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The Ultimate Relaxation Strategy for Anxious Brains

When we practice cognitive defusion, our thoughts no longer consume us. 

Key points

  • Cognitive defusion aims to minimize the influence of thoughts on behavior.
  • By practicing cognitive defusion, we can become "unstuck" from our thoughts and reduce anxiety.
  • The "leaves on a stream" exercise is a cognitive defusion strategy that allows you to watch thoughts float by.
Haley Phelps/Unsplash
Haley Phelps/Unsplash

Anxious brains are pesky. They jump around from thought to thought, sometimes so quickly we don’t even notice we are spiraling. They tell us we aren’t good enough, smart enough, or wealthy enough. They tell us that the worst-case scenario is around the corner.

Unfortunately, when we are anxious, we can’t recognize that these thoughts are just thoughts. Instead, the thoughts are all-consuming. We accept our worst fears as absolute truths instead of recognizing them for what they are —just thoughts.

Sometimes our first inclination is to try not to think the thoughts. This has a paradoxical effect. The more we try to suppress the thoughts, the more out of control they feel.

Often, we need to do the opposite of what feels natural. We need to lean in instead of pushing away. This concept is called cognitive defusion.

The Theory of Cognitive Defusion

The theory behind cognitive defusion is that, at times, we get “fused" to our thoughts—meaning we get stuck. We get stuck because we believe our thoughts as absolute truths. We get stuck because we spend time and energy trying to figure out what our thoughts mean or what they say about us. In reality, it doesn’t help to battle these thoughts. Battling the thoughts makes them worse. Instead, we are tasked to acknowledge the thought for what it is, which is just a thought.

By practicing this skill, we can “de-fuse," or unstick, ourselves from our thoughts. Acknowledging the thoughts as thoughts only (rather than absolute truths) gives us a little separation and breathing room. When we practice cognitive defusion, our thoughts no longer consume us.

The Ultimate Exercise: Leaves on a Stream

Russ Harris is credited with a meditation strategy with all the necessary components for anxiety management: nature scenes, sensory imagery, and cognitive defusion. Here’s how it works.

Step 1. Settle in. Find a comfortable position. Take a mindfulness posture —straighten your back, open your chest and shoulders, and rest your hands on your lap or sides. Get comfortable in the space and settle into your body. Allow your body’s weight to be supported by the chair or floor.

Step 2. Set the scene. Start by imagining a flowing stream with leaves floating along the water's surface. See what might surround a stream, whether a riverbank, trees, or wildlife. Listen for the gentle gurgle of a brook, the water lapping on the ground. You might hear birds chirping or leaves rustling in the wind. Feel the ground under your toes.

Step 3. Unstick from thoughts. As you watch the scene, focus on the leaves floating along the water's surface. Whenever you have a thought during the exercise, take the thought and place it on the leaf, and watch it float gently down the stream. You can imagine doing this however you’d like. Just notice the thoughts as they arise and place them on the leaves, watching them float away.

You’ll likely have thoughts that try to pull your brain away from the exercise. Maybe thoughts like “this is silly,” “I’m not doing this right,” or thoughts of your to-do list. When this happens, simply acknowledge that the mind is wandering and place those thoughts on leaves too. Be sure not to judge yourself for getting distracted. It’s a natural process for the mind to wander, especially when still.

You can even practice with any physical sensations or emotions you notice. Label your experience, like “I notice I feel frustrated" or “I notice pain in my shoulders.” Place those thoughts on leaves too.

If your thoughts stop momentarily, just continue to watch the stream. Eventually, your thoughts will start back up again.

If a thought gets stuck, just allow the leaf to float in the stream until you can watch it move away. If a thought arises multiple times, watch it go again and again until it passes, and a new thought replaces it.

You can practice this for as long or as little as you like. You can start with five minutes and eventually work your way up to 10, 15, or 20.

Step 4. Reflect. After completing the practice, reflect on your experience. Ask yourself:

  • What was it like to watch the leaves float by?
  • What thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions came up?
  • What was challenging about the practice?

Try to reflect non-judgmentally, knowing there is no perfect way to be mindful. All that matters is that you pay attention to your experience.

Notice how you might use this practice in the future. How will you handle thoughts when they arise? Will you let them stay stuck in your mind, or will you allow them to pass along gently?

The Takeaway

Use this mindfulness strategy when worries and anxious thoughts threaten to overwhelm you. Simply notice your thoughts without attaching meaning to them. Stop fighting the thoughts and instead accept them as just thoughts. Watching your thoughts coming and going allows you to view them as an observer. When you observe your thoughts from above, you can avoid the trap of believing the thoughts to be true.

You have the ability to avoid being consumed by thoughts if you only watch them float by.

Do you want to feel relief from anxious thoughts? Try my Calm Under Pressure webinar to learn three key anxiety management strategies including breathing techniques, grounding, and cue-controlled relaxation. You can also sign up for my free newsletter.

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