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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