Cognitive defusion techniques can be an important tool for managing your IBS-negative thought loop.
Many people with IBS have anxious thoughts about their symptoms. This can exacerbate your pain and make everything feel worse. Cognitive defusion techniques can act as an internal circuit breaker, helping to decrease your anxiety about your symptoms by giving your mind a little breathing room.
Here’s how it works.
What is cognitive defusion?
The most straightforward definition of cognitive defusion is it’s the act of looking at our thoughts rather than from them.
Cognitive defusion can help with our tendency to treat negative thoughts passing through our minds as hard-and-fast facts. When this happens, these thoughts become so amplified that they take over everything else—your brain has decided these thoughts are now the truth.
Practicing cognitive defusion allows us to alter the relationship we have with this stream of negative thoughts. It works to minimize the influence of these thoughts on your behavior.
So, it becomes a way to notice your thoughts without getting too entangled or ‘fused’ to them. Instead, you can learn how to let them come and go as you grow your moment-by-moment awareness.
Observation or fact?
Another way of looking at cognitive defusion is to think about the power of words.
In one study, researchers asked their participants, ‘Who are you?’ to demonstrate how our language contributes to fusion.
Inevitably, participants responded with their names. This led to the researchers pointing out that while we use words to refer to things, this isn’t the same as the things to which they refer.
We know this is a bit of a word salad, but here’s what they meant: you are not your name. But because we use words to refer to things, including ourselves, we tend to treat words as if they are the things to which they refer, which is the essence of fusion.
In this example, saying ‘I am [your name]’ isn’t a big deal, but fusing a thought like, ‘I’m going to suffer from terrible IBS pain forever’ is entirely different. The researchers said this type of thought illustrates how our language can make subjective thoughts, which are just opinions or feelings, transform in our minds into objective descriptions or verifiable facts.
Now think of the difference between, ‘My IBS pain is never-ending!’ and ‘I am noticing anxiety about my IBS’. The latter thought is more defused and, as a result, less anxiety-provoking.
The researchers did say this type of thinking is a byproduct of our language system, where we treat words as if they are synonymous with things. This means self-evaluations—‘There’s nothing I can do about my terrible IBS symptoms’—are treated as literal descriptions of our lives.
Learning to apply cognitive defusion techniques can help you focus on stepping back from negative thoughts and seeing them as what they are—just observations.
Or, as these researchers put it: “Defusion leads to peace of mind, not because the mental war necessarily stops, but because you are not living inside the war zone anymore.”
Stress, anxiety, and IBS
Researchers have found that mindfulness and acceptance-based approaches like cognitive defusion are helpful for people with painful IBS symptoms. This is because ruminating about the frustrations of IBS can aggravate your symptoms further.
The most commonly reported symptom is known as gastrointestinal-specific anxiety (GSA).
And the higher the GSA, the higher the pain you feel from your IBS symptoms.
GSA is also linked to avoidance, which is the most common strategy people use to cope with IBS.
By avoidance, we mean the way you might be missing out on enjoying certain foods because you fear a flare-up, or staying away from social situations when you aren’t sure about bathroom access. Many people with IBS avoid all kinds of situations that push you out of your safe zone, like traveling or sex and intimacy with a partner.
Even though you may believe avoidance is essential for keeping your IBS under control, researchers found that holding yourself back from experiences, and how you choose to deal with your experiences, often leads to the most suffering.
Think back to the language we mentioned earlier. Do any of these ‘facts’ sound familiar to you?
- I can’t go out because I’ll have a flare-up.
- I can’t eat that food because I’ll be in pain.
- I can’t go on that holiday because travel makes me too nervous.
- I can’t meet up with friends because I don’t know what the bathrooms will be like.
Instead of ruminating on these concerns, digging yourself further into the stress-IBS-pain-stress loop, we can change our thinking to accept the events related to IBS and put symptom-related anxiety at an arm's-length. Instead of your thoughts controlling you, you control your thoughts.
Enter cognitive defusion.
