We sometimes need to take two steps back from our thinking. The ability to do this is essential because it is one of the reasons why CBT seems to work for some people. The opposite of this is when we are fused with our thinking.

We are our thoughts rather than the thinkers of our thoughts. Fusion is one of the reasons why overcoming problems of depression and anxiety can feel challenging. How fusion is seen in practice is explained by Russ Harris in the Happiness Trap.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Russ is a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT. ACT states that when people are fused with their thinking, they see their thoughts as facts, absolute truths which cannot be disputed. Therefore, someone who feels guilty ‘must’ be guilty.

If they are expressed as facts, then they come out as commands which have to be obeyed without question. Becoming I must be perfect in what I do. The idea of fusion is also applicable to anxiety. In OCD there is a term called Thought Action Fusion which means that any belief about an action is the same as ‘carrying out’ that action.

“Tony’s OCD developed after he had an intrusive thought whilst cooking. He picked up a carving knife and suddenly thought that he looked like a serial murderer. He believed that this was very likely to happen. From that point on, he began to get rid of all of the sharp implements in his house.”

The problem with fusion is that it if it is unchecked, we begin to live our lives on automatic pilot, reacting to our emotions without thinking. It followed then any technique that allowed us to distance ourselves from our thinking could be helpful. Segal, Williams and Teasdale in the development of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT recognised that the research on people who had received CBT appeared to indicate that those still had core negative beliefs such as ‘I am a not good enough’ were more prone to relapse.

De-fuse negative thought patterns

Core beliefs such as this are fused thoughts because we believe that they are true. They recognised that Mindfulness techniques were one way of enabling people to take two steps back. This would then allow them to respond to events rather than reacting to them in automatic pilot. The use of mindfulness was also explored in ACT.

Their technique of de-fusion was named deliberately as a method of almost defusing the unexploded bomb of a dangerous thought. ACT techniques often involve humour, such as encouraging someone to imagine their negative thinking spoken in the voice of Homer Simpson. Having Homer Simpson say that: “you are a failure”, is less about not taking depression seriously and more about recognising that humour is useful for allowing us to take two steps back.

ACT therapists will also use a technique which involves expressing a negative thought such as ‘I am a failure’ and then restating it as ‘I have had the thought that I am a failure’. This would then be followed by a further restatement which would be ‘I have just noticed that I have had the thought that I am a failure’. Each step begins to build distance between the person and the original thought.

Finally, all therapies which employ mindfulness there will be the idea of switching the spotlight of attention away from our thinking towards some other activity. In mindfulness practice, it is the breath. This is important because stepping outside of automatic pilot will always involve doing something different.