Cognitive Defusion: how to support students to manage internal distress
Our brains are complex and powerful organs that work to keep us alive and safe. The brain does this by controlling physical functions, like breathing, temperature, motor skills, and vision, as well as cognitive functions, such as our thoughts, memories, emotions, and perceptions of the world around us.
Have you ever noticed, seemingly out of your control, your mind creates uncomfortable or unhelpful thoughts, even though you know they aren’t true or probably won’t ever happen? Or have you observed your mind intensely focussing on what people think of you, even though ‘mind reading’ isn’t one of the brain’s abilities?
Well, it all started with our ancestors, who had to be on the lookout for dangers and threats, to stay alive. These often came in the form of environmental risks, beasts, or attacks from other humans. But over the years, as our environment has become safer from physical threats, our minds have evolved to use those skills in a more internal and cognitive way, to navigate modern ‘dangers’ (Hayes, 2019; Simon, Driessen, Lambert, & Muris, 2020).
How does this affect students?
During childhood and adolescence, individuals experience a multitude of growth and development. Alongside physical and cognitive changes, it is a time for figuring out a sense of self both individually and within society, establishing friendships and crucial connections, and beginning to manoeuvre new or complex scenarios. In an attempt to ‘keep us safe’, our minds are constantly on the lookout for social, physical, and personal ‘dangers.’ By highlighting areas of concern, the mind attempts to avoid, predict, or process ‘unsafe’ situations, interactions, and opinions, even if sometimes they are not true (Hayes, 2019).
This may happen through:
- Predicting future situations and imagining the worst-case scenario - “When I go to the party, no one will talk to me,” “when I get into the exam, I won’t know any answers,” or “I’m not going to get a good job when I finish school.”
- Replaying distressing, embarrassing, or uncomfortable memories on repeat; in an effort to mentally change the course of events or prepare for similar situations -
“If I had just..., this wouldn’t have happened” or “next time Jess says something, I will...”
- ‘Mind reading’ those around us, creating stories of how we are perceived - Everyone thinks I’m such a loser” or “no one wants to be my friend.”
- Comparing ourselves to others, often feeling as though we are ‘less than’ - “I am the dumbest in my class” or “I will never be as sporty as him.”
- Striving for more than we currently have - “To get more friends, I need the new iPhone.”
The problem is, the mind can get ‘hooked’ by these thoughts, and as they become ingrained, we can find our thoughts pulling us away from the present and the things that are important to us. These thoughts can affect our behaviours and actions, and the more hooked we become, the more they can become permanent ‘rules’ within our own minds (Harris, 2022, Chapter 7).
What happens when students get hooked on thoughts?
- Thoughts can affect self-esteem and feelings of self-worth
- With distressing thoughts may come difficult emotions, which may increase arguments, outbursts, or emotion dysregulation
- Withdrawal from loved-ones and interests, as hooked thoughts suggest escape or avoidance
- Sleep may be affected when thoughts are hard to ‘switch off’ at night
- Academic learning may be affected due to distraction or disengagement
- Rules can develop which inform ways of thinking. For example, “to be happy, I must have all of the things they have.”
What is Cognitive Defusion?
Cognitive defusion is the ability to flexibly notice and observe thoughts as they occur, without getting caught up in or being “hooked” by the thought. Harris (2019) noted cognitive defusion is:
- Looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts
- Noticing thoughts rather than becoming caught up in thoughts
- Letting thoughts come and go rather than holding onto them.
When practised, cognitive defusion skills can support students to manage interpersonal conflict and internal distress. It helps to ‘unhook’ from thoughts and ‘rules’ the mind has created, and to live.
How can we support students to use cognitive defusion?
Normalise the occurrence of these types of thoughts; everyone experiences them on a regular basis, it is all about how we relate to the thoughts that show up. Create a supportive and respectful environment, where students feel valued and heard (McLeod, 2022).
Be open to noticing the thought, “what is my mind doing right now?” Label the thought to help describe the experience; “Here’s a ‘worst-case scenario’ thought again” or “I see what you are doing brain, you are ‘mind-reading’ again” (Hayes & Ciarrochi, 2015, Chapter 1).
Create distance between the self and the thought. Instead of thinking “I am going to do terribly on this assignment”, think “I am noticing my mind is having the thought that I’m going to do poorly”.
Imagine lying in a field in summer. As thoughts show up, imagine putting them on clouds in the sky. Watch them floating above you, and without trying to change the clouds, allow them to be there. If your mind wanders, bring yourself back. If other thoughts appear, place them on new clouds, letting them float by. Bring attention to your breath, then bring attention to sitting in the room, gently open your eyes.
Refocus on what is important:
- “Is this thought taking me closer to or further away from the things that are important to me?”
- “What do I want to focus on that is important to me?” or
- “Is this thought bringing me towards the type of person I want to be?”
(Harris, 2019, Chapter 1, 2 & 7; Simon, Driessen, Lambert, & Muris, 2020).
- García-Gómez, M., Guerra, J., López-Ramos, V. M., & Mestre, J. M. (2019). Cognitive Fusion Mediates the Relationship between Dispositional Mindfulness and Negative Affects: A Study in a Sample of Spanish Children and Adolescent School Students. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16, 4687, doi: 10.3390/ijerph16234687.
- Gillard, D., Flaxman, P. ORCID: 0000-0002-6417-2499., & Hooper, N. (2018). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Applications for Educational Psychologists within Schools. Educational Psychology in Practice, doi: 10.1080/02667363.2018.1446911.
- Harris, R. (2019). ACT Made Simple: An easy-to-read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (2nd ed.). Oakland , CA: New Harbinger Publication.
- Harris, R. (2022). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
- Hayes, L., & Ciarrochi. J. (2015). The Thriving Adolescent: Using acceptance and commitment therapy and positive psychology to help teens manage emotions, achieve goals, and build positive connections. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publication, Inc.
Simon, E., Driessen, S., Lambert, A., & Muris, P. (2020). Challenging anxious cognitions or accepting them? Exploring the efficacy of the cognitive elements of cognitive behaviour therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy in the reduction of children’s fear of the dark. International Journal of Psychology, 55(1), 90-97, doi: 10.1002/ijop.12540.
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