Cognitive Fusion: When Thoughts Become Reality

Cognitive fusion is the tendency to believe that your thoughts and reality are one and the same. It involves the fusion between you and your thoughts. How can you fight this?
Cognitive Fusion: When Thoughts Become Reality

Last update: 03 July, 2021

Cognitive fusion is a mental phenomenon. It’s when the line between you and your thoughts becomes blurred. In other words, you believe your thoughts and they become your reality.

This thought pattern could cause you a lot of discomforts. For this reason, it’s important to learn to distance yourself from your thoughts. Thoughts are often biased, irrational, or illogical. As such, reality and identity involve much more than just thoughts.

What else do we know about this concept? How can we fight it? In this article, we’ll explain this and share an exercise that can help you stray from cognitive fusion.

A woman worrying, signifying cognitive fusion.

Cognitive fusion: when your thoughts become your reality

Psychology defines cognitive fusion as the fusion between what you think and who you think you are. In fact, you actually merge with your own thoughts and become unable to separate yourself from them. Consequently, the processes of your thoughts and your consciousness and interpretation of reality become intermingled.

Hayes et al. (2011) cited the concept in an article by Ramos et al. (2018). They stated that cognitive fusion is “The tendency to believe the literal content of thought and feelings” as well as “The excessive or improper regulation of behavior by verbal processes (rules) rather than by the contingencies of the environment”.

When thoughts become reality

With cognitive fusion, you don’t distinguish between what you think and the conditions that make you think that way. For this reason, you behave as if your thoughts are the absolute truth.

In fact, you forget to compare what you think with the reality that made you think that way. For this reason, you’re unable to gain a perspective on your own thoughts. In effect, you’re “fused” with them.

Impact on behavior

This thought pattern leads you to interpret your own thoughts as literal, which impacts your behavior. You gradually start to behave in accordance with these thoughts. It’s as if they’re your only form of reality.

An example of cognitive fusion

To better understand this concept, here’s an example. Imagine that someone had a panic attack in the street, which distressed them. Nevertheless, they managed to calm down and return home.

The next day, when they have to go out again, they start to tremble when they open the door. “You’re going to have another panic attack,” they tell themselves. “Look, you’re trembling already.” Thus, without even realizing it, they’ve assumed their thought as a reality that can’t be changed. For this reason, they turn around and go home.

Other examples

There are many others examples. Some might only concern yourself, while others might be due to external circumstances.

Nevertheless, they all share one common characteristic: the fusion of your thoughts with yourself.

Cognitive defusion to fight cognitive fusion

Cognitive defusion is a technique that’s part of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). It’s actually one of the central components of ACT. A fundamental part of this therapy is to help the person distance themselves from their thoughts.

The person coming to realize that thoughts often don’t come true achieves this. Cognitive defusion techniques involve exercises for the patient to carry out. These exercises help them act independently of what their mind tells them.

Cognitive defusion to encourage acceptance

Acceptance is a key factor in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). It’s also key in other types of therapies and for certain disorders. It means that you accept your pain, experiences, and your feelings. Cognitive defusion makes this process easier.

This is because cognitive defusion changes the way in which you perceive events. Furthermore, the process of acceptance helps you disassociate yourself from these perspectives.

“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”

 -William James-

A woman holding a cloud.

Clouds in the sky exercise

As we mentioned above, there are many cognitive defusion exercises. One of them is the clouds in the sky exercise.

This exercise helps you think of your uncomfortable thoughts and emotions as if they were clouds in the sky. While they might cover the sky for a while, they eventually pass by. Your thoughts will do the same.

Final thoughts

You don’t have to suffer from a mental disorder to experience cognitive fusion. However, it can undoubtedly interfere with your personal well-being. This is why it’s important to become aware of what’s going on if it happens to you. Then, you can start working on it.

Cognitive defusion is one of the most popular techniques for dealing with cognitive fusion. However, there are different types of therapy, and each one uses its own tools to help patients distance themselves from their thoughts.

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    • Fernández-Marcos, T. & Calero-Elvira, A. (2015). Efectos de la detención del pensamiento y la defusión cognitiva sobre el malestar y el manejo de los pensamientos negativos. Behavioral Psychology, 23(1): 107-126.
    • Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D. y Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy. The process and practice of mindful change (2ª ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
    • Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, process and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44: 1-25.
    • Ramos, J., Rodríguez, A., Sánchez, A. y Mena, A. (2018). Fusión cognitiva en trastornos de personalidad: una contribución a la investigación sobre mecanismos de cambio. Clínica y Salud, 29(2).