If Thoughts Fuse with Actions, mental health plummets

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Feelings are powerful, and they often validate the reality we observe. In personal situations, strong judgments based on feelings shape our view of ourselves. Suppose you have a negative thought; does it upset you if you have it? And do you judge yourself for having it?

A common idea discussed in acceptance and commitment therapy is that feelings are just feelings, not facts. One cause for why some feelings feel like facts is thought-action fusion, a type of cognitive distortion. You may be familiar with a more common cognitive distortion called “all-or-none thinking.

Thought-action fusion in a nutshell – thought-action fusion is believing you are a criminal in the real world if you just think of a crime. A thought is equated to an action with the same gravity of consequences.

With TAF, people exaggerate the emotional impact of a thought they have because they believe their thought is as serious a thing as doing something. So, thinking you will fail an exam is perceived as harshly as actively sabotaging your test by not studying.

Why is TAF a problem?

Thought-action fusion

For lack of a worse word, TAF makes you delulu. In Instagram terms, TAF will lead you to think your negative thoughts manifest negativity in life.

Thought-action fusion, a thought pattern in those troubled with mental health problems, makes an intrusive thought feel as real as doing an immoral action. And it also makes one feel intrusive thoughts increase the probability of a… Click To Tweet

Thought-action fusion

Thought-action fusion (TAF) is a cognitive distortion where a person’s thoughts are literally equated to them doing a corresponding action, usually with moral or negative interpretations. For example, thinking of harming a friend can be an insignificant thought, but with TAF, the thought is similar to or as morally bad/repulsive as actually harming a friend. More precisely, people with high TAF think their thoughts make them immoral people, or their thoughts increase the likelihood of negative consequences. This creates 2 types of thought-action fusion[6]Moral thought-action fusion and Probability thought-action fusion.

  1. Moral Thought action fusion: Negative thoughts are considered equal to immoral actions, implying the person’s character itself is immoral because of the thought. It creates the opportunity for severe self-judgment that induces guilt and “corrective/neutralizing” actions.
    E.g., Thinking of lying to a close partner (a thought) is equated to lying to the person in a real-life context (action), which leads to corrective action like apologizing even without actually lying.
  2. Probability thought-action fusion (likelihood thought-action fusion): Negative thoughts are likely to increase the chance of negative consequences for the self or others.
    E.g., A person could believe, in a very realistic way, that thinking of road mishaps in the form of worry will increase the likelihood of a road accident.

Thought-action fusion plays a role in anxiety disorders, especially OCD[7]. When a person with obsessive thoughts has thought-action fusion, it creates high anxiety via harsh self-judgment. Then, the person feels like neutralizing those thoughts (obsessions) with an action (compulsion) to counter that judgment, but such behavior only reinforces the cycle of obsessions and compulsions. In a classic obsessive bathing behavior, a person would have thoughts about having unclean skin. That feeling is equated to having dirty skin. And to neutralize that thought, they would bathe very often. In this process, other problems may emerge, like excessive attention to natural aspects of the body, which creates more anxiety. Excessive bathing could lead to dry skin, which would then make thought-action fusion stronger (because they believe dry skin is evidence of unclean skin).

Thought-action fusion doesn’t just happen in a negative context. In a study[8] on OCD patients and normal controls, OCD patients also showed a higher “likelihood” TAF for positive thoughts. The study suggests having positive thoughts also increases the belief that they will experience positive outcomes.

In a way, thinking positively is a buffering and resilience strategy that protects people from negative thoughts. But TAF for positive thoughts can also make people irrationally positive.

Religion is of special interest for TAF because many religions (and spiritual approaches) teach their followers to not think ill. This philosophy is governed by the idea that thinking negatively is as bad as behaving negatively, and doing so will make god unhappy or reduce your chances of going to heaven. The teachings are propagated by making people feel guilty for thinking bad about something. Sometimes assumptions go like – god sees all, including your thoughts, and god will punish you if he sees bad. Research suggests[9] people following Abrahamic religions tend to have higher thought-action fusion than those who do not believe in a punishing god, and different religious beliefs have overall differences in their followers’ TAF.[10]

Let’s say you say something very dark and inappropriate and immediately pray for forgiveness or do a small ritual to nullify the effect of saying that thing. It’s a self-protection strategy. This is a common behavior seen across cultures that might indicate a high baseline thought-action fusion. It’s not protection from an enemy. It’s protection from the assumed consequences of TAF.

Examples of thought-action fusion

1. Social Media and Self-Image

  1. Comparing to Influencers: Thinking “I’m not as fit as the influencers I see on Instagram” and believing this means you are unattractive or unhealthy in reality.
  2. Response to Posts: Assuming that not getting enough likes or comments on a social media post means you are not loved.
  3. Bad Social Media Posts: Thinking you are missing a political fact in your social post makes you feel you are choosing a side you find immoral.

2. Academic and Career Pressures

  1. Exam Anxiety: Believing that having a thought about failing an exam actually increases the likelihood of failing.
  2. Work Trust Fear: If your managers and coworkers are not asking for favors and help, you feel you aren’t a trusted member at work.
  3. Being Broke: Having no money to spend right now feels like you are going to be forever broke.

3. Relationships and Social Interactions

  1. Jealousy in Friendship: Experiencing a fleeting thought of jealousy over a friend’s success and believing you are now a bad friend.
  2. Romantic Relationships: Thinking of lying to your partner feels like you’ve actually lied and betrayed your partner, with a lot of guilt.
  3. Family Dynamics: Worrying about arguing with a family member and believing this means you are disruptive or unloving.

