Cognitive Defusion: What It Is and How to Use It in Therapy?

Cognitive defusion is a psychological technique that helps us become aware that we're not all that we think. Learn more!
Cognitive Defusion: What It Is and How to Use It in Therapy?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 18 May, 2023

Many times, we make the mistake of believing that what we think is real. Or that by thinking in a certain way, we are that way. That is, we give excessive weight to our thinking. But this doesn’t have to be. Cognitive defusion, a technique used in psychotherapy, especially in anxious and depressive disorders, has to do with all this.

Cognitive defusion can help manage thoughts, separate them from the mind, and see them more objectively, from the outside. That is, many times we merge with our thoughts without realizing it, and that makes us lose perspective of the situation or believe that we are what we think.

Cognitive defusion: What is it?

Cognitive defusion is a technique that has its origins in the classical cognitive theories of psychology. Cognitive theory focuses its emphasis on the subject’s mental processes and downplays other aspects, such as innate responses to certain stimuli.

This technique can be used in isolation, in the context of cognitive (or cognitive-behavioral) therapy, or through other more specific therapies, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

According to Hayes et al. (1999) and Hayes et al. (2006), mentioned in a study by Barraca (2011), cognitive defusion would be one of the central elements of ACT. On the other hand, the technique can be used from another psychological orientation if the professional is trained in it.

But what exactly does it consist of? What’s expected? Through its use, the objective is to weaken the control that our thoughts exert on behavior. In this way, cognitive defusion isn’t intended to suppress thoughts but to create a space between what we think and what we are or what we do. That is, to break the fusion between thought and person ( de[s]fuse ).

The objective of the technique

The objective of cognitive defusion is to modify the negative thoughts that the person has, not by replacing them (as cognitive restructuring would do, for example), but through other methods. Therefore, the aim is for the subject to begin to see his thoughts for what they are: They are thoughts and not reality.

That is, the individual will learn to differentiate thoughts from facts or actions. The intention is for the negative and intrusive thoughts that are interfering with the well-being of the subject to lose their power little by little, thus producing less discomfort.

Thoughts that invade reality.
Thoughts can be confused with reality, and that’s what cognitive defusion tries to deactivate.

It’s not about changing your mind

As we said, the purpose of cognitive defusion isn’t to modify the patient’s dysfunctional thoughts, but rather for them to understand that what they think isn’t always reality. That is, thoughts aren’t always based on facts and, at the same time, a person’s way of thinking doesn’t have to influence reality.

In other words, the subject doesn’t have to change their thoughts but rather learn to undo the union (or fusion) between said thoughts and the symptoms they’re suffering from. That’s why the technique receives this name de-fusion.

In a certain way, it means reducing the credibility, importance, or meaning of said thoughts. They’re just thoughts, not reality, and they don’t even have to be transcendent for life.

Fusion with what we think

How do our negative thoughts merge with ourselves? To begin with, we must know that many times, what we think is what we’ve unconsciously learned through education. That’s why one of the missions of cognitive defusion is to make the person aware of where these thoughts come from.

Once they know their nature, they must try to undo the link between mind/body and thought, that is, between themselves and their thoughts. The truth is, we are not what we think.

“Don’t believe everything you think. You aren’t everything you think.”


Is cognitive defusion useful for managing negative thoughts?

Through a study, Fernández-Marcos and Calero-Elvira (2015) set out to compare the efficacy of two psychological techniques: Thought stopping and cognitive defusion on the reported discomfort and the management of negative thoughts. The results of the study showed how the two techniques were effective in significantly reducing reported discomfort, compared to the control group (subjects who didn’t receive treatment).

However, it was the thought-stopping technique that was most helpful compared to cognitive defusion in managing negative thoughts. The study participants understood this as well.

2 cognitive defusion exercises

Through cognitive defusion, various exercises and strategies can be used to help the person manage their thoughts and reduce their negative symptoms. Here, we’ll present a couple of them.

The loss of meaning

This technique or tool involves continuously repeating a word or phrase that comes to mind when we’re having negative thoughts. What effect does it have? After a while of repeating the word or phrase, it loses its meaning.

Then we must do the same with the thought that causes us discomfort until it also loses meaning. All this, yes, under the prescription of a therapist. The objective is to change the train of thought by facing it.

Cognitive defusion therapy with a patient.
One of the forms of application of this technique is the repetition of sentences to make them meaningless.

State the thoughts

Another technique that can be used when having an intrusive thought that causes us discomfort or disturbance is to make a statement as follows: I am not or I am, depending on the type of thought.

If we have the recurring thought that we want to hurt someone, we’ll repeat the following thought: “I am not a bad person, so thinking about it doesn’t make me one”. This is only an example. As in the previous case, we should always have the help and advice of a professional to guide us.

Cognitive defusion should be guided by professionals

Cognitive defusion, although it’s framed within acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), can be applied as one more strategy within a psychotherapeutic process. Of course, knowing about it in depth and being trained in it is essential.

At the same time, our thinking can have a great weight on behavior and emotions. However, learning to separate these elements is necessary and revealing for oneself and brings us closer to a greater degree of well-being.

“Know all the theories, master all the techniques, but as you touch a human soul be just another human soul.”

-Carl G. Jung-

  • Caballo. (2000). Manual para el tratamiento cognitivo-conductual de los trastornos psicológicos. Vol. 1 y 2. Madrid. Siglo XXI.
  • Fernández-Marcos, T. & Calero-Elvira, A. (2015). Efectos de la detención del pensamiento y la defusión cognitiva sobre el malestar y el manejo de los pensamientos negativos. Behavioral Psychology, 23(1): 107-126.
  • Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and
    Commitment Therapy: Model, process and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy,
    44: 1-25.
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  • Luciano , M.C. y Gutiérrez, O. (2001). Ansiedad y Terapia de Aceptación y Compromiso. Análisis y modificación de conducta, 27: 373-398.

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