Measuring Cognitive Fusion in People with Anxiety

Cognitive fusion is a process that involves attaching a thought to an experience. Cognitive fusion is beneficial in many ways. Through the process of cognitive fusion, people can become interested in story lines in movies and books because they attach their emotions to the events. Hobbies that elicit positive feelings can be enhanced as a result of cognitive fusion as well. Even feelings of love can be influenced by cognitive fusion. But this process can also impair behavior in individuals with certain psychological issues. People who struggle with anxiety and depression experience negative thoughts that can prevent them from taking positive actions. For instance, when someone with depression focuses on feelings of worthlessness because they have been unable to overcome their depression, they may continue to avoid seeking help because of the perceived outcome. Individuals who suffer with anxiety also find themselves trapped by cognitive fusion when for instance, they believe they will panic if they are exposed to stressful situations, and therefore avoid all situations that could induce stress, even if they are necessary for recovery.

Understanding how cognitive fusion affects mental health is a relatively new area of research. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based therapeutic approach that teaches clients how to accept negative feelings independently of perceived outcome. Therefore, ACT and other mindfulness techniques aim to teach cognitive de-fusion. Because there is little evidence exploring this, Kristen N. Herzberg of the Department of Psychology at the University at Albany of the State University of New York, recently conducted a study that employed a new tool to measure the effectiveness of ACT on cognitive fusion.

Herzberg and her colleagues developed the Believability of Anxious Feelings and Thoughts Questionnaire (BAFT) and administered it to over 900 individuals, half of whom struggle with extreme anxiety, undergoing 12 weeks of internet ACT treatment. She found that BAFT was quite accurate at identifying levels of cognitive fusion. Specifically, the BAFT was able to measure anxiety sensitivity, avoidance, and cognitive de-fusion in the participants. The results also showed that the anxious participants saw significant reductions in avoidant behaviors after completing the cognitive fusion–targeted ACT program. Herzberg added, “Taken together, these findings suggest the BAFT to be a reliable, valid, and useful measure of cognitive fusion.”

Herzberg, K. N., Sheppard, S. C., Forsyth, J. P., Credé, M., Earleywine, M., Eifert, G. H. (2012). The Believability of Anxious Feelings and Thoughts Questionnaire (BAFT): A psychometric evaluation of cognitive fusion in a nonclinical and highly anxious community sample. Psychological Assessment. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027782

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  • Mark

    May 5th, 2012 at 4:31 AM

    I see real benefits when a patient can attach a pleasant memory to something stressful, but how does it work when all he can think of is something negative to go along with it? That can’t be too helpful.

  • LukeDaniel

    October 26th, 2016 at 6:38 AM

    Fusion or Defusing can be helpful or not depending on how you do it in my opinion. I go thru a period of remembering painful or sad things. Then I sat down and tried to remember my fondest memory form a given year of my life and then I try to replace the bad or sad memory with the fond memory. The bad or sad memory is still available for access, however now I have to pass thru the fond memory to access the bad or sad memory. I can also access the fond memory without accessing the sad or bad memory. To me it seems I am combining Fusion with De-fussion, into a hybrid form of memory cognition.

  • peyton g

    May 5th, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    This is exactly what my golf coach has been trying to get me to do on the course so I have to show this to him- he will think that he is a genius!
    Actually it has been pretty helpful as I kind of get in a slump every now and then (don’t we all) and I tend to focus on everything that I am bound to do wrong.
    What he has been working on me with has been to literally try to get me to go to my happy place when I am out there- get me to remember a time when I made an excellent shot, or just overall felt really good about my game.
    When I am able to focus on that then my game dramatically improves. I know that this can be extended into other areas of life too, but for me to golf game is where I have discovered the most improvement. But that’s where I have trued it out the most too.

  • Liza

    May 6th, 2012 at 5:18 AM

    I grasp this concept, but what I think that I would struggle with is how to let go of that perceived panic and stress. How do I get to where I can put those fears behind me and ambrace ACT instead of being held back and working against it?

  • Kathryn dole

    May 7th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    Any time I have to take a little breather to get things under control, I have always gone to my happy place.

    And now that concept is validated! Great!


    May 7th, 2012 at 11:49 PM

    A lot of people remain trapped in their problems because they believe they cannot go through the recovery process or simply because they think they cannot recover. Exploring this area is bound to be beneficial to scores of people and it will hopefully lead them to recovery that has so far eluded them.

  • Mick C

    May 18th, 2017 at 4:50 AM

    The happiness trap . Read it . Nuff said

  • mick

    July 20th, 2017 at 7:06 PM

    a most interesting article, currently reading happiness trap.

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