MH@H Mental Health

Thoughts as Leaves on a Stream: An ACT Metaphor

Thoughts as leaves on a stream: An acceptance and commitment therapy tool

Thoughts as leaves on a stream is a popular metaphor used in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to represent noticing thoughts and letting them pass by without attaching to them.  I like this metaphor, since it’s not about fighting the thoughts or trying to make them go away, but just riding them out.

I got thinking about recently this after reading a post by Meg at Where Good Advice Happens. A person had written a letter to an advice columnist about the same-sex fantasies she’d been having while in a heterosexual marriage, and she was distressed because she didn’t think she should be having these thoughts yet she couldn’t control them.  She was trying her hardest to fight the thoughts, and it just seemed to make the thoughts more intrusive and make her feel worse.

Busy beavers damming up thoughts

I know there are certainly times when I try to fight thoughts.  Sometimes it’s by ruminating and trying to think my way out of them, and other times it’s by trying to shove them into a box in the corner where, like Pandora’s box, they’ll stay hidden away until something prompts them to suddenly get released back out into consciousness to wreak havoc.

Building on the leaves on a stream metaphor, maybe sometimes are minds are overly eager beavers and instead of letting the leaves float by, they start making a dam to try to keep them away.  The thoughts get caught up in the dam rather than being able to float by.  When we try to fight the thoughts, our beaver mind thinks it’s going to be helpful and strengthen the dam, but that just makes the situation worse by getting those thoughts even more entangled.

The negativity bias

I think the biggest dam getting in the way in my mind is an amplification of the brain’s natural negativity bias.  We’re hardwired to be on the alert for danger, but after accumulating a lot of negative experiences in recent years my beaver brain has tried to shore up some extra protection.  What that means, though, is that thoughts related to transient, minor safety threats get caught up in my head and stick around far longer than they should.  Even if my beaver brain thinks that’s keeping me safer, it’s really just making me feel worse.

Do you try to let thoughts float by, or are you a dam builder?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Fundamentals mini-ebook

The ACT Fundamentals mini-ebook/workbook provides an introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy.  It’s available form the MH@H Download Centre.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts as Leaves on a Stream: An ACT Metaphor”

  1. Oooooo this is so good. My experience with PTSD has definitely been dam building, and I’ve had to work to remove that and practice letting the leaves go by. This is a lovely way to frame the issue.

  2. Oh boy!! Thanks for the exciting pingback!!

    I love the dam metaphor! (HA HA! That’s homophonic to “I love the damn metaphor!”)

    A good question… I try to let my thoughts float by, or I’d just go batshit psycho otherwise. Like, hands down, no contest. 😀

  3. I love using this as a visualization technique – I like plopping the mental image of the thought/issue/stressor down onto it’s leaf and waving at it passive-aggressively as it floats away, it helps me get to sleep. I’m definitely a natural dam builder hahaha.

  4. Wow. I have dams for dams for dams, and occasionally hire in additional beaver help. Wish I didn’t do this. It’s so self-deprecating…

  5. Oh wow, I posted about emotions as waves earlier. We must be on the same wavelength.
    I do acceptance, commitment therapy with my therapist. I have healed more in the past year than I ever thought possible. I think I had accepted what happened to me, but didn’t know how to live with the day-to-day effects of my trauma. The techniques she taught me have really helped.
    I haven’t heard of thoughts as leaves on a stream but that makes perfect sense. I love the visual.
    I always enjoy your conversation provoking posts ❤️❤️❤️

  6. This is such a good post ❤️ Beautiful written. I agree so much. I’m definitely a dam builder and have to change it. I’m just reading about the negativive bias of the brain and it definitely makes you alert on dangerous way more too often than is necessary

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