Cognitive fusion and defusion, a core concept of ACT therapy, can help us understand our minds better. When it comes to insomnia, it takes away the emotional charge associated with sleep.

A spider web to represent cognitive fusion

Like all humans with a storytelling mind, we continually tell ourselves narratives throughout our day. A lot of the time, we buy into it too with something called cognitive fusion.

We interact with our thoughts and beliefs without even realising it, which causes an emotional reaction in us. As a result, our day can take on a certain tone even when the reality of our current situation is much different. 

For example, say you had a perfectly average day. You showered, went to work where nothing remarkable happened, ate food, etc. Nothing particularly good or bad happened, it was just a day. 

But it didn’t feel like just another day. You were ruminating about something someone said to you once that pisses you off when you think of it. Maybe you’re thinking of an upcoming situation that you perceive will be stressful. So this perfectly average day is now coloured by emotions like anger and anxiety. Even though those things didn’t actually happen today, or have yet to come to pass.

This is cognitive fusion. Cognitive fusion is when we highly associate with our thoughts and beliefs and they elicit a reaction out of us1.

They’re strong enough to cause distress and emotional pain. Maybe you can’t do what you want to do in a day. Or you’re stuck over-analysing yourself to the point of it being unhelpful2. You believe that you are your thoughts, and your thoughts and emotions are getting in the way of living. It’s difficult to step back from your thoughts and see that they are separate from the real you. The thought web has you stuck. 

But what if you experienced your perfectly average day only for what it was? 

It doesn’t mean your mind won’t try to pull you into its web. But you can develop a more cunning approach so you’re not attracted to the sheen of the silk. 

This is cognitive defusion. It’s when you are able to take a step back from your thoughts and beliefs and recognise that they aren’t always a true reflection of reality. They aren’t actually out there in the world, commanding you to follow them or causing you any real threat3. You see them as only part of your experience as a human. They are only a fraction of your awareness and they don’t define you.

I’ll say it again – your thoughts and feelings don’t define you. You can experience them, but they aren’t you.

So how do I know if I’m fused with my thoughts? A primer on cognitive fusion

Psychologists have diagnostic criteria if you want official results. However, see if you’re fused with your thoughts with these questions:

  1. I get upset at myself when I have certain thoughts or emotions
  2. I want to control my thoughts and emotions, or stop them completely
  3. My emotions are a problem that need to be solved
  4. When I have an uncomfortable feeling, I actively try to avoid it or distract myself
  5. My thoughts and emotions are getting in the way of the life I want to live

There is an inverse of cognitive fusion – defusion. You don’t have to buy into whatever comes to mind if you are diffused from your thoughts. There is a sense of distance or otherness with your thoughts and emotions. 

Cognitive Fusion and Insomnia

Four large metal hooks

So what does this all mean for you dealing with insomnia? 

There was a reason you developed insomnia in the first place, and now you have thoughts, emotions, and beliefs around sleep that are perpetuating insomnia whether or not that initial trigger is still there. You’re entangled with the belief that you can’t sleep or won’t sleep, even if you’re not consciously thinking about those things. 

To detach yourself, you need to ‘unhook’ yourself from these unhelpful thoughts.

One method I touched on in week 3 was treating yourself as if you were a three year old, or as if you’re speaking with a three year old. If you’ve ever met a three year old, you would’ve seen that they have big feelings they don’t know what to do with. They rely on adults to help manage their emotions and give them coping skills so when the same emotions pop up for bigger situations later on, they can apply the same principles. Doing this gives you a chance to essentially reparent yourself with the way you want to be treated and consoled.

Another method I touched on extensively in week 3 was challenging your thoughts. But this may not work all of the time. 

The reason? We are wired to do things automatically so we don’t have to relearn everything all the time4. Imagine if you always had to relearn, every single day, that you shouldn’t touch a hot stove or look before you cross the street. These memory patterns in our brain allow us to expend our energy learning new things. But when it comes to thoughts and beliefs where the pathway is as well-trodden as the useful automatic thoughts, that obviously works against you and your wellbeing.

It can take time to tread a new path, and I encourage you to continue to challenge your thoughts so you can create new brain pathways. But until they are forged, here are some other methods to help you unhook from your thoughts. 

Name and Label Your Thoughts and Emotions

Give your thoughts and feelings a name. It could be something like “I notice that I am having an anxious feeling” or “that’s a planning thought”. By doing this, you get some distance that these aren’t actually you. Your current reality is something different, but you acknowledge that these thoughts are just passing by like strangers on the street.

You can also give thoughts and feelings actual names like Bob or Karen. That way you can say to yourself “ok Karen I hear you are mad, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now”. Or “alright Bob, you are trying to plan my life while I’m trying to sleep, let’s table that until the morning.” Again it provides that distance, or distinction, between your actual self and thoughts that float by.

Give Your Thoughts a Literal Voice

Alternatively, give your thoughts and feelings a voice like it was a radio host, news anchor, or maybe someone you find silly. Essentially when thoughts come up, you treat them as external media that’s yapping at you. So for example, instead of saying to yourself “I’m not good enough” you would frame it as “Good morning and welcome to [your name]’s daily hot takes. In today’s news, they think they’re not good enough”. In other words, see them as scrolling “breaking news” updates.

Thank Your Thoughts

Thank your thoughts and emotions for bringing something to your attention. It’s like they are some overly concerned person looking out for your wellbeing. So instead of saying “I’m so anxious about the presentation tomorrow”, you would say “thank you mind for bringing that up – I did xyz to prepare so I’ll be okay”. Thanking your thoughts acknowledges them without pushing them away to pop up stronger at a later time.

Leaves on a Stream

Here you imagine your thoughts as leaves on a stream. To do this, close your eyes and picture yourself sitting in front of a gentle stream. In fact, you can listen to meditations of water running on Insight Timer (not affiliated) to help you get into it. When a thought appears, picture it as a leaf that came down the stream. Just as quickly as they appear in your awareness, so do they float on away. This also works if you picture clouds or cars as your thoughts. There’s no need to chase them, they are just passing by.

📍 Quest #1

Everyone is hooked onto thoughts and emotions in one way or another. What will you do this week to try and unhook from your thoughts?