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. That’s why I created ACT in Practice to help you apply these and other ACT techniques with greater confidence and efficacy

ACT in Practice focuses on bridging the gap between theory and practical application by building on the foundational understanding of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) you already have. 

With an emphasis on seeing ACT “in action” through extensive real-play and role-play exercises, the course provides you with cutting-edge diagnostic and case conceptualization tools to help you channel your current ACT knowledge and experience into more powerful interventions, and to continuously update your approach through all phases of the therapeutic relationship. 

After going through this self-paced online course, you’ll be able to apply ACT and its psychological flexibility model with greater confidence and creativity — even in complex cases — and be more effective at creating lasting and self-sustaining change in the lives of those you serve.

Peace, Love, and Life. 

Steven C. Hayes

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