by John Wesenberg, M.S., BCBA, LBA

                                                                                         Defusion, ACT and RFT

A core process of Acceptance and Commit Therapy (ACT) is defusion. ACT processes by nature are often confusing for behavior analysts as they are not described precisely, and often cannot be. Defusion is often described assisting client in “creating some distance”, though momentary, from their thoughts and feelings that function as ‘rules.’ Defusion is meant to help the client contact direct contingencies when relating to verbal symbolic stimuli has become more dominant. In terms of Relational Frame Theory – defusion occurs when we alter the form, function, or frequency of a stimuli such that histories of verbal relating fall away and direct contingencies are briefly contacted.

For example, a popular exercise demonstrating defusion is the ‘milk, milk, milk” exercise. In this exercise, the clinician brings up “milk” and asks participants to think about milk. The clinician may then ask if in the process of thinking about “milk” whether the client is able to in some sense contact the taste, texture, or experience of their previous history with milk. Most individuals will report that they can contact “milk” though not present in the room with them now. The clinician may then engage the client in an exercise where the word “milk” is repeated in rapid succession, out loud, for a minute. Following this exercise – the clinician may ask what the client may have noticed about their experience of “milk” during and directly after the exercise. When the exercise has functioned as intended, the client will often report that they noticed things they had not before – for example that “milk, milk, milk” said repeatedly and rapidly sounds like “quacking” or that during the exercise they briefly ‘lost’ connection with their previous ‘experience’ of the taste, feel, etc of “milk.” Thus – defusion is meant to use the properties of verbal symbolic behavior to alter briefly which contingencies the client can track.     

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Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., McHugh, L., & Hayes, S. C. (2004). Relational frame theory: some implications for understanding and treating human psychopathology. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 4, (2), 355-375).


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