Mindful observer: A tool for unhooking from unhelpful thoughts

Oct 13, 2020 | Andrea Cuc | @AndreaCuc | Comments (3)


The problem with our problem-solving brains

Do you ever find yourself ruminating and feeling overwhelmed by unhelpful thoughts?  Yeah, me too. Our brains naturally turn on problem-solving mode most of the time, but there are times problem-solving mode isn't helpful. Below is a perspective and exercise to help you unhook from unhelpful thoughts.

Observing our thoughts and looking “at” them, rather than “through” them, can help us see thoughts for what they are – just products of our busy minds and something passing through.  Being an observer to our thoughts and emotions can help us take a step back and unhook from them.  This unhooking, or detaching ourselves from them, is a term called “cognitive defusion” that was coined by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  It can help you acknowledge the thought and take a step back and assess the helpfulness and unhelpfulness of it.  When you get “cognitively fused,” or hooked, by a thought you join its story.  You attach yourself to the thought and give it energy.  Getting hooked by an unhelpful thought can be problematic because this attachment can further create problematic patterns of thinking, increase emotional suffering, and potentially drive problematic coping behaviors.

Defusing or detaching from unhelpful thoughts can help you notice that you are having a thought without further engaging the thought or getting lost in it.  You can see the thought as something passing by.  Perhaps the thought is something you need to take care of, but maybe you don’t have to take action the second the thought pops up, you can write it down and take care of it at a later time. Other thoughts you may need to practice letting go of completely because there is nothing more you can do about it, despite the fact that your problem solving mind thinks it still can (so it still tries!).  Notice what it feels like to watch your mind and not get caught up in its story.  Label the story, label the emotion, and let it go by.  Labeling thoughts can help you acknowledge your thoughts, and then step back and defuse yourself from the content of your thoughts.

Below is a script for an ACT thought/emotion defusion exercise called “leaves on a stream.” A perfect exercise moving into fall! You may want to record yourself reading the script, and then play back the recording and follow along.  Or you can read the script and pause between each number and allow yourself to absorb into it before reading the next part.

Leaves On a Stream:

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

(2) Picture yourself in a peaceful area that has a gentle flowing stream running through it.

Now, bring your attention to the stream and notice that you can see the water flowing towards you.  Create a bend in the stream so that the water flows towards you, and then goes down and around the bend and out of sight.

Visualize yourself either sitting beside the stream or stand in the shallow gentle flowing stream.  You choose whatever is best for you.

(3) Start to notice leaves floating along the surface of the water.  The leaves are coming from upstream and floating downstream, past you, down and around the bend and out of sight.

(4) For the next few minutes, take each thought that enters your mind, give it a label, write that label (the word that describes the theme of your thought) on the leaf, and let the leaf float by down and around the bend and out of sight.

Do this with each thought – pleasurable, painful, or neutral.  The label doesn’t need to be very specific, it could be “planning, judging, criticizing, scared, sad, happy etc.”

(Pause and notice for at least 30 seconds or more)

(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 a leaf gets stuck, allow it to hang around until it’s ready to float by.  Thoughts are like that sometimes, sticky, and they like to hang around.

(Pause and notice)

(7) If a difficult or painful feeling arises, simply acknowledge it.  Say to yourself, “I notice myself having a feeling of (whatever feeling arises)… ”boredom/anxiety/impatience.”  Place that emotional label on a leaf and allow that to float down the stream as well.

(Pause and notice)

The result

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, and your attention is no longer on the stream, just gently bring your attention back to the stream and choose to be the mindful observer.  Observing thoughts and emotions coming and going without attaching yourself to them. The more practice with this exercise you get, the more you'll be able to practice an acceptance space for those things that you cannot change. Acceptance is not "giving up" or resignation. It is often a very adaptive frame work as it allows us to stop trying to change what we can't and move to adapting, refocusing on what we can control, or gratitude for what brings us joy-- all which typically foster ongoing resilience.

Do you have any experience with this type of exercise?  Or other suggestions for how to "unhook" from unhelpful thoughts?



Interested in more newsfeed posts like this? Go to the Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) blog.

Thank you for this message. I have used an exercise where I long carve out "worry time" for troublesome thoughts, then pictured putting them away and moving on to other matters. If they crop back up, I picture myself shutting them away until the next "worry time."

This new exercise gives me a tool to suggest to my daughters, helping one let go as she often gets stuck on matter out of her control, and the other as she has trouble letting go of difficult clients she has dealt with during her day.



Excellent piece and another good exercise that anyone can follow. Two tips that also sometimes help are:
1. Write down the troublesome thought on a slip of paper and put it in a box. A week/month later, open the box and see if the problem has lost significance.
2. Schedule a specific day to write down "worry thoughts" in a notebook; Write whatever is troubling. Start of a new month, read what was written and see if it still is as problematic.


Because of our busy problem-solving careers and personal lives, it becomes difficult for us take it easy, even after hours, on weekends, or during vacations. Imagining a quiet natural setting like a leafy stream has a relaxing effect. It can also be a beach, a mountain, a forest, or any other natural setting that feels safe.

I have always enjoyed simply looking at the stars. For us, the stars are constant and seem to put our mortal issues in perspective. The evening or early morning sky can be mesmerizing. The universe is enormous, yet it is your perception of it that makes it so. By taking in the starry sky and becoming one with with it, you can realize that your human fleeting problems are not earth shattering. The best things in life are free.

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