The Role of Psychological Flexibility in Addiction Treatment

  1. Defusion.

The acceptance and commitment therapy model is different from earlier models of cognitive behavioral therapy in that it does not attempt to challenge or restructure thoughts or thinking patterns. Rather, it asks us to accept that those thoughts and thinking patterns exist (independently from who we are as humans) and to change the way we relate to them.

We’ve covered the dangers of over identification with our thoughts and feelings and how this causes problems specifically within the realm of addiction. Defusion is yet another piece of the psychological flexibility puzzle that encourages people to create distance from their thoughts.

In addiction treatment, defusion can be about creating space between the addict and his emotions, whether they be loneliness, anxiety, inadequacy, shame or any other difficult feeling.

When he is able to separate himself from a feeling of worthlessness, for example, defusion can help him shift the way he relates to that feeling. In the throes of his addiction, he might relate to the feeling by drowning it in alcohol.

But with defusion, he gives himself room to interact with it differently, perhaps with a willingness to acknowledge it and let it be there until it passes on its own. This different way of connecting with an emotional experience can make an enormous difference for someone in recovery.

  1. Values.

Values are like a compass. They are the answer to the question, “but why do all this?”

The things that matter most to us can be the biggest motivators for change, but it can be all too easy to lose sight of what’s important, especially when we’re on an agenda of constant pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding.

It’s crucial that recovering addicts identify for themselves some concrete reasons why they’d even want to go through the trouble of doing the work of adjusting the way they relate to their thoughts and feelings. It is work. It takes practice, persistence and commitment.

“Constructing value-based or value-informed goals can provide concrete and temporal structure, which carries the potential to interrupt behaviors such as substance use,” write Turner and his colleagues.

  1. Committed action.

Using values as guidelines, people can increase their psychological flexibility by committing to particular behaviors, even in the direct presence of thoughts and feelings that challenge them. Committed action is informed by values and executed with the help of the other processes (acceptance, mindfulness, self as context, defusion).

A client in recovery may value social connection and may set a goal of building a social life that allows her to socialize and interact with people without using alcohol to cope with her shyness and social anxiety.

An example of taking committed action would be joining an ultimate frisbee group, and showing up sober each week to play, even though she might feel scared and anxious in the days and hours leading up to the event.

Whereas her previous attempts to avoid her anxious thoughts left her with just two options — show up drunk or don’t show up at all — her commitment to show up sober and her willingness to allow anxious feelings opened up her life to social connection, something she values. In other words, she has achieved greater psychological flexibility.

Flexible image via Shutterstock.

The Role of Psychological Flexibility in Addiction Treatment

Jessica Dore

Jessica Dore is a behavioral science and spirituality writer with several years of experience in clinical psychology publishing. She blogs weekly about tarot cards and psychology on her website In her free time, she is a devoted ashtanga yoga practitioner, food enthusiast, and DJ. Follow her on twitter @realJessicaDore.


APA Reference
Dore, J. (2016). The Role of Psychological Flexibility in Addiction Treatment. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Mar 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Mar 2016
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