Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.
You can find the first post in the series here
In my last post I talked about rumination, and why it’s an understandable but nonetheless bad habit to get entrenched in. This post is about the second common unhelpful mode of thinking known to contribute to mental ill health: cognitive fusion.
Cognitive fusion means to be totally ‘fused’ with your thoughts – to take them as gospel, to believe and feel that they’re the absolute truth. We’ve all experienced this. A heated argument leads us to say something we regret, and then later on, when we’re ruminating on what happened, we think things like “I’m a horrible person”. And we feel awful.
Now, just take a step back and think rationally about that statement for a second. Are you really “a horrible person” because you said that thing? Or are you a perfectly decent person, trying to do their best in a difficult world, who occasionally says a regrettable horrible thing? I’m willing to bet you’re actually the second of those two options. But in the moment that you’re thinking “I’m a horrible person”, you believe it to be absolute and true. That’s cognitive fusion.
So why is cognitive fusion a bad thing? Well, for one thing it’s not very forgiving. And when you have a negative thought about yourself while you’re cognitively fused, it has a very strong impact. You believe it to be true, along with all the associated implications. Your self-worth, confidence and morale all suffer. Your brain goes into a state of defensiveness (activating the amygdala and inhibiting frontal cortex function), rather than one of problem-solving. Your mood falls.
And, annoyingly, our language primes us to do it. Consider the sentence: “I am sad”. Three words in which you have identified yourself, and fused your existence with a negative emotion. You have defined yourself through the emotion. Consider the alternative presented by the way grammar works in French: “I have sadness”. A very different situation. This implies a distinction between your and your emotion. It implies the emotion is transient (I have sadness now, but it will pass). On a side note, I’d love to look at incidence rates of depression in different countries, categorised by how their grammar handles negative emotions.
Hopefully, you can see how being regularly or constantly cognitively fused, especially when things aren’t all going to plan in your life, can have a real impact on your mental ill health. And the combination of rumination and cognitive fusion is really tough. Even if you’re managing not to succumb to psychological ill health, the two represent a significant burden to your thinking and emotions.
So now that you have a good understanding of rumination and cognitive fusion, in the next post I’ll start to explain how mindfulness meditation works to halt the negative effects of these two thinking modes.