An Approach to Cognitive Fusion with Beliefs
During my three years of training at the Simonton Cancer Center, there were many retreat participants who claimed they were willing to do whatever it took to get well, but such a commitment was not always evident in their behavior. Often, their prognoses were optimistic and they expressed several reasons why they wanted to continue living, yet they seemed apathetic.
Then there were those whose prognoses were dismal, who had been told by their oncologists to go home and get their affairs in order. Many of these participants continued to live with enthusiasm, vitality, and purpose. In fact, some in this cohort went into long-term remission.
Two distinguishing characteristics described this second group. One was that they had fighting spirit and a strong will to live. The other was a sense of self-efficacy, mastery, and the belief that what they did could make a difference.
The way we worked with the apathetic participants was to explore their beliefs about their situation. Often, the reason they lacked fighting spirit was that they were cognitively fused with the very unhealthy belief that there was nothing they could do to influence the course of their illness. We worked with them to help them explore healthier ways to view the situation, and to de-fuse from their unhealthy beliefs, thereby teaching them a fundamental skill in developing self-efficacy and mastery.
There are various ways to work with unhealthy thought processes. One way is to recognize certain ways of thinking as unhealthy, such as those that are associated with increased fear, anxiety, and depression, and to then find healthier, alternative ways of viewing a given situation.
However, a new, very evidence-based way of working with unhealthy ways of thinking is to develop the ability to distance ourselves from the unhealthy thoughts rather than to work hard at trying to replace them with healthier thoughts. According to Dr. Steven Hayes, it is never the content of our thoughts, but rather our relationship to, or fusion with, our thoughts that creates suffering. Changing our relationship to our thoughts is best cultivated through an ongoing mind training practice.