Mindfulness (learn more about mindfulness here) interventions have been shown to be beneficial for a wide range of psychological and physical conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, personality disorders, and addictions. Controlled trials of normal populations have also demonstrated positive changes in brain function and immune response, self-awareness, perceived stress, and increase in self-compassion (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005; Beddoe & Murphy, 2004), and there is more. Some of the benefits are not directly obvious, but they lead to recognisable clusters of improvement.

Here we highlight defusion exercises used by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy practitioners.

Defusion exercises

Direct your client to write down three or four negative, self-judgmental thoughts, such as “I am fat”, “I’m incompetent at my job”, or “I’m a lousy conversationalist”. If you prefer to do this for yourself as a therapist, you may wish to try the exercise with sentences you might tell yourself after you have had a session with a client where everything went wrong. Pick, or direct the client to pick, the thought that bothers the most and use it to work through the following exercises. In each exercise, the point is to first fuse (identify) with the thought and then defuse (disidentify) from it. Follow, or direct your client to follow, these instructions.

I’m having the thought that…

Make sure that your negative self-judgment is in very short form: i.e.: “I am X”. Fuse with this thought for 10 seconds. During this time you are to give the thought your full attention, getting really caught up with it. Believe it as much as you possibly can. Now replay the thought with this phrase added onto the front of it: “I’m having the thought that…” For instance in our example, you might say, “I’m having the thought that I’m incompetent”.  Have a third go, this time adding “I notice I’m having the thought that…” in front of the original, for example: “I notice I’m having the thought that I am incompetent”. Now, tune into yourself. Did you notice a sense of separation or distance from the thought? If you didn’t, run through this exercise again with a different negative thought.

Singing and silly voices

For this exercise, you can use the same negative thought that you used above if it hasn’t lost its impact. If it has, choose another negative thought, making sure that it has the same short form of “I am X”. Fuse with this thought for 10 seconds, as above. Now, sing the thought to the tune of Happy Birthday. You can do it out loud if you are alone, but may prefer to sing it silently in your head if you are where people would be able to hear you sing. For the third round, defuse by hearing the sentence spoken (inside your head) in the voice of a cartoon character (try Donald Duck), movie character (what about Darth Vader, Gollum, or your favourite action hero?), or sports commentator.

Now, tune into yourself again. What happened after this round of hearing the negative thought? Did you get any sense of separation or distance from the thought? If you didn’t, run through the exercise again with a different thought. You can vary the exercise by saying the thoughts out loud in a silly voice, repeating them in a highly exaggerated manner (say, slow motion), or by putting on your best imitation accent (say, cowboy, French, cockney, or Russian).

Important note: As a counsellor/therapist/coach using these techniques, you will come to see how powerful they are. It is consummately important, therefore, to lead the exercises with sensitivity. If, for example, your client has just been diagnosed with, say, cancer, and their negative thoughts are about dying from it, singing this out loud to the tune of Happy Birthday would not be a validating experience for them (Harris, 2009)!