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Medically Reviewed by
Cimone Safilian-Hanif, PhD in International Psychology, on January 31, 2024


This exercise is a continuation of the previous exercise, Mental Noting.

Thought defusion, or cognitive defusion, is an exercise derived from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The goal of thought defusion is to create space between ourselves and our thoughts. When we are overly reactive or attached to our negative thoughts, we typically experience mental and or emotional discomfort and unnecessary suffering (Larsson et al., 2016). Creating space between ourselves and our negative thoughts can decrease the emotional discomfort associated with these thoughts as well as increase the willingness to be exposed to these thoughts (Healy et al., 2008).

Regularly practicing thought defusion has shown to decrease an individual’s believability of their negative thoughts, increase their overall comfort and willingness to have the negative thought, and increases their mood overall (Larsson et al., 2016).

DBT Mindfulness: Thought Defusion helps you separate yourself from unproductive thoughts

This exercise includes three versions of mindful imagery to assist you with noticing and identifying your negative thoughts. After noticing your negative thoughts, you will practice creating space between yourself and these negative thoughts. Towards the end of the mindful imagery exercise, you will have the negative thought disappear without judgment.

The below mindful imagery exercises have the same level of difficulty. We have provided several options below so you can pick the version you find the most effective for you. Do this exercise 2-3 times a week, or whenever you need it.

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Words in the Sand

Set a timer for 10 minutes. Then, close your eyes. Imagine a vast desert with lots of sand. You can see the dunes expanding all across the horizon. Calm your mind, and try to become aware of your thoughts. What are you thinking about the most today? Are your thoughts neutral? Are they negative? Without judgment just notice what your mind is thinking about. Then, try to imagine your thoughts written across the sand. Imagine how the wind is blowing off the words and as that happens you let the thoughts go. Thought by thought, you can notice how your mind becomes calmer and more clear. You witness that your thoughts are just products of the mind that don't necessarily have to have a power over you.

Example: You might be thinking about a conversation you had earlier and think to yourself, “why did I say something so stupid!”

As soon as this negative thought enters your mind, take a step back and think:
“I’m noticing a thought that what I said was stupid.”

Take another step back and think to yourself:
“I’m noticing I’m just having a thought that what I said was stupid.”

Take another step back and think:
“I notice I’m having just another thought about being stupid.”

Then, take an even further step back by thinking to yourself:
“I’m noticing I’m having just another judgment about myself. This judgment is not a fact”

Since this thought may hold a worrying or self-judging quality more than it stimulates change, you might benefit from "erasing" it with the wind. So, imagine how the last sentence above (“I’m noticing I’m having just another judgment about myself. This judgment is not a fact”) is written in the sand, and as you exhale you can see the wind blowing the letters. Then you notice that the sand is smooth again.

Continue this with the next thought that comes to your mind.

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Fish in the Ocean

Set a timer for 10 minutes and close your eyes. Imagine a beautiful ocean floor. You can see the sun rays protruding through the water and gently extending to the ocean floor. It is a serene and peaceful environment. You notice how the water is crystal clear and there are some friendly fish around you. Slowly start becoming aware of your thoughts. Try to be in tune with what your mind is thinking. What are you thinking about today? Is it your everyday activities? Is there perhaps a bigger problem that's troubling you these days? Be aware of your thoughts. Then, imagine how the first fish is dragging away your first thought.

If you are worrying about your health, then maybe the fish is dragging away that exact word. See how the fish calmly swims away leaving you with the beautiful ocean floor again. Keep doing this with all of your other thoughts. How do you feel at the end of this exercise?

Example: Perhaps today you are mostly worrying about the lack of energy that you often feel. Put a name on that thought and imagine how it is going away just as the fish swims away. Then keep on doing this with your next thoughts. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

For a step-by-step example of noticing and defusing your thoughts, please see the “Words in the Sand” exercise above.

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Clouds in the Sky

Set your timer for 10 minutes and prepare by closing your eyes. Imagine a windy sky where you can see all the clouds passing by. Imagine the blue color, how fresh the sky looks. Take a deep breath and bring your attention to your thinking mind. Try to notice your thoughts. Without judging or analyzing them, imagine your thoughts written on the clouds. One thought for every cloud. You can summarize your thought with one or a couple of words. Then imagine how the windy sky makes the cloud go away. Your thought slowly leaves the sky. Keep being aware of the thoughts in your mind. Continue to imagine that every other thought on is written on a cloud that is floating away in the sky. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise. Do you feel any different?

Example: Maybe the first cloud is going to have the phrase "did I lock the door?" written on it. You might be worried about whether you locked your door this morning. Imagine how the clouds carry away these thoughts. Continue this with the next thought that comes to your mind. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

For a step-by-step example of noticing and defusing your thoughts, please see the “Words in the Sand” exercise above.

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After you finish with the exercise, use the worksheet to write down how this experience went for you. Journaling will help you retain this information better.

DBT Mindfulness: Thought Defusion Worksheet

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I find it difficult to try and imagine things with my eyes closed. Is this exercise too hard for me to do?

If this is your first time doing an imaginative exercise like this with your eyes closed, it might feel a little weird at the beginning. With time, you'll get more familiar with this format. Maybe when you try it you will find that it feels totally natural to you. Try to think of this exercise as a new, useful, and relaxing experience. Have fun with the different scenarios and enjoy the scenery depicted in the exercises.

If I imagine my thoughts going away, doesn't that mean that I am ignoring my problems?

If you are a worrier, you probably think too much about the problems in your life or you often think in a negative way about your experiences. Even if you are not a worrier, research shows that more than 80% of people regularly experience negative thoughts (Healy et al., 2008)!
Practicing this exercise doesn't mean you are ignoring your problems. By creating space between yourself and your thoughts, you will have the energy to find new solutions to the problems you have. Ten minutes of mindfulness and thought defusion will give your mind a break and allow it to build a newfound awareness that will help you approach your everyday life in a different light.

What if I don't exactly follow the instructions of imagining the scenery as it is written?

Feel free to follow your natural imaginative tendency. The directions are there to make the exercise easier for you. If, along the way, you want to add or alter some aspect of the exercise (for example you might imagine a sunnier sky or sand on the beach instead of a desert), feel free to do so! The point is that you try to practice noticing and defusing your thoughts.

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If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental healthcare provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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Comments About Thought Defusion

  1. I find it difficult focusing my thoughts on the scenario place and letting go … I did try the fish in the sea.

  2. It says in the FAQ “I find it difficult to try and imagine things with my eyes closed. Is this exercise too hard for me to do?” and it doesn’t answer that question in the case of people who HAVE tried visualisation before and always find it very hard.
    I did like the tip about using just one word to

  3. I did the DBT 10 week course 5 years ago. I was the only one who never missed a session. It helped me heal but with 3 different moves since then, I simply forgot about the tools gradually. My therapist sent me this link. I’m going to do my best to apply this refresher course. I forgot how it helped

  4. I have been finding that using a timer is creating anxiety for me. I feel like I will be trapped in the exercise, even if I reach painful levels of anxiety. Is it better to take a break, and come back later for the rest of the 10 minutes, or is there a better way to handle this?

    ADMIN – Hi Kate,

    If the timer is an issue for you, it is fine to find an alternative. Also, if it gets painful you should feel free to take a break or stop.

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