This Normal Life: Lost in the woods- Cognitive defusion on vacation

When the skies started to darken and we felt the first drops of rain on our unprotected bodies, we figured it was just a fluke.

The author's wife poses in front of a rainbow in Norway. (photo credit: BRIAN BLUM)
The author's wife poses in front of a rainbow in Norway.
(photo credit: BRIAN BLUM)
Google Maps said it would take just under two hours to hike from Oslo’s Frogsternen café, with its world-famous homemade apple pie, to Sognsvann lake via the rolling hills and blueberry patches near Ulyovata. said the temperature would get up to a lovely 25º and there was a zero-percent chance of precipitation. It was a perfect way to start off our two-week vacation in Norway. We dressed in shorts and T-shirts and left the rain gear back at our hotel.
And for the first hour and a half, the hike was just about as picturesque as we’d anticipated when my wife Jody and I started planning a trip to this far-north land of the fjords, where the summer sun doesn’t set until 11 p.m. and four different versions of smoked salmon are served at every meal.
When the skies started to darken and we felt the first drops of rain on our unprotected bodies, we figured it was just a fluke.
There weren’t that many clouds above. It would pass over. We ducked under a tree to wait it out.
But the rain wasn’t a fluke. It began to pour down heavier and heavier until thunder cracked and lightning sizzled and it was clear that the meager foliage above our heads was contributing to our rapid dampening more than it was offering any semblance of protection.
As our physical discomfort increased, we found ourselves gripped by real, if irrational, fear. We were in a foreign country with nothing more than Google to guide us. We had already walked for as long as Google had predicted for the entire hike, yet we knew we hadn’t even reached the halfway point. We were pretty sure we were still on the blue path the waiter at the Frogsternen café had told us to follow, but then again, we could be completely lost.
The possibility that we might be stuck out here for hours in the rain, maybe until the Norwegian darkness finally fell, suddenly seemed less than far-fetched. We felt our hearts race, hot bursts of sweat dueling with the cold tap-taps from the skies, as we held hands, frozen in place and thinking the worst.
Fortunately we had Dr. Russ Harris as our self-help guide. Harris is the author of The Happiness Trap, a layperson’s guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
This method weaves the practice of mindfulness into psychotherapy by utilizing a variety of cognitive techniques, while minimizing the usual emphasis on meditation.
I got turned on to ACT by my friend Bracha Zornberg, a Jerusalem therapist who has found ACT so effective that she now uses it with all her clients.
“Mindfulness is a hot topic in Western psychology right now,” Harris writes. It is “increasingly recognized as a powerful therapeutic intervention for everything from work stress to depression. In ACT, meditation is seen as only one way amongst hundreds of learning these skills – and this is a good thing, because most people do not like meditating!” I had brought a copy of The Happiness Trap with me on the trip and had already been trying to put into play some of the skills Harris describes in the book’s 33 breezy chapters. Right about now, in that foggy Frogsternen forest, would have been an ideal opportunity.
The “acceptance” part of ACT begins with techniques to help “defuse” the hold that our thoughts and emotions have on us. “Cognitive fusion,” Harris writes, occurs when a “thought and the thing it refers to become blended.” Just like we might react to words in a crime novel “as if someone is [actually] about to be murdered, we react to words like ‘I’m useless’ [or] ‘I’m going to fail’ as if failure is a foregone conclusion.”
In a state of cognitive fusion, we treat thoughts as if they are real; we believe them entirely, give them our full attention and obey them, almost as if they are orders, rather than seeing them for what they are: bits of language that float in and out of our minds, often at random, constantly changing, with no more certainty than, say, the weather in Oslo.
“Defusion is about [allowing] our thoughts, images and memories... to come and go as they please, without giving them more attention than they deserve,” Harris explains.
Among his suggestions for defusing an unhelpful thought: You can reframe it by adding, “I’m having the thought that....”
So in our case, instead of “We’re going to be stuck in the woods all night in the rain,” we’d say, “I’m having the thought that we’re going to be stuck in the woods all night.”
Am I really going to be here until dawn? Do I know that with 100% certainty? Or is it just a thought? Another ACT technique is to repeat the thought in a silly voice. It could be Elmer Fudd or a character from Monty Python. I chose Homer Simpson.
“D’oh, we’re going to be stuck in the woods all night!” I said to Jody. We both laughed at the absurdity. “We’re going to be miserable,” faux Homer continued, but it now seemed less a pronouncement of unassailable doom than the ravings of an unreliable yellow cartoon.
The aim of defusion, Harris writes, is not to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, but to stop struggling with them. He then adds a caveat: “At times they will go away and at times they won’t. If you start expecting them to go, you are setting yourself up for disappointment or frustration.”
That’s why he calls his book The Happiness Trap: because the frantic pursuit of happiness as one’s ultimate goal in life is pretty much guaranteed to lead to its converse.
“The things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant,” he says. An intimate long-term relationship, for example, comprises wonderful feelings like love and joy, but it’s also hard work with plenty of ups and downs. The same holds true with pretty much every other “meaningful project we embark on. Although they often bring feelings of excitement and enthusiasm, they also generally bring stress, fear and anxiety.”
It even makes sense from an evolutionary point of view: “Our minds did not evolve to make us feel good [or to] tell great jokes,” he writes. We needed food, water, shelter and sex. Happiness is just a fleeting bonus.
With all this in mind, that’s how, in a Norwegian wood, Homer Simpson and a cautiously happy Dr. Russ Harris got us out of a wet funk and enabled us to think clearly again.
After about 20 minutes paralyzed in the rain, we decided to run for it. We moved as quickly as we could over the rain-slickened rocks, attempting – mostly unsuccessfully – to bypass the newly formed puddles that potholed the previously pristine trail. In a cruel irony, sanctuary presented itself just four minutes away – far less than the time we had hunkered down under that ridiculous tree – in the form of a tourist “hut” that, while now closed, had only an hour before provided ample shelter while serving Norwegian heart-shaped waffles with fresh jam to soothe other weary hikers. As if on cue, a massive rainbow appeared over the hut and the skies cleared, leaving no trace of the abruptly castrated catastrophe.
Over the next two weeks, we practiced our newfound defusion techniques every chance we got: when the bus arrived late and the thought arose that we might miss our boat to Bergen (we didn’t); when we were convinced that all those waffles and lavish Norwegian breakfasts would add unwanted and unsheddable kilograms (our weight was back down to normal within a week of healthy eating upon our return); when we thought that the loud party on the other side of our hotel room’s paper- thin walls would go on all night (it was shut down by midnight).
So here’s my bottom line and the key to a successful vacation: When something unhelpful comes up, ask yourself or your partner, “Are you having a thought?” And always pack appropriate rain gear.
The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, startups and the entrepreneurs behind them.