More on the Danger of Cognitive Fusion

Dr. Kelly Wilson, one of the co-founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Recognizing Cognitive Fusion in Language

According to Professor Kelly Wilson, Cognitive fusion commonly involves entanglement with categorical and judgmental thought. Red flags are words like should, shouldn’t, right, wrong, good, bad, and similar evaluative language. They indicate that we are fused with our mental constructs and out of touch with actual moment-to-moment reality.

 Other reliable indicators that we are fused with our thoughts are words like I, me, or mine. When I am is followed by the word anxious or depressed, it is a sign that we are suffering in a fused state—and more often than not, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hypnotic and physiological effects of saying or even thinking “I am depressed” are well known in cognitive neuroscience and in psychoneuroimmunology. I am depressed = depression. 


When I say, I’m depressed, my mind hears the words as a hypnotic suggestion: Be depressed. This in turn affects every cell in my body and I actually reinforce the depression. According to physician and co-founder of the Academy for Guided Imagery, Martin Rossman, MD, the same has been shown to be true of physical pain; expecting and identifying with pain reinforces the existing neural pathways for pain and creates new ones, thereby increasing the likelihood of experiencing increased pain.

 The Path to Mastery: Using Language to De-fuse 

Now let’s look at shifting the language. It may seem a subtle distinction at first, but I’m depressed is very different from I’m interpreting my sad, uncomfortable feelings to mean I’m depressed, or I’m having the thought that I’m depressed. These latter statements reflect awareness of one’s state and do not contribute to remaining trapped in it. The same dynamics come into play with anxiety. The fused position of I’m overwhelmed and will not get my work done in time is very different from the de-fused position of I’m aware that I’m having the thought that I’m overwhelmed and will not get my work done in time. The second way allows us to step back and have room to breathe a sigh of relief. Also, this second way causes less physiological stress as a result of less emotional distress. This is how mindfulness, which allows us to take a de-fused position, has the ability to improve physiological functioning and possibly even health outcomes.

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