Praxis Blog

Observing and Defusing Thoughts with ACT

Author: Steven C. Hayes, PhD

With virtually all clients, sooner or later difficult thoughts get in the way. 

They might be self-critical thoughts like “I’m not good enough” and “I’m hopeless”, or even more grim ones like “life is empty” or “I feel like ending it all”.

Whichever form they take, once they show up, they tend to pull us into our head, making us act in often self-defeating ways. After all, if I’m “hopeless”, why even bother trying?!

What should we do with thoughts when we are entangled with them? Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) provides helpful answers to that question. I can easily recall a moment when I myself needed them. 

It was a few years ago, when I gave a talk at Stanford.

I was talking about the money the US had spent on sleeping medications, and how it had gone up to 3 billion dollars. But instead of saying “billions”, I said “trillions”.

Afterwards, I got back to my hotel, and went to sleep. But at three AM in the morning, I woke up in a cold sweat.


I leapt out of bed, and began marching back and forth. I kept thinking “they probably recorded it”, “I did it at STANFORD”, “how stupid can you be?”

My repetitious thoughts reminded me of an ACT technique that takes the punch out them. It’s a simple method: Distill entangling self-critical thoughts down to a single word and repeatedly say it aloud about once a second or so for 30 seconds.

So I did it with the word “stupid”.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…” for 30 seconds.

And then I got back to bed and went to sleep.

Techniques like this one are called “defusion techniques”, because they help us separate ourselves from difficult thoughts. In other words, they allow us to notice difficult thoughts as just another experience, without getting too caught up in them.

Instead of being dominated by our thoughts and letting them dictate our actions, we can turn our attention to where it matters, and act in life-enhancing ways.

This is truly powerful, and can not only help you in your personal life, but also inform your clinical practice. For this reason, I’m teaching the most effective defusion techniques as part of my first-ever online course ACT Immersion.

ACT Immersion is a deep dive into ACT as a process-based therapy, where I teach you in over 10 modules how to read the six psychological flexibility processes and target them with a wide range of exercises. Through several real-play therapy sessions, clinical tapes and exercises, I demonstrate first-hand how you can apply ACT with your own clients.

ACT is one of the fastest growing therapy forms, with thousands of ACT practitioners worldwide, over 300 randomized controlled trials, over 3000 studies overall, thousands of conducted trainings, and millions of published ACT books.

Now for the first time, ACT Immersion enables practitioners to delve into ACT with me from anywhere in the world, and join a passionate and rapidly growing community of ACT therapists.

The course enrollment will be open on November 13, 2019.

If you want to get an exclusive sneak peek into the course, and be notified once enrollment opens, click here.

I hope you enjoy the sneak peek, and I hope to welcome you inside the course.

Peace, Love, and Life. 

Steven C. Hayes

Improve Your Clients’ Long-term Outcomes and See Change Happen!