Superhero Therapy: Mindfulness Skills to Help Teens and Young Adults Deal with Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

Chapter 6

The Defusion Charm

When Monica checked her phone this morning, there were no phone calls or texts from Lacey. It’s been three days since they last spoke, and normally they speak every day.

Is she ignoring me? Monica thinks.

Monica tries calling her again. Voicemail.

Monica’s Anxiety monster is only too happy to offer some worst-case scenarios. “What if Lacey is mad at you? What if she hates you? Maybe she found out about all your cutting and bingeing stuff and now she doesn’t want to be your friend anymore. She’s probably replaced you already.” Shame jumps in too: “You’re such a loser!”

When we feel anxious or insecure about something, our mind is likely to play out the worst-case scenario. Psychologists call this catastrophizing. The interesting thing about the worst-case scenarios is that most of them do not end up coming true. On any given day we might have several catastrophizing thoughts. For people with anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, for example, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, the frequency of their catastrophizing thoughts can sometimes be in the dozens or even hundreds per day. Now multiply this number by 365 (the number of days in a non-leap year) and then multiply the result by your age in years.

For example, if I approximate that I have an average of ten catastrophizing thoughts per day, when I multiply that by 365, I get 3,650. When I then multiply that number by my age (32), I get 116,800. This is approximately how many catastrophizing thoughts I might have had in my lifetime. That is a lot! Now, how many of them actually came true? For me, to the best of my memory, that number is six.

What that means is that our mind is kind of like an unreliable psychic. Sure, she may be right once in a while, but mostly by chance alone. In fact, looking at the statistics above, it looks like the mind is only right 0.005 percent of the time. That is less than 1 percent—quite a bit less.

In fact, let’s play this out. Suppose one of our heroes from this book, say Drovin, for example, went to a psychic who was as unreliable as the statistics I listed above. It might look something like this:

Psychic: Your name begins with the letter M…

Drovin: (not amused) No.

Psychic: Letter J?

Drovin: No.

Psychic: Letter D?

Drovin: Yes.

Psychic: I KNEW it! You are going to be very rich, but be wary of anyone named Mike.

Would you trust that psychic? Probably not, as he does not seem to be very good at what he does. And yet we blindly believe our mind when it does exactly the same thing. This is called fusion. This means that we are taking our thoughts as facts rather than mindfully noticing that each is just another thought, or another “psychic” prediction our mind produced. For example, Neil believing that he is a “fraud,” that everyone at his university is smarter than he is, and that soon enough everyone is going to find out the truth about him are all examples of cognitive fusion.

The problem with fusion is that when we start to believe some (often mistaken and unhelpful) thoughts that our minds produce, we are more likely to struggle with our monsters. In fact, fusion coupled with avoidance behaviors is a dangerous combination. For example, Doctor Semper fuses with the thought, “If I walk too far away from the Simulator, I will be in danger.” Since in the given moment he fully believes that thought to be true, he is more likely to then avoid leaving the Simulator. As a result, he is stuck, completely controlled by his thoughts and his Anxiety monster.

The superhero tool that helps reduce fusion is called defusion. Defusion refers to reducing how much control a specific thought has over us. In the example above with Doctor Semper, it is clear that his mind has a lot of control over him and prevents him from following his values and living a meaningful life.

How does defusion work?

I like to think of defusion as a kind of spell or a magic charm. And as is commonly the case with regular magic charms, defusion often requires an incantation of sorts. There are a number of different ways to practice defusion charms, and I want to give you a number of options, so that you can pick the one that works for you.

One such incantation requires that we repeat the distressing thought out loud for at least one to two minutes. This helps take power and believability away from the thought and removes its meaning.

For example, when Monica thinks, “I’m fat,” she will probably feel overwhelmed with shame, she might feel sick to her stomach and disgusted with herself. She might also feel tense, sad, and angry with herself, and refuse to hang out with her friend, Lacey, for the fear that Lacey will notice how fat she is. This is an example of a fused thought, which prevents Monica from living a meaningful life. But what will happen if she tries the defusion charm, “I’m fat, I’m fat, I’m fat…”? When she actually tries it, Monica notices that her thought no longer makes sense. In fact, she states that the words become meaningless. They no longer have the same power over her; in fact, she feels more power over them.

Give it a try.

What do you notice?

There are a number of different ways to use the defusion charm. The one we just learned is the defusion repetition charm. Another charm I like to use for battling against the dark magic of fusion is what I call the thought labeling defusion charm. The incantation for it goes like this: “I’m having a thought that… [insert the thought you are having].” For example, Drovin fuses with the thought, “I am a villain.” Because he takes this thought as fact, he avoids the people and activities that are meaningful to him. When I asked him to practice defusion, his defusion charm was, “I’m having the thought that I’m evil.” When practicing this charm, Drovin noticed that there was a big difference in how he felt when he prefaced his fused thought with “I’m having the thought that…,” as opposed to when he did not. Mindfully recognizing that we are having a certain thought (or emotion) can often reduce its intensity and its hold over us.

Try it out.

How did that go?

The next defusion charm is what I like to call gratitude defusion. This might sound strange, but very often our mind is just trying to do its absolute best to protect us by imagining the worst possible scenarios. In some sense, it tries to predict every possible danger, however improbable it may be. It is kind of like an overprotective parent, one who worries too much about everything, including but not limited to space aliens kidnapping their child, dinosaurs taking over the world, or zombies inhabiting the Earth. What would you say to such a parent? Probably something along the lines of, “Thanks Mom/Dad, but I’ve got it from here.” That’s exactly what we can also try to practice when it comes to our mind: “Thanks, Mind, I’ll be OK. I’ve got it from here.”

One hero who especially liked this practice was Shadow. When working on this defusion charm, she realized that because she was highly affected by her trauma, her mind started imagining danger even when there wasn’t any. By practicing thanking her mind for trying to keep her safe, Shadow was able to see that her mind, while attempting to be helpful, was often unreasonable and overprotective.

Unlike many magic stunts you might see on television, defusion is one of those practices you can attempt at home. But as with any magic, the effects of defusion may wear off. This means that you may need to continue using the charm repeatedly for full effect. There might be times when it is difficult, even if it was easy the day before. Give yourself a break, remind yourself of your values, and try again. You can do it. I believe in you.

Superhero Steps

Your superhero practice for this week includes practicing defusion charms and gratitude on a daily basis.