Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can be effective in helping individuals dealing with traumatic or distressing ‘storms’ in their lives, through a process called ‘defusion’.
Have you ever – or even now – had a thought about something in your life that makes you miserable, and just won’t go away?
It might be a relationship breakdown, something you did in the past and deeply regret.
Or maybe someone did something to you and you just hate that person so much, but can’t get him or her out of your mind?
Perhaps it was an event or a series of events in the past that gives you nightmares or constant intrusive thoughts?
Whatever it is, it’s so often on your mind it feels like a terrible weight on your shoulders.
What is ‘Fusion’?
Just imagine having a balloon in your left hand (or right hand if left-handed).
This balloon is a symbol of that thought about the other person, event, or regret that you just can’t let go of. And every time you have a thought or emotion about this ‘thing that just won’t go away’, you blow into the balloon, and then hold it tight so the air doesn’t get out. You have to hold onto it while you are in the bathroom, eating, working, watching TV, exercising, spending time with a loved one – all of your everyday life experiences.
And then another thought or emotion about that event, person or regret comes up again, and you blow into the balloon again. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And you cannot let it go!
Can you imagine how impossible life like this would be?! But we do that with our mental balloons. We sometimes carry these balloons with us all day, so they just get bigger and bigger, without any way to release them.
Well, in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy / Theory (ACT), this is called ‘Fusion’.
The term ’cognition’ as it’s used in ACT doesn’t just mean ‘thoughts’ – it’s everything to do with personal experiences.
ACT is based on Relational Frame Theory (RFT) – it describes how we relate to symbols – describes how we learn to behave, create, manipulate and respond to symbols in our minds about ourselves and the world we live in.
Each person’s view of the world is different from every other person’s view, even though there is a huge overlap in our shared definitions of these symbols and ‘reality’.
As described by Dr Russ Harris (www.actmindfully.com, or www.actmadesimple.com), “Symbolic behaviour is involved to a greater or lesser extent in all private experiences: thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, urges, sensations, and so on. So the term ‘cognition’, when used in ACT, usually includes all manner of private experiences: thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, images, urges, sensations, etc.”
When we fuse with our thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, etc, this means there is an unhelpful narrowing of our behaviour in our daily responses to those private experiences. Through fusion, our awareness and our actions are dominated by those thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories etc, to such an extent it restricts our ability to act effectively. This is usually very distressing to the person having these experiences!
Dr Russ Harris describes fusion symbolically as being in a storm. Now these emotional and distressing storms can last for hours, days, months – at least those emotional experiences in our minds can.
Letting the Balloon Go!
Now picture this – holding the balloon for a long time, day in day out, for days, weeks, months or even years. How distressing wouldn’t holding on to this be?! It might feel like incredible internal turmoil – like a storm in the mind. You can’t relax, find peace of mind, or even see past your balloon to the sunshine above. Then, finding out you can actually let this balloon go! Wouldn’t you ask, “Ok, so how do I it let it go? Yes I do really want to do that!”
In ACT this is done through De-fusion.
In Acceptance and Commitment Theory there is a method called “Dropping Anchor”, which can also help with defusion.
Dr Russ Harris describes ‘anchors’ –
“Anchors are anything else that is here in the present moment that is not a part of the storm. Anchors can include what you see, hear, touch, taste, smell; your breathing; your body posture; what you are doing with your arms and your legs, and so on. Basically anything that can help you to stay present, stay grounded, stay in contact with where you are and what you’re doing, can be an anchor in the midst of your emotional storm.”
Anchors therefore are PRESENT MOMENT experiences that bring you back to the NOW.
In the present, the trauma is not happening – but the mental distress IS! So if you could empower yourself by working through and letting go of this distress, would that help you to feel free of it? I think you would answer with an emphatic – Yes!
So ‘dropping anchor’ could involve focusing on your breath, stretching, looking around the room, listening to sounds in the room or outside, or touching something (eg a soft toy, or animal, or tree) that brings you a sense of joy and peace.
This is NOT a distraction technique. As Dr Harris reminds us, “distraction is the very opposite of mindfulness; distraction is turning away from what is here in the present moment, trying to escape it. Mindfulness involves turning towards what is here in the present moment, with openness and curiosity”. So if you start using ways to try to distract yourself from the painful thoughts and feelings that are present – “well, it sure ain’t mindfulness anymore”.
Two Types of ‘Dropping Anchor’
1 – Expand awareness
- Acknowledge the presence of any difficult thoughts and feelings.
- At the same time notice what you see, hear, touch, taste, smell.
(This is NOT to distract from pain – emotional and physical).
- Notice that in addition to pain there is a lot happening here in the present moment.
- There is so much more than these difficult thoughts and feelings that are currently dominating your awareness.
2 – Exert self-control over physical action
- Move, stretch, change posture, sit upright, stand up, walk, sit down, breathe differently, push feet into the floor, push hands into the chair, push fingertips together, drink water, hug yourself, massage a tense spot, play with a pet, hug a tree – any experience using the physical body.
These exercises are included under ‘contacting the present moment’ in ACT, and they will usually result in some degree of defusion.
When there is extreme fusion and higher levels of trauma, therapists will work with non-verbal grounding and centering work before they move onto more conventional defusion exercises. So ‘dropping anchor’ or ‘expansive awareness’ will almost always be a first line in targeting the severe states of fusion.
These are usually the very first mindfulness techniques taught to clients who suffer from overwhelming grief, emotional dysregulation, panic attacks, flashbacks, anger management issues, and so on.
But they are also important tools for any individual to practice so they can return to a more peaceful and ‘grounded’ experience of life.
Author: Dr Peter Noordink, BA, Grad Dip App Sc, PhD, MAPS.
Dr Peter Noordink is a Brisbane Psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in areas such as pain management, aged care, suicide prevention, improving self-worth, teenage issues, and helping middle aged men and women deal with the problems of midlife. He uses a very gentle approach to explore issues which are currently impacting on one’s general and psychological wellbeing.
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