“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provides us with the tools to practice cognitive defusion, which is the willingness to let go of the attachment and over-identification with thoughts that cause suffering.  When fusion to thoughts becomes problematic, those thoughts become “true” and “real” in ways that prevent us from engaging in workable action and living according to chosen values. Essentially, cognitive fusion serves to keep us “stuck” in problematic patterns of thinking that lead to same old inevitable consequences: emotional suffering.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Cognitive defusion is a tool that, when mindfully and diligently practiced, serves to disentangle you from thoughts that cause you to suffer.  The first step is to recognize that you are the observer of your thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. You are the eternal and mindful presence that is capable of noticing your thoughts enter into conscious awareness, sit in the forefront of your awareness, and then leave awareness.

The way to begin to free yourself from unnecessary emotional suffering begins with your willingness to look at your thoughts in a new way.  If your patterns of thinking or negative self-talk tends to cause you significant emotional distress, begin to ask yourself how willing you are to try to consider those thoughts differently.  Rather than choose to become “caught up” in negative thinking to the point where you lose perspective, begin to let go of your attachment to that negative thinking.

Cognitive Defusion Exercise

Harris (2009) provides an excellent cognitive defusion exercise used in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy:

“Leaves on a Stream” Exercise

(1) Sit in a comfortable position and either close your eyes or rest them gently on a fixed spot in the room.

(2) Visualize yourself sitting beside a gently flowing stream with leaves floating along the surface of the water. Pause 10 seconds.

(3) For the next few minutes, take each thought that enters your mind and place it on a leaf… let it float by.  Do this with each thought – pleasurable, painful, or neutral.  Even if you have joyous or enthusiastic thoughts, place them on a leaf and let them float by.

(4) If your thoughts momentarily stop, continue to watch the stream.  Sooner or later, your thoughts will start up again.  Pause 20 seconds.

(5) Allow the stream to flow at its own pace.  Don’t try to speed it up and rush your thoughts along.  You’re not trying to rush the leaves along or “get rid” of your thoughts.  You are allowing them to come and go at their own pace.

(6) If your mind says “This is dumb,” “I’m bored,” or “I’m not doing this right” place those thoughts on leaves, too, and let them pass.  Pause 20 seconds.

(7) If a leaf gets stuck, allow it to hang around until it’s ready to float by.  If the thought comes up again, watch it float by another time.  Pause 20 seconds.

(8) If a difficult or painful feeling arises, simply acknowledge it.  Say to yourself, “I notice myself having a feeling of boredom/impatience/frustration.”  Place those thoughts on leaves and allow them float along.

(9) From time to time, your thoughts may hook you and distract you from being fully present in this exercise. This is normal.  As soon as you realize that you have become sidetracked, gently bring your attention back to the visualization exercise.

What was it like for you to engage in this brief cognitive defusion visualization exercise?  Be patient and compassionate with yourself if you found yourself struggling to remain fully present and mindful.  This is natural.  Begin to reframe any difficulties that you may have encountered during this visualization exercise as opportunities for growth.  Cognitive defusion is a tool that takes practice to become skilled.  The potential rewards of choosing to engage in regular mindful awareness and cognitive defusion is the ultimate freedom from the unnecessary suffering of maladaptive thoughts.  Loosen their grip on you and choose to become the mindful observer.

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For a PDF of this cognitive defusion exercise: Cognitive Defusion Exercise

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Sinking slowly under the pressures of flickr by Steve-h / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on October 3, 2011 at 10:10 am

    What a great exercise! I do this type of exercise when my mind is racing to get it to slow down too. I give each thought a little bit of the attention that it craves. I slow each thought down and allow it to float (as opposed to rush) in and our of my mind. Soon enough my thoughts are satisfied with the attention I have given them, my mind has slowed, and I am refreshed and ready to calmly focus again.

    • Laura on October 5, 2011 at 8:38 am

      That’s wonderful that you already incorporate your own version of a cognitive defusion exercise into your life! It is amazing how thoughts seem to persist until they get attention. Often times, all it takes is a few brief moments of genuine attention and acceptance for those thoughts and feelings to be released. It is usually when we fight against or resist unwanted thoughts or feelings that they persist. Thank you for your comment!

  2. nicole on March 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    I am a new counsellor and am experiementing with ACT. Can anyone give me some tips in terms of ACT and working with a client who has recently lost their father to a long term illness?

    • Laura on January 19, 2014 at 1:40 pm

      Hi Nicole,

      I recommend taking a look at the article “ACT & Grief,” written by Russ Harris. Dr. Harris has written extensively on ACT and offers excellent training opportunities for clinicians interested in learning more about ACT. Thanks for your inquiry and visiting the website!


  3. Sarah on January 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Can we get this exercise in Spanish?

    • Laura on January 19, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Hi Sarah,

      Good question! Yes, you can translate the article, “Leaves on a Stream: Cognitive Defusion Exercise,” into Spanish by using the Google Translate function on the right-hand side of the article. Simply click “Select Language” and choose (in this case) Spanish. A translated version of the original article will then appear. I just tried it out myself, and it worked smoothly.

      Gracias por tu comentario!


  4. Allie King on August 3, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    This exercise is perfect for me to start to learn about observation as a skill to enhance my ability as the observer and to be more in the now. Thank you.

  5. Rebecca on December 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

    I just did this with my client who has a hard time regulating her emotions. She really liked it. I would say it is a bit more of an intermediate-advanced mindfulness exercise. I personally like to introduce mindfulness to clients via the “5 senses” exercise which may be a bit more accessible to beginners (focusing on 5 things you hear, see, taste, etc) than tracking thoughts is. Thanks for the step-by-step guidance.

    • Laura on December 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      Rebecca – I’m glad to hear that this mindfulness exercise was helpful for your client… and that she really liked it! When emotions are intense, unpredictable, or unpleasant, visualizing them from the stance of a mindful observer is a great way to regulate emotions more effectively. Thanks for visiting! – Laura

  6. Dan Rybacki on December 13, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Is it normal to find this really difficult at first? I mean, focusing on thoughts that have caused you pain for so many months?

    • Laura on December 14, 2014 at 8:10 am

      Hi Dan – Absolutely. It makes sense to experience various degrees of difficulty or resistance to directing one’s focus toward chronically painful thoughts. Instinctually, most of us turn away from thoughts, emotions, and sensations that we experience as unpleasant… after all, who “wants” focus on something that will only cause increased suffering? It’s a tricky and rather paradoxical task to focus on painful thoughts. The important thing to remember is that applying mindfulness through this type of cognitive defusion exercise, the outcome needn’t be intensified suffering or rumination.

      In a way, the longer we resist the existence of painful thoughts, the longer they tend to persist… by noticing that they are “there,” accepting their presence, and releasing judgment, we can begin to see them for what they really are: just thoughts. That is not meant to diminish the intense pain associated with some thoughts, but rather to suggest the possibility of developing a new relationship with those thoughts. You are the “observer” of thoughts that arise in your mind. In other words, “you” are not your thoughts.

      If it feels especially painful to focus on certain thoughts, that is an opportunity to direct compassion toward yourself. Your willingness to question what it would be like to focus on difficult thoughts is a huge step.

      I wish you the best and encourage you to be gentle with yourself. Thank you for visiting and for your comment. – Laura

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  13. Donna Janus on November 20, 2018 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for this exercise – I used it with students in my mindfulness class, several found it helpful for gaining clarity about cognitive fusion.

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