Understanding Defusion Techniques in ACT

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Matthew Werkman, LLMSW

Matthew Werkman, LLMSW

Matthew is a Limited Licensed Master Social Worker in Michigan.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on helping individuals live fulfilling and meaningful lives while managing difficult thoughts, emotions, and experiences. A key aspect of ACT is the use of defusion techniques. In his book “The Happiness Trap,” Russ Harris explores defusion techniques, emphasizing how they can enable individuals to break free from the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that contribute to feelings of stress and unhappiness. The practice of defusion enables us to observe our thoughts for what they truly are: mere mental events that arise and pass without necessarily defining or controlling our experience. A thought never hurt anyone, but our responses to negative thoughts and unabashed belief in every single one of our thoughts can contribute to depression and anxiety.

Defusion techniques aim to increase our ability to observe and step back from our thoughts rather than getting caught up in them. Defusion techniques can be especially useful for individuals who struggle with negative self-talk and thoughts of worthlessness. They can be used to help individuals develop greater psychological flexibility and mindfulness, which can enable them to become more accepting and committed to their values and goals.

Here are some common defusion techniques used in ACT:

  1. Label thoughts: This involves recognizing that a thought is just a thought and labeling it as such. For example, if experiencing a thought such as “I’m a failure,” you could respond with “Thanks for the thought” or “Noted.” Labeling thoughts trains us to reduce the amount of credibility we lend to cognitive distortions and our inner critic.
  1. Describe thoughts: This involves describing thoughts in a neutral, detached way. For example, you may think to yourself, “I am not good enough.” Using this technique, you could say, “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough,” without getting caught up in the emotion the thought generates. To take it a step further, you can build on the initial thought, saying, “I notice I am having the thought that I am not good enough.” This creates psychological distance between the thought and the individual, reducing its impact.
  1. Reality check: This involves questioning the validity of thoughts and considering alternative perspectives. You could ask yourself, “Is this thought really true?” or “What evidence do I have that this thought is accurate?” or “Who told you that?”
  1. Metaphor: This involves using a metaphor or analogy to help individuals understand the nature of thoughts and how they can be defused. For example, you could imagine thoughts as clouds passing by in the sky, which you can observe without getting caught up in them.
  1. Mindfulness: This involves becoming more present and aware of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness helps increase psychological flexibility and reduces the impact of difficult thoughts. One mindfulness technique readers can try is “sensory grounding,” where they focus their attention on the physical sensations in their body, such as the sensation of their feet on the ground or the sensation of breathing. Another technique is “focused breathing,” where they simply pay attention to their breath and the physical sensation of air moving in and out of their body.

Defusion techniques can help individuals reduce the impact of difficult thoughts and increase psychological flexibility. These techniques can be used on their own or in combination with other ACT techniques, such as values clarification and committed action. Defusion techniques, while effective for many individuals, may not be suitable for everyone. Individuals who have a history of trauma or dissociation may find defusing their thoughts and emotions distressing. Incorporating defusion techniques can help clients reduce the impact of difficult thoughts and increase psychological flexibility while living a meaningful life in accordance with their core values.

Matthew Werkman, LLMSW

Matthew Werkman, LLMSW

Therapy is about developing a collaborative relationship to help process some of life’s toughest challenges and explore our distinct stories. I consider it a privilege to hear people's stories and develop a therapeutic relationship to discover new growth and overcome adversity.

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