Revenge of the 5th!: Star Wars, ACT, & the Factory of Suffering


In my previous post titled ACT & Star Wars: How Acceptance & Commitment Training Can Make You a Jedi, I made comparisons between the ACT concepts of verbal fusion and experiential avoidance in relation to the Sith and the Jedi Council. The reality is that Star Wars can be further connected to ACT because in both the case of the story and what ACT aims to achieve the objective is to find balance. In the series the Jedi Council are represented as seeking to protect people and they act as a peacekeeping and policing force in the universe, while the Sith appear to operate as free radicals that threaten peace. But when you look more closely at the story and how each group behaves it reveals that both the Jedi Council and the Sith are seeking to control others and control outcomes.

A Word on Control

Many people associate control as being bad, but control itself isn’t a problem. In fact if you look at the four functions of behavior, each one essentially is about control.
Access is control of access.
Attention is control of who’s paying attention/socially engaging with you.
Avoidance/escape is control of the environment that you’re in.
Automatic/sensory is control of what feels good and what feels bad.

We all seek control. Control of our environment allows for equilibrium, and when there is equilibrium there is more likelihood of us being able to grow and thrive. It’s very natural for us to want to control our environments, but what happens when we’re so stuck on trying to control what’s going on that we actually lose control? ACT presents some interesting tools and perspectives on this.

Verbal Fusion & Control

Verbal fusion (or cognitive fusion) refers to the process by which an individual becomes entangled or “fused” with their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and beliefs. This fusion leads to a distorted sense of reality (Hayes et al., 2011). The way that the Sith are represented perfectly matches the idea of Verbal Fusion because they perceive these strong emotions and experiences as being the source of their power. And much like those actual emotions, there is great power that comes from emotions. Emotions act as motivating operations (MOs) and can increase the value of reinforcement, as well increase the probability of a behavior occurring. If you have ever done something while feeling a strong emotion you may have experienced this. It is a commonly reported experience that doing something out of spite or anger can be cathartic, and there are also cases of this with other experiences. But what is not commonly discussed is the cost involved with such emotion fueled actions. When deeply entangled with an emotion you can experience increased heart rate (Thayer et al, 2000), elevated blood pressure (Suls et al, 2005), muscular tension (Brosschot et al 2006), elevated cortisol levels (Dickerson, 2004), and gastrointestinal issues (Segerstrom, 2004), just to name a few. Now, if you think that the first 3 might be good because they are also associated with a workout, that is unfortunately not necessarily true. You see, when working out the sympathetic nervous system is activated  (McEwen & Akil, 2020), while when we are experiencing fusion with our emotions it tends to place us into survival mode, which activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Sapolsky et al, 2000) resulting in poor quality stress recovery in the short run and can result in major physiological damage in the long run. Survival mode is intended to be used for survival, but survival is not thriving.

There have been many studies specifically on Verbal Fusion and it’s impact those experiencing it. Two studies examined the relationship between verbal fusion and psychological distress in individuals with anxiety disorders showed that fusion was a significant predictor of anxiety symptoms (Ciarrochi et al., 2006; Spada & Wells, 2008). Another study investigated the effects of an ACT-based interventions on fusion and depression symptoms in college students which resulted in the ACT intervention leading to significant reductions i fusion and depression symptoms (Rosen et al., 2018). Yet another study examined the role of cognitive fusion in predicting treatment response to exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Results showed that higher levels of fusion were associated with poorer treatment outcomes (Farchione et al., 2012). And finally, a study investigated the relationship between fusion and eating disorder symptoms in women with bulimia nervosa demonstrated that higher levels of fusion were associated with more severe eating disorder symptoms (Brockman et al., 2017).

While there may be a sense of control and even power from being fused with our strong emotions, the long term impact are extremely harmful. Likewise, the Sith may appear to be powerful, yet the long term effects of their fusion is harm to themselves and others. Keep in mind that Verbal Fusion is an experience that we all have. It’s natural and necessary. The issue is not whether or not you experience Verbal Fusion, but whether the Verbal Fusion you experience enhances or pulls away from your experiences.


Experiential Avoidance & Control

Experiential avoidance refers to the tendency to avoid or suppress strong or uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations, rather than accepting them as a natural part of life (Hayes et al., 2011). The Jedi Council’s attitude toward emotions is a reflection of experiential avoidance because they emphasized the importance of controlling emotions and especially in avoiding the so called negative emotions.  They associated those emotions with the Dark Side of the Force. They believed that emotions lead to impulsive behavior and cloud judgment. They encourage Jedi to suppress or control their emotions, rather than accepting them as a natural part of being alive. This is most obvious in the prequel series of Star Wars, which follows Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming the Sith Lord, Darth Vader.
Experiential Avoidance has two areas where it can be seen. The first is avoidance of internal experiences. This is typically seen in the form of struggling with our internal experiences such as emotions, memories, and the like. The second form of avoidance is with external experiences in relation to the rules we create or that are taught to us. In both cases, the results are equally detrimental.
In fact, a study examined the relationship between experiential avoidance and symptom severity in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) demonstrated that higher levels of experiential avoidance were associated with greater OCD severity symptoms (Twohig et al., 2003), while a meta-analysis of 38 studies investigated the relationship between experiential avoidance and psychological distress showed that experiential avoidance was strongly associated with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010). Furthermore, a study examined the role of experiential avoidance in predicting relapse in individuals with alcohol use disorder indicated that that higher levels of experiential avoidance predicted a greater probability of relapsing following treatment (Gifford et al., 2004). Finally, a study investigated the effects of an ACT-based intervention to address experiential avoidance and anxiety symptoms in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) showed that the intervention led to significant reductions in both experiential avoidance and anxiety symptoms (Roemer et al., 2008).

