What is 'thought-action fusion'?

One of the many kinds of unhelpful thinking that can make us stressed, anxious or worried is 'thought-action fusion'. This is especially common in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but is also found in other anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), health anxiety, panic disorder, phobias and social anxiety.

The problem here is that we can confuse thoughts with actions, believing that one has a direct link with the other. Let me give you an example, commonly found in people with OCD (as with the other case studies on this blog, this is a composite of different people and not about any particular client):

Marie has obsessional thoughts (the O in OCD) about running people over when she is driving. As with most OCD sufferers, she worries about this because she is a nice, caring person – it's precisely because the thoughts are so upsetting that she has become obsessive about them. She worries about hurting people before, during and especially after driving from her home to the office.

She thinks, 'Did I just hit someone? I'm sure I did.' Unsurprisingly, this thought makes her very anxious, so she has to engage in compulsions (the C in OCD), like driving back over her route and double-checking there is nobody injured, to 'neutralise' the upsetting thoughts and calm herself down.

One of the reasons Marie gets upset is because she believes the act of thinking about running people over makes it more likely to actually happen. And after her drive she is convinced that because she keeps worrying about hitting people, and even seeing images of that happening in her mind, it means she has actually hit someone. Such is the logic-defying slipperiness of OCD, which makes it challenging to treat.

Generalised anxiety disorder

Another example, of someone who is prone to excessive worry:

Clare has generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which means she has 'free-floating' anxiety that attaches itself to one thing after the next; she also struggles with chronic worry, lying awake late into the night worrying about her children's safety, their performance at school and countless other things. As with other worriers, Clare has beliefs related to the act of worrying itself that maintain her worry problem. She thinks:

a) 'It's useful to worry – it helps me stay on top of all the family problems I have to deal with every day.'

b) 'If I don't worry about my kids, who will? Worrying about them helps keep them safe.'

You can see how the latter part of her second belief is an example of thought-action fusion. Like many people, Clare thinks there is a causal relationship between worrying (a type of thinking) and her children coming to harm (an action). Logically, although of course it's good to be careful about your children's safety, constantly worrying about them will not keep them safe, especially when they are not with Clare. But despite the stress and exhaustion that all this worrying causes her, it helps Clare manage her discomfort with uncertainty – another key feature of GAD.

Learning to think in a more rational, balanced and helpful way is key to overcoming any anxiety disorder. If you would like to book a session with me, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,