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Defusion: Reimagining Your Relationship with Anxiety and Unhelpful Thoughts

Most of us view anxiety and stress as unpleasant emotions and physical sensations that we must get rid of, immediately! Anxiety and stress can manifest as REAL sensations or symptoms throughout the body, such as chest tightening, stomach discomfort, headaches, increased heart rate, shakiness, etc. And for many of us, the scariest part of anxiety is the rapid, unwanted, intrusive thoughts that seem to be firing from all different directions. We find ourselves lost in the rabbit hole of, “what does this thought mean?” or “why am I even thinking this way? Am I going to act on this thought?” Our rumination over the physical symptoms and unhelpful thoughts fuels anxiety even more so, resulting in a vicious cycle with seemingly no escape.

But what if we didn’t look for that immediate escape? What if instead we took a step back and tried co-existing with anxiety rather than pushing it away? Defusion is a skill that is used to “detach, separate, or get some distance from our thoughts and emotions,” (Rodríguez, 2021) and it is one of the core components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Defusion helps us change the way we interact with our thoughts and foster self-compassion.

One of the first steps in practicing defusion is reminding yourself that your brain is hardwired to protect you and keep you alive. It is not broken or abnormal, rather it’s doing the job it has evolved to do! Instead of kicking yourself for experiencing an unhelpful thought, try taking a deep breath, perhaps gently touching your temple, saying, “thank you brain for trying to protect me in this moment. I hear you.” Imagine what might happen if you acknowledged anxiety without judgment.

Similarly, we tend to view our thoughts as our truths. However, our thoughts can be inaccurate perceptions of reality. Thoughts are just thoughts! And just because a scary or unhelpful thought enters your mind, does not mean that it is the truth or that you will act upon that thought. Set yourself free by reminding yourself that you are not your thoughts. Repeat after me, YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS!

3 Defusion Techniques:

· You might try distancing yourself from a thought by labeling it as a thought. Perhaps your brain fires off, “I’m stupid and incapable.” You would then say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m stupid and incapable.” Take note of the thought losing its power.

· Another helpful defusion technique is called Leaves on a Stream. Nature can be a healing and grounding place, so visualize yourself sitting next to a gently flowing stream and allow your thoughts to wonder. You are not pushing the thoughts away, nor following them closely. Every time a thought enters your mind, try placing it on a leaf and allow it to pass by. Let the stream flow as it will, noticing any urges you might have to speed up or slow down the leaf. Again, let the thoughts pass through without making any judgments.

· You might also try using a silly voice from a cartoon or movie character as you recite the anxious thought. Or you can sing the thought to the tune of Happy Birthday, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, etc.

The truth is, we cannot live a life free from anxiety or stress. But we can reimagine our relationship with anxiety, explore skills to help us coexist with unhelpful thoughts, and live a more harmonious life!

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Rodríguez, G. S. (2021). Defusion: How to detangle from thoughts and feelings. The Psychology Group.


Blog post by Olivia Houlihan, MS of Green Door Therapy.

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