4. Body Image and Eating Disorders

  1. Skipping a Meal: Thinking about skipping a meal and equating this thought with having an eating disorder.
  2. Body Dissatisfaction: Having a critical thought about your body when trying on clothes and believing this means your body has flaws.
  3. Comparing Body Weight: Thinking someone gains weight because you gained weight feels like you are causing them body-image issues.

5. Imposter Syndrome

  1. Feeling Unqualified: Thinking you are unqualified for a job or project and believing it means you actually are unqualified and will be exposed as a fraud.
  2. Success Attributed to Luck: Believing that your achievements are just due to luck, not your abilities, and thinking this makes you an imposter.
  3. Fear of Failure: Thinking about failing at a new task and equating this with being a total failure at work and in exams.

6. Health Anxiety

  1. Symptom Catastrophizing: Having a minor symptom like a headache and thinking it’s a sign of a serious illness.
  2. Fear of Contagion: Thinking about getting sick in public places and believing this thought increases the risk of actually catching a disease.
  3. Worrying About Loved Ones’ Health: Having a thought about a family member becoming ill and believing this thought makes it more likely to happen.

What to do about TAF?

Because thoughts and actions fuse in this cognitive distortion, the first way out is to de-fuse them using cognitive defusion techniques. I’ve described a few in detail here.

The other, more habit-oriented approach is to purposefully persuade yourself to draw a boundary between thoughts and actions. Here’s how.

1. Acceptance strategies

  1. Accept you are not your thoughts.
  2. Accept you are not your actions either.
  3. Accept your brain produces thoughts without enough conscious control, and many things in the environment trigger them without your awareness.

2. Mindfulness strategies

Mindfulness is a way to feel grounded in a task you are doing with complete attention and focus. Even though mindfulness is taught via breathing exercises, it can be done for any activity. Mindfulness creates an opportunity to observe yourself doing a task and realizing the thoughts you have can be disconnected from your task. At that point, like thinking about shopping while doing dishes, can help you recognize that your thoughts aren’t connected to your current actions. Making a habit to notice the difference between thoughts and actions will de-fuse TAF.

Read about mindfulness techniques here.

3. Mind-body psycho-education

A lot of our perspective on this planet depends on what we know about ourselves. A starting point to change your perspective is to learn more about how the brain works. So knowing facts about your brain will safeguard you from TAF.

The facts

  1. The brain produces a lot of thoughts, and only some of them enter awareness for you to reflect on.
  2. A healthy brain produces enough negative thoughts, and that is normal. Current estimates are 1 negative thought per 1.7 positive thoughts.
  3. Your physical state, such as hunger, horniness, thirst, fatigue, etc., affects the nature of your thoughts, and it’s hard to anticipate how you would feel without that physical state. This is the hot-cold empathy gap.
  4. Thoughts are real, in the sense they are produced by neurons. But they are not always influencing behavior. This is because the brain has an executive control mechanism called “inhibitory control.” That is a function that gives you the ability to stop thoughts and impulses. When inhibitory control is strong, thoughts hardly influence behavior.

4. “Where’s the proof?” Self-talk

Whenever TAF kicks in, and you pass a negative judgment on yourself, follow 3 steps.

  1. Stop
  2. Wait 10 seconds, just breathing.
  3. Ask – where’s the proof? For the judgment you passed.
    • Look for proof only in your immediate surroundings and recent past (1 day).
    • Evidence should be physical, and someone else should be able to identify it.

Self-talk is a large part of mental health, particularly for those with anxiety and depression. Here are 6 precise strategies to improve self-talk.

5. Re-interpretation training

A technique called “Cognitive Bias Modification for Interpretations[11]” can reduce TAF. The technique is just purposefully re-interpretting 1 ambiguous situation with 1 intrusive thought in a balanced way. Here’s an example.

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Scenario: Emma is studying for her exams. She has a sudden, intrusive thought that she hopes her classmate, who is also her competitor, performs poorly.

TAF Moral Interpretation: Emma immediately feels intense guilt and believes her thought makes her a bad and immoral person. She thinks, “Only a terrible person would want someone else to fail.”

CBM-I Intervention: In a CBM-I session, Emma is encouraged to explore this thought differently. She’s guided to consider alternative interpretations like:

  • “Having this thought doesn’t make me bad. It’s a normal reaction under competitive stress, and what truly matters is how I act.”
  • “Everyone has fleeting, unwanted thoughts. My actions and overall intentions define my moral character, not a momentary thought.”

Emma will then make such re-interpretations a daily habit as a CBM-I style task.

6. Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a way to modify thought patterns that lead to many problems like TAF, which is a cognitive distortion. It’s typically done with a therapist or using an app, but here’s a DIY example.

Situation/Trigger: Thinking about failing a major exam
Automatic Thought: If I think about failing, it’s more likely to happen
Emotion: Anxiety, Fear
Evidence Supporting the Thought: I’ve thought about failing before and have not done well in some exams
Evidence Against the Thought: Many times, I’ve worried about exams but still performed well. Thoughts do not control outcomes.
Alternative/Balanced Thought: While it’s natural to worry, my thoughts don’t dictate my performance. My preparation and knowledge do.
Outcome/Emotion After Re-evaluation: Reduced anxiety, Increased confidence

Detailed insights here.

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