Our brains quite simply put are impressive. Billons of neurons firing, keeping our bodies functioning automatically while our minds are freed up to do any additional heavy lifting. Such as planning, predicting, categorizing, basically preparing for a plethora of situations that may or may not arise. The power of the brain is an effective tool, but not totally infallible. We’re only human after all.
Our body, controlled by our brain can learn to react even we can reason against such a feeling. For instance, ever been on an airplane? Did you know flying on an airplane is statistically safer than driving in a car on the ground? I’m sure we have all heard that, yet how come it may be easier to feel nervous in a plane compared to on a car? Experience is one important factor. If you travel for business regularly, then any anxiety experienced with flying may be provoked by tardiness than it is the disastrous consequence if the plane was to have a malfunction midflight.
Another reason involves the concept of thought fusion. The word fusion explains the merging to two separate elements. Thought fusion is when a thought or an idea is combined or fused with another thought idea. A simpler example of this in action is the idea of dogs fused with the idea that they are a threat. Now, we can make assumptions of someone may experience dogs in this way to the point where anxiety arises around them, but simply trying to tell them otherwise may not be effective. “You don’t have to worry around my Fluffy!” can hardly be convincing to someone who is experiencing fusion.
An additional example of fusion in the works can be the experience of a difficult emotion with that of pain. As discussed in a previous blog, the best way to respond to emotions is not to necessarily run from them. Avoidance unfortunately is not very effective, and in fact can reinforce fusion that avoidance is necessary to be “safe.” As mentioned, the function of fusion is adaptive. It would take a lot of resources to continually assess objects leaving not a lot of room for other things to get done. For example, fire is fused with hot. Ice with cold. It’s not an inherently bad thing, but how can we identify when particular thought fusion is beginning to disrupt the quality of our life.
Thought-action fusion may be a common dilemma that OCD sufferer’s experience. This is when someone can feel that having a thought equates to them doing the behavior the thought represents. Considering we cannot control every thought that pops into our head, this can be extremely stressful for the individual. An intrusive thought of hurting a loved one or a stranger is a normal experience, however to someone with OCD, this can spark high amounts of anxiety.
Since, fusion is happening generally in the background, it can be tricky to determine what may need to be de-fused. For example, an uncomfortable phenomenon you may experience is when feeling heightened levels of anxiety. When we are anxious, our fight, flight, or freeze response is engaged. We may begin associating anxiety with danger even though a situation may not inherently be dangerous. Furthermore, our own internal beliefs of self may be impacted. When we find ourselves feeling frightened, unable to act, we can then come to believe that when in those states we are helpless. At that point in can be difficult to cope in stressful situations leading to higher patterns of avoidance.
As you may have caught, I used the word defusion. Yes, just because our mind associates ideas initially doesn’t mean we can’t change it. Thoughts are powerful, not always controllable, and infinite. Powerful in the sense that we can just think and begin to feel emotions hitched to those thoughts. That’s fusion at work! If we think of something sad, we may feel a little bit sad, naturally. On the opposite end, we can think of something joyous and find ourselves smiling. So first, it may be important to identify where fusion is disruptive in the quality of life we want, using our emotions as a guide.
A common technique for defusion is taking a backseat to our thoughts and feelings, to just notice what is going on. If you are having the thought that says, “This fluffy dog is about to eat my face,” then try adding the observational aspect to it. “I’m noticing the thought that fears that this fluffy dog is about to eat my face.” Observe the emotions coinciding. What is happening physically to you when you notice the thought. This is a great first step in giving your self a chance to consider what behavior follows the thought as opposed to reacting.
Especially with anxiety, it can be difficult not to react when our biological responses are pushing us to do so. It’s like when rabbits run away when approached. They are not necessarily thinking whether or not the human with a handful of breadcrumbs is a threat. Instead, they react! Not to brag, but our brains, human brains are way more complex than that of a rabbit’s. We are able to process information just through thinking. It’s important to note, when feeling heighted levels of anxiety, accessing our analytical processes may be disrupted. Therefore, even taking a step back to observe should be treated as a skill to develop.
Need additional support?
If you are feeling that thought fusion is disrupting your quality of life, then consider contacting us here at the Chicago Counseling Center. Our licensed therapists can support you with your journey of change as you find the path to higher resiliency with your mental health.
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