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The Dangers of Cognitive Fusion

smileSince the time of the ancient Greek metaphysicians, it has been known that happy people are healthier than depressed or anxious people. An easy way to personally experience this is to notice that when you have a stressful thought, you don’t feel as well as when you feel carefree and happy. Headaches, backaches, and bellyaches are the most common symptoms of emotional distress.

Unfortunately, there are no magic techniques to increase happiness, but it can be helpful to examine what makes us unhappy.

The primary sources of unhappiness are the following:

headacheCognitive Fusion

The mental state of cognitive fusion is one in which we confuse our thoughts and beliefs with reality; we become so identified with them that we lose the ability to see them for what they are—concoctions of the mind. Our thoughts are fleeting, insubstantial things, products of a brain whose business it is to continually manufacture them. If we cannot “unhook” or “de-fuse” from them, they become a kind of cognitive quicksand that drags us toward suffering. Applying this idea to our experience of illness and health, if I begin to experience, for example, intermittent blurring of my vision, I may begin to fear a brain tumor. Having the thought is not the same as having a tumor, but if I am cognitively fused to the idea, it can feel dangerously real, even though the truth is that the only thing I can say with certainty is that I’m experiencing intermittent blurred vision. Here you can easily see how cognitive fusion with thoughts that evoke fear causes terrible emotional distress.

Experiential Avoidance

Experiential avoidance is two-pronged. First, it means avoiding any thoughts, feelings, emotions, or sensations we find unpleasant. It also means avoiding taking actions that are life serving in an attempt to avoid such unpleasant emotions as fear, anger, embarrassment, or shame.

The problem is that any attempts to avoid experiencing unpleasant thoughts and feelings paradoxically lead to more of the very thoughts and feelings that we don’t want to experience and it even gives them greater power. Furthermore, attempts to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings deny us valuable opportunities to learn and grow by meeting our discomfort head-on.

Dominance of the Conceptualized Past and Future

Part of the human condition involves creating concepts. We do this in the hope that they will provide us with understanding and a sense of predictability. Concepts are essential to our survival and to the ability to live a full life. Unfortunately, the human condition also includes cognitive fusion with our concepts.

Attachment to the Conceptualized Self

Narcissistic personality disorder is an extreme example of what we all experience throughout life. It involves fusion with the belief that we are a certain way—a certain kind of person. Like the conceptualized past and future, the conceptualized self (also known as the ego) is not intrinsically bad; in fact, it is essential for life. The problem arises when our self-concepts are challenged and we are unable to immediately step back from them and see that they are nothing but concoctions of the brain.


Inaction and Its Companion, Impulsiveness

Many of us hold ourselves back from doing things that would enhance our lives because we’re afraid of embarrassment, shame, or failure.

To increase happiness

Although this may seem counter intuitive, it is important to allow ourselves to fully experience whatever we are thinking and feeling from moment-to-moment, and to do this while living by our personal life values.


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The Dangers of Cognitive Fusion

Dr. Larry Berkelhammer

Dr. Berkelhammer is a retired mind-body medicine psychologist. He writes about mindfulness-based practices with a unique emphasis on optimization of wellbeing and health. Dr. Berkelhammer also lectures at San Francisco State University and UC San Francisco, and is currently teaching a class in Marin County through College of Marin. He is the author of the book "In Your Own Hands; New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions".

See his extensive website:

In Your Own Hands: Mindfulness-Based Practices to Optimize Wellbeing - College of Marin Community Education

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APA Reference
Berkelhammer, D. (2015). The Dangers of Cognitive Fusion. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Mar 2015
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