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Cognitive defusion and IBS
When you learn how to defuse language, it becomes easier to be present and open to living the life you want, even with the thoughts still chattering on like normal inside your head.
Try putting these research-backed cognitive defusion techniques into practice to distance yourself from the negative, controlling thoughts about your IBS symptoms. The idea is these techniques will help you see your thoughts as just thoughts, not proven, definitive facts.
- Sing your negative thoughts.
Hearing pessimistic or upsetting thoughts about your IBS symptoms in a different way will help you detach from them more easily.
- Silly voices.
Say your negative thoughts aloud in a silly voice. If you sound like a cartoon character when you say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about my IBS. I’ll never have sex again’, it becomes much harder to believe.
- Slow it down.
Say your thought about IBS pain very slowly, either aloud or to yourself, such as ‘Today [pause 3 seconds] I just know [pause 3 seconds] I’m going to have [pause 3 seconds] a terrible flare-up [pause 3 seconds] after breakfast’.
- Show stopper.
When you feel a ‘sticky’ thought coming on (the kind that’s particularly hard to ignore), devise a short phrase to say aloud. This will help you transform the thought into a mental event, separate from yourself. For example, if your anxiety is rising about a symptom like diarrhea, your phrase could be, ‘Oh look, here comes that thought that never helps.’
- Make it a movie.
Visualize a negative thought about your IBS symptoms on a giant movie screen, such as ‘I know I will have the worst stomach pain all day’. Picture the thought scrolling slowly up the screen like movie credits. You can’t hang onto the thought; you just watch it appear down the bottom of the screen and then disappear at the top.
- Examine it from the outside.
Pretend you’re observing your thoughts like a scientist running an experiment. So, ‘Hmm, I have noticed that I feel anxious, and I see that I am thinking about how I will have painful constipation all day’. Or ‘I see there is extra sweat gathering on my brow and I am noticing unusual stomach sensations; both signs diarrhea is likely within the hour’. Using ‘noticing’ language like this will help you look at your thoughts, not from them.
- Drive the bus.
One suggestion from the University of Sydney was to imagine yourself driving a bus. Treat your frustrating thoughts as if they are rowdy passengers. Picture yourself continuing to drive the bus, rather than trying to kick your annoying passengers off. Can you stay focused on driving your bus safely to your destination?
- Praise the brain.
Send a shout out of thanks to your mind. Next time an unhelpful thought about your symptoms pops into your head, try saying to yourself, ‘Thanks for that, brain’. After all, your brain thinks it’s helping.
The benefits of cognitive defusion
Cognitive defusion helps you better understand how your mind and gut are connected and how your thoughts might be impacting your IBS symptoms.
Typically, it can feel like we have no control over negative thoughts circling around our minds. And catastrophizing—‘I’m going to be in pain from IBS forever’—only adds to your distress.
Taking a conscious time-out via cognitive defusion will give you a moment to ponder, ‘Are these thoughts really the truth?’ The benefit of cognitive defusion is it gives your brain some space and distance, helping you see thoughts as what they are—just ideas that come and go in your mind.
Researchers found that when you apply a cognitive defusion technique, such as singing your thoughts aloud, it can break the chain of thoughts running on a loop and potentially decrease the overall frequency of your negative thoughts.
And if you practice cognitive defusion techniques, like saying ‘I’m going to have constipation pain forever’ in a silly cartoon voice, researchers suggest it will lead to a decrease in negative thinking, reduce symptom-related anxiety, and stop you from internalizing your symptoms.
The Wrap Up
Learning about the power of cognitive defusion could prevent negative thoughts about your IBS symptoms from traveling around your mind on an endless loop, which can make your symptoms even worse and more difficult to manage. Scientists have confirmed that the thoughts in your brain are closely connected to your gut, which is why practicing cognitive defusion techniques could decrease your IBS symptoms. Techniques include singing your negative thoughts aloud or using ‘noticing’ language to observe your thoughts like a scientist conducting an experiment. Using cognitive defusion techniques like these allows your mind the distance and space to better understand that thoughts are just thoughts, not verifiable facts.