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Leaves on a Stream Exercise

by Vidya Sury October 16, 2019 6 comments
Leaves on a stream exercise to let go of thoughts causing emotional distress

Leaves on a stream exercise is a soothing  cognitive defusion practice where we learn to let go of thoughts that cause emotional suffering.

Sometimes we are so bogged down with our thoughts that they gradually appear true—it’s like we convinced ourselves they were real. Also referred to a cognitive fusion, this can build up to such an extent that it prevents us from living our lives and interferes with our routine.

Cognitive fusion keeps us stuck in this miserable pattern of thinking and eventually causes emotional suffering. How can we get out of this? How can we let go of that emotional trauma and recover and move on with our lives?

ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT offers various tools to practice cognitive defusion, a mindful practice where we learn to step back from thoughts. It is about:

  • looking at thoughts rather than from them
  • noticing thoughts instead of getting caught up with them
  • believing in these thoughts
  • allowing thoughts to come and go rather than hanging on to them

Cognitive defusion lets us become aware of the actual thought process so that we can reflect objectively and solve problems before we take any action.

It begins with recognizing that we are the ones that observe our thoughts—not the thoughts themselves. We are the external and mindful presence with the ability to notice our thoughts as they pass into conscious awareness, face this awareness and then, let go of the awareness.

How to free ourselves from emotional suffering?

It all starts with being willing to view our thoughts with a fresh eye.

If we feel emotionally distressed with our current pattern of thinking or our negative self-talk, we must answer this question: How willing are we to change these thoughts?

Why not let go of that attachment to negative thinking rather than get caught up in the negative thinking? There are a number of simple cognitive defusion exercises you can practice.

Here are nine exercises to get rid of painful thoughts

External voice

Rather than say I am going to fail, say I am having the thought that I am going to fail. This will help distance yourself from the thought.

Name the movie

Suppose all these thoughts and feelings were made into a movie, what would it be called? “The I am going to fail story”? Or what?

Type it out

Imagine your thought on a computer screen, then play with it by changing the font, colour and formatting. See how that feels.

Pop-up mind

Imagine that your unhelpful thought is like an annoying pop-up ad. Practice closing the pop-up window.

Passengers on the bus

So you are driving a bus. See those irritating thoughts as disgusting passengers. Try to keep driving instead of stopping when they get on or trying to kick them off. See if you can focus on driving your bus safely to where you want to go.

Say it slowly

Vocalize your thought slowly. What can you see about the power of the thought now? Is it painful or uncomfortable as it was before you said it slowly?

Thanking your mind

The next time an unhelpful thought enters into your head, try saying “thanks for that brain.” Your brain does think it’s helping.

Carrying cards

Use flashcards to write difficult thoughts and carry them with you. Show your thoughts you can carry your history without losing control you’re your life.

Leaves on a stream exercise

When the thought pops up, imagine placing it on a leaf on top of a gentle stream and watching as it disappears.

In his book ACT made simple, Russ Harris offers a wonderful cognitive defusion exercise called “Leaves on a stream”

How to practice Leaves on a Stream exercise

Leaves on a stream exercise is a soothing  cognitive defusion practice where we learn to let go of thoughts that cause emotional suffering.

Leaves on a Stream Exercise involves the following steps

1. Sit comfortably.
2. Close your eyes or focus your sight on a specific spot or object in the room.
3. Imagine and visualize yourself sitting by a gently flowing stream with leaves floating on the surface of the water.
4. Pause for 10 seconds.
5. For the next few minutes, gently take each thought that enters your mind and place it on a leaf.

6. Let the leaf float by.
7. Do this with each thought regardless of whether it is a happy thought, excited thought, painful thought or even a neutral thought. Place every thought on a leaf and allow it to float by.
8. If your thoughts stop for a moment, it’s okay. Continue to watch the stream.
9. Your thoughts will soon start up again.
10. Pause for 20 seconds.

11. Let the stream flow at its own pace. No need to speed it up or rush your thoughts along.
12. The idea is not to push the leaves or get rid of your thoughts. The idea is to allow them to come and go at their own pace.
13. So maybe your mind’s telling you this looks a bit lame, or maybe you feel bored, or even wondering if you are doing it right.
14. Place these thoughts one by one on leaves and allow them to flow by.
15. Pause for 20 seconds.

16. If a leaf appears to be stuck, do nothing. Wait until it is ready to float away.
17. If a thought comes back again, watch it float by another time.
18. Pause for 20 seconds.
19. If the thought causes a difficult or painful feeling, acknowledge it. Tell yourself that you notice yourself going through feelings of boredom/impatience/frustration. Then place each of these thoughts on leaves and let them float away.
20. Sure, your thoughts might occasionally wander and distract you from being fully present with what you are doing. This is fine.

21. The moment you realize that your mind is wandering, gently steer it back to the Leaves on a stream exercise.
22. Repeat.

Once you are done with this exercise, pause to see how you feel. If you found yourself struggling to focus, that’s absolutely okay. Be kind to yourself. Show yourself compassion.

Start reframing any problems you may have run into during the exercise and see them as a chance to grow. It takes practice to master the leaves on a stream exercise, but the rewards are well worth it. Engaging in this regular mindfulness exercise to practice cognitive defusion frees you from the suffering caused by those negative thought patterns.

Once you let go of these patterns and choose to observe mindfully, that’s when you enjoy true freedom and the chance to live your best life.

I’ve practiced the leaves on a stream exercise and find it infinitely soothing. Will you try it and and let me know how you feel?

Also, take a look at this excellent book titled Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts, where two anxiety experts offer proven-effective cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills to help you get unstuck from disturbing thoughts, overcome the shame these thoughts can bring, and reduce your anxiety.

Wednesday Wisdom is a series with short bursts of easy-to-consume wisdom in the form of stories, quotes, anecdotes, reflections, easy meditation, thought-provoking questions and humor.

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Melissa October 19, 2019 at 10:59 pm

I’ll definitely be trying this myself whenever my anxiety acts up. I felt more calm just reading the exercise! Thank you for sharing.

Leana Lourens October 19, 2019 at 11:38 pm

What a lovely read Vidya. I think many people needs this this time of the year, including myself. I will be keeping these points in mind and I’m very sure it will help.

Nicole Steyn October 20, 2019 at 2:06 pm

What a calming practice! I need to try this. I find that my mind is always so busy and I struggle to calm it and my thoughts. This will be the perfect exercise for my busy mind.

Julie October 21, 2019 at 11:51 am

I love the concept of “Leaves on a stream” – what a wonderful calming idea to try and calm and settle the mind. I will certainly be sure to put this into action

Lynne Huysamen October 21, 2019 at 7:53 pm

I’ve done some work before on negative self-talk and thoughts that disturb me. Your suggestions of typing it out and visualizing a popup box really interest and amuse me. I can really see those working for me. The leaf meditation is similar to something we did in rehab but with clouds floating across the sky. It really is a useful exercise and it works.
Lynne Huysamen recently posted…The Science Behind Risk-Taking Teens

Louis wilson November 2, 2019 at 6:40 pm

Hi, Thank you vidya! This info is super helpful and inspiring and perfect for my busy schedule. Thanks for sharing.


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