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Cognitive Fusion with Cognitive Attributions is Unhealthy

Psychologist Joanne Dahl, PhD

Fusion,  Attributions, and Health 

In understanding the deleterious effects of cognitive fusion, it is important to explore how the attributions we assign to all stimuli directly influence our physiology and health. We assign attributions when we connect a quality, character, or cause to a particular event—often with little awareness that we are doing this. Attributions assigned to both the actions of others and to internal stimuli can create rage, fear, anxiety, depression, frustration, sadness, shame, and even a sense of hopelessness within us. 

For example, if I attribute an adverse medical outcome to a doctor’s or nurse’s carelessness, I am likely to experience rage, whereas if I attribute it to something beyond anyone’s control, I am more likely to accept it. If I attribute a doctor’s hurried and abrupt manner before a procedure to his or her disregard for me, I may feel fear, whereas if I attribute it to his or her perfectionism, I may feel gratitude. 

According to psychologist Joanne Dahl, much of the suffering we experience with chronic medical conditions is less a result of the seriousness of a medical diagnosis or the degree of physical pain or disability we experience and more a product of the attributions we assign to diagnoses and symptoms as well as to our identification and cognitive fusion with those attributions .  In my own experience, I notice that when I get a certain type of back discomfort, immediately I am flooded with images of possible renal hypoperfusion (decreased blood flow through the kidneys). As soon as I de-fuse from those images, I feel better.

Attachments to Outcomes

Attachment to outcomes is another form of cognitive fusion, and this is tricky terrain. When we are ill, we need to strike a balance between non-attachment to specific health outcomes and actively doing everything possible to improve our health. We need to create a good environment for healing without becoming attached to a particular result, such as complete cessation of a chronic condition. Interestingly, research psychologist Ellen Langer  has found that the idea of battling and fighting illness—the determination to conquer it completely—can have a paradoxical effect, resulting in a state of mind wherein we give the illness even greater power over us.

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