;

  • Isn't a threat to us; and

  • whether it's important or not, we have a choice to how much we pay attention to it.


To put it simply, when you're caught up and believe every thought you have, that's cognitive fusion. It's like being tangled in a bunch of thoughts, making it hard to see clearly. But in ACT, we learn to step back from those thoughts, like taking a step back from a messy pile. That's cognitive defusion. It helps us see thoughts for what they are and not let them control us. ACT teaches us how to do this, so we can feel better and do things that matter to us.

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