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Defusion and the Survival Response

Humans have evolved partly as a result of our survival instinct and our body’s response to it. This survival response enabled us to survive threats posed by our physical environment, to the lack of sustenance or shelter, to sudden enemy attacks or longer-term attacks from climate or other foes. 

The survival response has kept us safe, protected, and alive. It told us when we were threatened. A threat creates physiological responses that we recognise as discomfort and tell us that action is required. Even newborns have these physiological responses – they startle at noises, and cry when hungry or cold.

Most of us don’t face tigers or enemies with spears in our 21st-century lives. But like our forebears, we do want to join and live peacefully within a group that accepts us. In fact, most of us want to belong to and feel accepted by several groups. And while we don’t face spears or beheadings, we are threatened by thoughts, assumptions, doubts and judgements that threaten our confidence as valuable and secure members of those groups. 

When our membership is threatened, we feel uncomfortable. But it is often our thoughts, rather than facts or reality, that prompt this discomfort. We begin to question our value as members or contributors. We begin to doubt ourselves and our contribution or value.

This is the 21st-century equivalent of that survival response – our continual commentary about our fitness to join and remain as members of the groups we hold dear. Instead of asking whether we bring enough pigs to the negotiating table, we ask if we are thin/smart/attractive/rich/likeable enough to fit in.

The fear of not fitting in, and of being forced to leave a group, triggers versions of that physiological discomfort that causes babies to cry and led our ancestors to ‘fight or flee’. We may experience accelerated heart rate or nausea, or prefer to hibernate at home. But it is unhelpful to ‘fight or flee’ from a pleasant outing at a pub or a book club. The thoughts and feelings we experience in response to most 21st-century ‘dangers’ may be the same as our ancestors, but we can learn to choose and manage the actions we take in response. 

Defusion is the answer. Defusion allows us to recognise and accept our fear of exclusion, and the doubts that created that fear. It allows us to separate and examine our doubts as unhelpful thoughts, then label them and categorise them into our albums or box sets.

Steps in defusing from our thoughts:

  1. Notice the doubts, judgements, assumptions that are contributing to fear

  2. Recognise the judgements or assumptions as unhelpful thoughts then label or categorise them

  3. Make room for them – this occurs during labelling process, when we step back and objectively examine them as unhelpful thoughts

  4. Let them be. Don’t try and zap them away – set them aside and store them on the shelf with the other albums. 

This is practicing defusion with the survival response. Clients understand this concept because often they have this experience of wanting to fight or flee. 

These defusion strategies will have a great effect when combined with a strong understanding of the process.


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