Sometimes in your attempts to escape, avoid, or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, you end up creating more suffering in the long run. Avoiding anxiety provoking situations can sometimes be good but employing the same coping mechanism for all our pain, in a one size fits all response, may not always work. One example is putting out fires. Water is great for putting out fires but not all fires. If you pour water on a flaming hot oil, you will make the fire spread more rather than extinguish it.
So, what’s the alternative? Acceptance and willingness. Accepting what you cannot change, along with the thoughts and feelings that come with the pain. Be open, be willing to do what matters. Committing to live life according to your values, so you can live a rich, full and meaningful life. Willingness is not resignation, it’s not tolerating, it’s experiencing and acknowledging the pain. Responding to it in a way that takes you towards the life you want, the person you want to be and the values you stand for.
As you go through this section, write down difficult thoughts, feelings, images, emotions, sensations, memories, urges that you experience that get in the way of you living a rich full meaningful life. By writing these down, you will notice the themes around your own thoughts, feelings and triggers. Awareness of these helps you to respond in ways that guide you towards the kind of life you’d like to live and the person you want to be.
Imagine an unwanted thought, feeling, memory or sensation in front of you and firstly try to embody resistance to/avoidance of the thought/feeling/memory or sensation. Sit with this for a minute or two.
Now instead of trying to get rid of the unwanted thought/feeling/memory or sensation, you don’t struggle with it. You simply drop the struggle and make space for it.
Notice the difference.
Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes.
Imagine the sky, with clouds floating by.
As thoughts appear, place them on the clouds and let them float past
Whenever you get hooked by thoughts, gently unhook yourself and carry on. Do this once or twice a day for 3 to 5 minutes.
Imagine in front of you is everything that matters to you: the people, places, activities you love.
And all the real life problems and challenges you need to deal with.
And all the tasks you have to do to make your life work.
Now write all the thoughts and feelings you struggle with on an A4 sheet of paper.
Now hold your paper with both hands and lift it up to your face, close to you, touching your nose, this must cover your whole face.
Can you see in front of you? Can you still see the people and places that you love and everything that matters to you?
With both your hands still holding on to your sheet of paper, scratch your nose. Can you do it without letting go of the paper?
With both your hands still holding on to your sheet of paper, covering your face, can you stand up and walk safely across the room?
Can you see what’s written on the piece of paper when you hold it right up close to your eyes?
That piece of paper represents the thoughts and feelings that you get hooked on or struggle with. When you hold on to them, you cannot engage with your loved ones, you cannot perform simple tasks. You just see barriers to everything that makes your life work.
Now slowly push the paper away from you, till it’s held at arm’s length. Now, can you see? You can see partially, but to see the whole panorama in front of you, you have to move your head, because the paper is in your line of vision.
With both your hands still holding on to your sheet of paper, keeping it at arm’s length, can you scratch your head while holding on to your paper?
Can you hold this paper in this position all day?
Sometimes, you try to push away your struggles. The trouble is they never go away. You end up spending your energy pushing your pain away and it is just not sustainable to do this for a long period of time.
Now lower the sheet of paper, place it on your lap and let go of it.
Can you see your whole life in front of you, with the people and places you love, the things that matter to you alongside your problems and your challenges? They are all still there. But this time you can engage and connect with them fully. What’s more your hands are free to do what matters. So now, go ahead, scratch your nose!
These exercises are not designed to make you feel better. We cannot take your pain away, but the exercises are aimed at helping you get better at feeling and accepting your emotions for what they are – you just allow your emotions to be.
Control is the problem. Remember the struggle switch? It’s your brain trying to help you take control of a situation you have no control over and trying to find solutions. You find yourself having a constant battle with your mind as you become less and less engaged with your life, in doing the things that matter.
Getting hooked by your thoughts is easy and makes you lose perspective. The more you get entangled with your thoughts the more you begin to feel trapped. Instead of struggling, take a step back from your thoughts and stop the struggle.
When we’re stuck in quicksand, the immediate impulse is to struggle and fight to get out. But that’s exactly what you mustn’t do in quicksand – because as you put weight down on one part of your body (your foot), it goes deeper. So, the more you struggle, the deeper you sink – and the more you struggle. Very much a no-win situation. With quicksand, there’s only one option for survival. Spread the weight of your body over a large surface area – lay down. It goes against all our instincts to lay down and really be with the quicksand, but that’s exactly what we have to do. So it is with distress. We struggle and fight against it, but we’ve perhaps never considered just letting it be – simply being with the distressing thoughts and feelings. But, if we did, we’d find that we would get through it and survive more effectively than if we’d fought and struggled.
