How does ACT Work With Unhelpful Thoughts?
CBT places a big emphasis on the role of negative thoughts in mental distress, suggesting that it is the way that we think about things that gives rise to the emotional states we experience. In traditional CBT, by working out whether the thought is an accurate representation of our experiences (and not a thinking bias or unhelpful thinking style), we can treat problems like depression, anxiety and trauma etc.
Traditional CBT based interventions work well with a number of problems but, as with all things in life, are not for everyone.
ACT’s approach to working with thoughts is to develop “Cognitive Defusion”. What does this mean? We typically view our thoughts as being “us”. To quote Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” When we routinely attach or listen to a particular type of thought and believe it as being “True”, then we would say that we are “fused” with the thought. For example, if I experience the thought, “I’m a failure” and automatically treat it as being an accurate, believable representation of life then we would say that I am fused to the thought.
If I am fused to the thought, “I am a failure”, then this will likely get in the way of me living a full and meaningful life. In fact, I am probably very aware of this and have tried to think differently about this many times before. I may have used traditional CBT techniques like thought challenging and still not managed to believe an alternative thought such as “I do quite well given how I feel.”
In ACT, we engage in a process of cognitive defusion to help us to treat the thought as just another mental event and to, rather than get into a battle with it or to let it stop us from doing things, learn to hold the thought lightly. The thought is there, but we don’t have to do anything with it. Learning cognitive defusion skills in ACT enables us to do this.