Empowering You to Live Better during the COVID-19 Crisis (Part I): How Defusion Skills Can Help

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have struggled to cope with the uncertainty about our future, as well as the lack of face-to-face contact with family, friends and colleagues. In fact, a recent Angus Reid survey found that half of Canadians have suffered a decline in their mental health as a result of physical distancing measures.

Most of us have experienced at least some unwanted or distressing thoughts and feelings about physical distancing, including difficulties with worry, loneliness, anger and/or boredom. If you are one of the many whose mental health has been affected, there are some useful mindfulness-based strategies that can help you navigate this challenging time, including cognitive defusion.

What is Cognitive Defusion?

Cognitive defusion is a core practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a research-supported treatment approach used by many of the skilled therapists at The Mindful Living Centre. At a basic level, to “defuse” from our cognitions means to view a thought as what it is (i.e., simply words and imagery created by our minds), instead of giving our thoughts too much weight.

Our minds give us the vital abilities to create inner dialogue, solve problems, plan for the future, and remember our past experiences, which has undoubtedly enabled us to endure and even thrive in the face of life’s many challenges and threats to survival. Just imagine how difficult it would be to navigate our day-to-day lives if we lacked the ability to envision future scenarios and plan ahead!

Unfortunately, we are also prone to many unhelpful thought patterns, such as excessive worry about the future and rumination (i.e., stewing over the past). These “thinking traps” can lead to emotional suffering and interfere with planning, decision-making, and effective action. For instance, criticizing ourselves over past mistakes is like a form of “self-punishment”, often aimed at trying to avoid future mishaps. However, frequent self-criticism is likely to lead to rumination, depressed mood, and unhelpful coping behaviour, including emotional eating, substance use, and excessive risk avoidance due to fear of failure or rejection. Cognitive defusion can help by lessening the influence of unhelpful thoughts on our feelings and actions, as we learn to view thoughts as just thoughts (rather than facts or reality). This creates an opportunity to choose our responses mindfully and purposefully, based on our core values and what is likely to be best for us in the long run (for more on this, see Part II of this blog).

How is Cognitive Defusion Useful?

Although we all understand the importance of staying at home as much as possible during the pandemic, we can expect our minds to generate a lot of unhelpful thoughts about the difficulties of physical distancing. These unhelpful thoughts can interfere with your ability to do personally meaningful activities that would be most helpful at this time, such as daily routines, hobbies, exercising, and connecting with loved ones.

For example, you may have noticed yourself getting stuck in some of the following “thinking traps”:

  1. Constant worrying about the health and safety of others
  2. Negative thoughts or complaints about the inconvenience of physical distancing restrictions
  3. “Catastrophizing” (i.e., predicting the worst) about the economic consequences of the ongoing public health restrictions
  4. Non-acceptance (i.e., wishing things were different), resulting in doing very little or not enjoying what you are able to do
  5. Constantly wondering when physical distancing measures will be lifted and putting your life “on hold” (deciding to wait until restrictions are lifted to resume socializing or other enjoyable activities)
  6. Criticizing or judging yourself negatively for having thoughts about the difficulties of physical distancing, when others are in a worse situation

It is understandable to have these kinds of thoughts; they are normal reactions to the stressful and unusual circumstances we are all facing. However, when we are ‘hooked’ into worry, rumination, denial, and other self-critical or judgmental thoughts, we are likely to feel worse and to become distracted from doing what matters most to us in the long-term.

How Can You Use Cognitive Defusion Now?

Alright. So now that we know how our “thinking traps” can contribute to a decline in our mental health, how do we defuse from unhelpful thoughts so we can think and act in more helpful ways during this crisis?

It’s important to understand that cognitive defusion is NOT about getting rid of, controlling, or changing our thoughts. It’s about noticing our thoughts as they arise and seeing them for what they are; words and imagery generated by our well-intentioned minds. The next time you find yourself caught in a “thinking trap”, try some of the following defusion strategies:

  1. Rather than getting “sucked into an argument” with your thoughts or trying to suppress them, treat them as background noise on the radio as you continue to focus on whatever you are doing
  2. Practice viewing your unhelpful thoughts as just “patterns of electricity” firing in your brain, and re-direct your attention elsewhere
  3. Turn unhelpful thoughts into a silly song or poem, or quickly repeat them over and over until they lose their meaning and emotional impact and you can laugh at them
  4. Remind yourself how hard your mind is working in an effort to protect you, and continue to bring your mind back to the present moment (e.g., paying attention to what you see, hear, touch, and smell right now)
  5. Pause and breathe, mindfully ‘hear’ the words and ‘see’ the imagery crossing through your mind for a moment (e.g., picturing your thoughts as leaves on the stream of your consciousness), and choose to carry on with your activity without reacting to your thoughts

As you can see, there are several different ways to practice cognitive defusion, but they’re not always instinctive. Consistent practice is key to using this skill effectively!

If you would like to learn more about how to use defusion or talk about other strategies to cope with the pandemic, our team of professionals at The Mindful Living Centre can help. Contact us today for more information!

Part II of this blog series will provide a brief overview on how to employ principles of values-based living during the COVID-19 crisis.

Abid Azam

Clinical Associate at Mindful Living Centre, a CBT and Mindfulness-Based Psychology Practice with offices in Milton and Burlington, Ontario.

Dr. Chris Parrish

Director of The Mindful Living Centre.

Please note: this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for therapy or advice from a qualified professional.