More often than not we listen to what our mind tells us all the time. This is because our brains have evolved to look after us and keep us out of danger. Their world was full of danger so that the better they were at spotting and anticipating danger, the greater the chance for survival. The survival focused caveman brain is in the limbic system of the human brain- the part that keeps us alive by controlling basic bodily processes (maintaining heartbeat, controlling body temperature etc.; functions you are not conscious of but keep you alive) and survival instincts (fight and flight response).
The modern world is a much less dangerous place. And yet the brain cannot differentiate this and puts out the same stress response when it feels threatened. Your diagnosis will alert this part of your brain and triggers it to switch on survival mode and put out responses that may be harmful to you like eliciting feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, fear, rejection and abandonment.
We all do it. We talk to ourselves all the time. In ACT we encourage you to use self-talk as opposed to positive self-talk. Positive, negatives are all judgements. In ACT, self-talk is part of acceptance and self-compassion. Use helpful thoughts to guide your actions and actively “create” helpful thoughts and cultivate kind self-talk: saying kind, validating, caring things to yourself, acknowledging your pain and suffering, accepting pain and suffering as part of life, normalising and validating your experience and being kind to yourself. Do not try to challenge, dispute and disprove negative thoughts as bad. Don’t try to get rid of and replace unwanted thoughts with “better” ones.
Start by closing your eyes, bring your attention to your breath as it comes in and out. See if you can focus on your breath as it comes all the way in and all the way out. You might notice as you do this that your mind can be pulled away by thoughts that come up, like thoughts about what we are doing now, thoughts like, “This is strange,” or “Am I doing this right?” Or you might have thoughts about something you saw on your way here, about something you did earlier today, or something you are planning to do later today. Just look at your thoughts with a sense of distance. If you can imagine yourself as the sky, and you notice the clouds as your thoughts simply floating by. Then kindly, detach your attention from those thoughts and return into your breath.
Now see if you can do the opposite. See if you can watch the thoughts as they come up. See if you can just watch your thoughts as they arise, stay for however long they stay, and fade into the background as a new thought comes up. See if you can watch those thoughts lead to another and another, like a monkey swinging from one branch of the tree to the next. Just keep watching where your thoughts lead. If you like, try to picture your thoughts like the clouds, at a bit of distance, so you can watch them, but you are not interacting with them.
Now you can open your eyes and bring your attention back to the room.
Did you notice, in the mindfulness exercise that you just did, that you are separate from your thoughts? Your thoughts come and go, and the intensity of your thoughts also come and go. As you practice this mindfulness exercise, you will notice that your thoughts are discreet short-lived events, if you do not engage with them, they dissolve and for that moment, you are free. That is why it is important not to judge your thoughts. Thoughts with high emotional charge have a way of coming back again and again. When they come up, they grab hold of your attention like a powerful magnet, carrying your mind away from your breathing or from awareness of your body. If you look at them as just thoughts, purposefully not reacting or judging their content, you become freer from reacting to them. Your task is simply watching them come and letting them go, over and over again, until they become less powerful and lessen their hold on you.
Unhooking from your thoughts
Techniques to detach, separate or get some distance from thoughts (encompasses internal experiences such as beliefs, attitudes and assumptions, memories etc.) and emotions – aka, unhooking from your thoughts:
Label – use labels to describe your internal experiences, for example; “that’s my doom and gloom thought…”
Just notice – Simply say – “I notice I am having a thought … “ For example, “I notice I am having a thought that my cancer is getting worse” as opposed to “My cancer is getting worse.” One is a thought and the latter a fact… which one are you experiencing?
Thanking your mind – Thank you mind for that thought… and let go
Mindful watching – Just noticing your thoughts and letting them come and go without attempting to change them or control them
Repeating the thought – say the thought out loud over and over until only the sound remains
It is normal to want to avoid, get rid of, suppress, or escape from unwanted pain or distress. The reality is that life is a mixture of joy and pain. It is an inescapable reality. Yet there is so much effort invested in avoiding and getting rid of pain and distress only to find it comes back again and again. It undermines one’s ability to choose to respond differently, other than control or avoidance. The alternative to avoidance is acceptance.
STOP technique is a mindfulness-based exercise designed to help you make space for your emotions when they begin to overwhelm you. It allows you a moment to pause and gain perspective and decide the best way to respond and how to take action.
Stop – literally stop yourself. Say to yourself STOP!
Take a Breath – Slowly breathe in and gently out
Observe what’s going on for you – take notice of your emotions, notice your body and how it feels.
Proceed – Continue what you were doing, or change course, but always proceed with kindness to yourself and to others. Decide which actions are helpful or unhelpful and from here you make a choice as to which actions take you towards your values and the person you want to be.
Learn to step back from your thoughts and accept them for what they are – bits of language. If you do not get hooked in by your thoughts, you will relate differently to them and be able to respond more flexibly. You will recognise that your internal experiences are not in command, in fact you do not have to get rid of them, or wait for them to get better, or solve them. How you live your life is not hinged on these internal experiences.