The Relationship Between the Sith (Fusion) and the Jedi Council (Experiential Avoidance)

Something that is pretty apparent to me from the Star Wars franchise is that the relation between the Sith & the Jedi Council. The relationship is one of unending conflict, and one where it appears that the two perpetuate each other. The story of Darth Vader is a perfect example of this since the Jedi Council’s behavior toward Anakin Skywalker set the stage for him to go to the Dark Side. Rather than learning to accept his experiences, the avoidance that was encourage amplified the fusion that he experienced.

I call this cycle The Factory of Suffering, and this factory is the source of the chains of suffering. This is a metaphor, of course. These chains are forged by the interaction between Fusion and Experiential Avoidance, and the only way to address this is to engage in practices that are broadly referred to as mindfulness-like behaviors. You may notice I do not call it mindfulness specifically and this is because mindfulness is much broader than what ACT teaches. Certainly the skills taught can fall under mindfulness, but I prefer to be more accurate in my descriptions, so mindfulness-like is a better portrayal of what ACT teaches.

There is a diagram with a banner on top that says, "The Factory of Suffering". Under the banner is says, "Forging high quality chains of suffering since the beginning of time." There are two labels, one which says "Verbal Fusion", and the other that says "Experiential Avoidance". Under the Verbal Fusion label is a square the reads, The Experience is in the 'Drivers Seat'. Under the Experiential Avoidance label is two triangles. The first reads, "Struggling with internal experiences", and the second reads, "Struggling with external experiences. Copyright Mindful Behavior LLC 2023
This diagram may be used for noncommercial educational purposes without needing to ask for permission so long as the source is cited. Please contact the author for commercial usage.

The goal of ACT is to address these two areas. If you wish to learn more about ACT there are many resources that I recommend. Below are a list of potential resources.

Upcoming Live Events

On May 28th, 2023 at 7pm EST, you can join the Professional Development Peer Group for Neurodiversity Affirming ABA to Identify Values with Neurodiversity Affirming ABA.

On May 29th, 2023, you can join Using ACT to Regulate, Motivate, and Not Procrastinate.

August 22nd, 2023 will be the start of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Behavior Analysts: An Introductory Course, which will be taught by Dr. Jordan Belisle, BCBA-D and Brian Middleton, IBA, BCBA.

On Demand Trainings:

If you want to catch some recorded courses, Applications of Defusion: Defusing Your Confusion is available immediately for viewing, as are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for Play Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Verbal Behavior and Self-Management in Action, ACTing with Youth and many, many more continuing education courses available in the Mindful Behavior On Demand Library.

If you are wanting one-on-one mentorship, there are multiple experienced mentors available through our service providers section.

Recommended Reading:

Here is a list of recommended readings that you can access through Amazon.

ACT for Treating Children: The Essential Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Kids

It Shouldn’t Be This Way: Learning to Accept the Things You Just Can’t Change

Super-Women: Superhero Therapy for Women Battling Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

A Liberated Mind: The essential guide to ACT

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Behavior Analysts

ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Works Cited:

Brockman, R., Ciarrochi, J., & Parker, P. (2017). Cognitive fusion in women with bulimia nervosa: An investigation of thought-shape fusion. Eating Behaviors, 26, 91-94.

Brosschot, J. F., Gerin, W., & Thayer, J. F. (2006). The perseverative cognition hypothesis: A review of worry, prolonged stress-related physiological activation, and health. Journal of psychosomatic research, 60(2), 113-124.

Ciarrochi, J., Bilich, L., & Godsell, C. (2006). Psychological mindedness and emotional distress: Predictive relationships and direct links. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(6), 1157-1169.

Dickerson, S. S., & Kemeny, M. E. (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological bulletin, 130(3), 355-391.

Farchione, T. J., Fairholme, C. P., Ellard, K. K., Boisseau, C. L., Thompson-Hollands, J., Carl, J. R., … & Barlow, D. H. (2012). Unified protocol for transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders: A randomized controlled trial. Behavior Therapy, 43(3), 666-678.

Gifford, E. V., Kohlenberg, B. S., Hayes, S. C., Antonuccio, D. O., Piasecki, M. M., Rasmussen-Hall, M. L., … & Palm, K. M. (2004). Acceptance-based treatment for smoking cessation. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 689-705.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. Guilford Press.

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 865-878.

McEwen, B. S., & Akil, H. (2020). Revisiting the stress concept: Implications for affective disorders. Journal of Neuroscience, 40(1), 12-21.

Roemer, L., Orsillo, S. M., & Salters-Pedneault, K. (2008). Efficacy of an acceptance-based behavior therapy for generalized anxiety disorder: Evaluation in a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(6), 1083-1089.

Rosen, K. D., Paniagua, S. M., Kazanis, W. T., & Jones, N. Z. (2018). An investigation of the effect of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) on academic procrastination. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 7, 80-88.

Sapolsky, R. M., Romero, L. M., & Munck, A. U. (2000). How do glucocorticoids influence stress responses? Integrating permissive, suppressive, stimulatory, and preparative actions. Endocrine reviews, 21(1), 55-89.

Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin, 130(4), 601-630.

Spada, M. M., & Wells, A. (2008). Metacognitive beliefs about rumination in major depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32(2), 160-167.

Suls, J., & Bunde, J. (2005). Anger, anxiety, and depression as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: the problems and implications of overlapping affective dispositions. Psychological bulletin, 131(2), 260-300.

Thayer, J. F., & Lane, R. D. (2000). A model of neurovisceral integration in emotion regulation and dysregulation. Journal of affective disorders, 61(3), 201-216.

Twohig, M. P., Hayes, S. C., & Masuda, A. (2006). A preliminary investigation of acceptance and commitment therapy as a treatment for chronic skin picking. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(10), 1513-1522.


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