Cognitive de-fusion

I try to capture here things I see on the internet that I want to be able to access again.

I found this post from Reddit, on How to Suffer Less and Live More, to be a thought provoking read:

Thoughts create emotions, those emotions guide our behavior.

For example, the thought “I’m never going to succeed at school, why should I even study?” creates emotional distress. That emotional distress can easily trigger coping behaviours like binge watching House of Cards or mindlessly refreshing Instagram every five seconds.

That’s just the beginning of the spiral, though. After you’ve been binge watching TV or staring at your cell phone for an hour, you’re going to have a new thought, “Damn, I shouldn’t have wasted an hour on my phone, I’m so stupid, I’ll never pass that class.” This thought creates more emotional distress, which leads to more coping behavior…. But wait a minute! Shouldn’t the thought “I shouldn’t have wasted an hour on my phone, I’m so stupid, I’ll never pass that class,” help motivate you to study?

Isn’t calling yourself out in an honest way helpful? … Our thoughts don’t directly lead to behaviours, they create emotions which lead to behaviours.

This creates a trap that is exceedingly easy for us to fall into.
…the emotion we feel because of this thought isn’t motivation, but distress.

What do humans do when they feel distressed? Cope.

What are the most common coping behaviors used in 21st century life? Electronic media, food, and drugs.

In her best-selling book, The Upside of Stress, psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes:

“When I speak with physicians, I sometimes ask them to predict the effects of showing smokers graphic warnings on cigarette packs. In general, they believe that the images will decrease smokers’ desire for a cigarette and motivate them to quit. But studies show that the warnings often have the reverse effect.

The most threatening images (say, a lung cancer patient dying in a hospital bed) actually increase smokers’ positive attitudes toward smoking. The reason? The images trigger fear, and what better way to calm down than to smoke a cigarette? The doctors assumed that the fear would inspire behavior change, but instead it just motivates a desire to escape feeling bad.”

The root of our suffering is our belief that we can (or even should) eliminate negative thoughts and emotional pain. The thought that suffering is ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ is itself a negative thought. This way of thinking makes stress a trigger for more stress…. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, cognitive fusion is a state in which we become entangled with our thoughts and we lose the ability to distinguish between thoughts and objective reality.

Author Russ Harris says,

“In a state of fusion a thought can seem like:

1. the absolute truth

2. a command you have to obey or a rule you have to follow.”

Break Free
To escape this spiral of stress and suffering that we get trapped in, we must learn to relate to our thoughts differently.

To escape the vicious cycle of negative thought, you must accept the negative thought as it is….Once you learn to accomplish this effectively, you will still have negative thoughts, but they will drift away like clouds on a gentle breeze instead of darkening into a storm of emotional suffering.

The solution to cognitive fusion is learning cognitive defusion,

“This is where we can observe our thoughts and see them for what they are – just products of our busy minds.”

Labeling is a mindfulness technique that allows us to defuse from our thoughts, it helps us identify our thoughts as subjective opinions instead of objective facts.

Either during a sitting meditation or any time throughout the day, notice your thoughts.

If you are having the thought, “I am too tired to work right now,” label it by telling yourself, “I am having the thought that I am too tired to work right now.” Labeling also works with sensations and emotions, for example, “I am having the sensation of tightness in my neck,” or “I am having the feeling of anxiety.”

The point of labeling is learning to become aware of your thoughts so that pain does not need to become suffering.

You may notice that you are now able to accept stress as something that happens, and now you can experience it without needing to avoid it through coping.

I’ve realised that I often try to motivate myself by focusing on the bad. It rarely works. 

Mind you rewards don’t work for me either. Promising myself x if I do y never gets me anywhere.

I’m still trying to understand what motivates me to do something. Maybe fear? Fear of being poor? Beyond that my motivation tends to be extrinsic. I will do stuff to make other people happy, but for myself? I’m not that motivated. I will happily lie around reading books or going for walks, but I’m not super motivated to achieve or create or get rich or… anything. 

Sometimes I think being extremely bored, or not working and having heaps of spare time will do it. 

Or maybe I just don’t want to do anything much, and I have to accept that? 

Maybe I am a really enlightened Buddhist, completely content in my present day life without any major attachments? Maybe I am living the dream? The comfortable suburban middle class dream.

How do you know that you are ok as you are? How do you know when you should change?

I have no idea!