Learning how to use cognitive defusion to reduce stress

People who have anxiety are more likely to become fused with their thoughts emotions and experiences than people without anxiety.

Fusion is the experience that helps you become immersed in a movie when you're watching it, or a book when you are reading it. However if you are anxious, you need to be able to step back and have distance from your anxious thoughts, sensations and emotions. We know that anxious people have LESS of an ability to do this, which creates all kinds of problems. Namely, avoidance, which makes anxiety worse and your life pretty miserable.

Cognitive defusion  is a strategy I teach my clients that helps their anxiety. Below I will share some of the strategies of cognitive defusion. 

Cognitive fusion is a process whereby people with anxiety react to their thoughts as if it really represents reality.  For example, someone with anxiety may react to the thought, ‘everyone is judging me’ or ‘the plane is going to crash’ as if this were an actual fact. In this way, anxious people respond to the minds  mental construction as if something dangerous was happening. Language is dictating both an anxious persons emotions, physicals reactions and behaviors. Cognitive defusion helps  anxious people to  detach from the language of  their thoughts, so they can choose behavior based on what's in their best interest, not based on what their anxiety language is dictating. When you practice cognitive defusion you are less likely to be hooked in the anxiety cycle.

Cognitive Defusion  helps anxious ( and depressed ) people learn how to disengage from thoughts feelings and emotions that are holding them back from the life they want to live. The great thing about cognitive defusion is that it works immediately to decrease anxiety. It's usually one of the first things I teach my clients when they enter therapy. Although its a core process in Acceptance and Commitment therapy, and many people teach and talk about it, I learned this from Russ Harris, and mostly everything on this page is stolen from his workshop ACT MADE SIMPLE that I took in 2015 and his teachings. Check out his website here

The main goal of cognitive defusion is to CREATE SEPARATION. The more separated you are from your anxious experience, the less likely you will be to make bad choices based on your anxiety, and let it influence your life.  Cognitive defusion helps you to step back from your experience and notice your :

  • thoughts
  • feelings
  • emotions
  • memory
  • sensations 
  • urges.

You also want to practice doing this with curiosity and openness and then NAME what's happening. 

Most cognitive defusion techniques include noticing and naming. When we are able to NOTICE  and NAME, we create the separation and are able to unhook from what might begin to be a spiral of anxiety.


Confused about thoughts and feelings?

Thoughts are pictures and words

Feelings are sensations in your body

Emotions and urges are a mixture of both

Russ Harris ACT made Simple 2015

Cognitive Defusion Strategies

“Leaves on a Stream” Exercise script 


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


(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.




Let your thoughts come and go like clouds


    •  a “don’t get killed” machine
    •  a word machine
    •  a radio broadcasting  “doom and gloom”
    •  a masterful salesman selling you bad news
    •  the world’s greatest catastrophic  story teller
    • a negative psychic
    •  a judgment factory



What's it like to be pushed around or bullied by that thought, memory, or  idea? Do you want to keep allowing that to happen?


What does that thought look like? What is its size? What does it sound like? Whose voice is the thought in? Is it a moving or still thought? How loud or soft is the thought?


That’s an interesting thought.


When this thought shows up, if you go along with it, what benefits might you get from it. What might you be able to avoid or escape? 


If you let that thought dictate what you do, does that work for you in the long run? Does buying into it help you have a happy rich and meaningful life?


If you go along with that thought, buy into it, and let it control you, where does that leave you? What do you get for buying into it? Where do you go from here? Can you give it a go anyway, even though your mind says it wont work?


This is just your mind problem solving.  Your mind evolved to solve problems. This is its job.  But some of those solutions are not very effective. You can assess whether your mind is doing your job well. Is the way your mind is doing its job giving you a rich meaningful life?


Imagine this thought on a computer screen. Change the font, color, and format. Animate the words. Add in a bouncing ball


Take a step back and look at this thought from your observing self.


When you buy into this thought, or give it all your attention, how does your behavior change? What do you start or stop doing when it shows up?



Notice what your mind is telling you right now. Notice what you’re thinking.

  • I notice feelings of worry
  • I notice there is tension in my stomach
  • I notice I have the urge to got back to sleep 
  • Aha. Here it is again. A pain in my head
  • Aha here it is again. Anxiety in my pain and stomach.


If all these thoughts and feelings were put into a book or movie, titled “the something something story,” what would you call it?  Each time this story shows up, name it: “Aha, there’s the XYZ story again!”

Aha here it goes again. The story of  everyone will think I'm stupid

I notice my clients have similar themed stories. If you identify you stories, you can write them down to prepare yourself for them when they show up. 

15.  Passengers on the bus

Click above to watch the video

16. MENTAL APPRECIATION. You are doing a great job worrying mind! When the thought shows up, you can just thank your mind for the thought, and carry on with your day. 

17.  ASK YOURSELF , " Who’s talking here: you or your mind?"

18.  LEARN AND PRACTICE Leaves on a Stream Exercise.

19.  ASK YOURSELF  How old is that story?


I NOTICE THAT MY MIND IS HAVING THE THOUGHT( feeling, sensation, memory, urge) THAT

Just this simple technique alone will often break the trance of the anxiety or stress.


I guess I am buying into the thoughts that something bad is going to happen.


Imagine your mind is like a cell phone that keeps call you. Hello this is your mind calling. DO you realize you need to keep worrying that something bad will happen?

Cognitive Defusion Strategies Neutralizing

Neutralizing cognitive defusion strategies involve taking it to a rapidly different context.  It has more power and we usually just use this strategy with thoughts. This is based on Titchener's word repetition research that he did  in 1916. That research showed when you repeat words they  lose their discomfort and believability.

23.  SING IT OUT Sing out your anxious thought until you are less anxious.

24.  SILLY VOICES Say your anxious thought in a silly voice over and over until you are less anxious

25.  SAY I VERY SLOWLY over and over until you are less anxious

26.  REPEAT IT QUICKLY OVER AND OVER until you are less anxious

27.  WRITE YOUR ANXIOUS THOUGHTS ON CARDS and carry them around with you ( this is exposure and also neutralizes them)

28.  WORDS ON THE SCREEN. Imagine the words of the thought bouncing on a computer screen and alter the font the text color the size etc.


None of these ideas for cognitive defusion exercises are my own. They are mostly from Russ Harris as learned from him in ACT made simple. Also, Steven Hayes.



Apps for cognitive defusion

Songify is an app that you can use for thought defusion. You can use this to input phrases of thoughts that are anxiety provoking for your and the app will organize it in a way that will neutralize the phrase for you. Click on the word to be taken to the app!



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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.