Saturday, 22 March 2014

Mindfully Overcoming Thinking Traps

“We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds.”
~ Pema Chödrön

I recognize that I am wasting my time fighting a battle that I can’t win but how do I stop?  This is a very common question I am asked in my role as Counseling Psychologist.  And a question that I have certainly asked myself, more than once.  In my last post Two Common Thinking Traps, I looked at two common traps that the vast majority of us get caught up in.  Thought fusion is when we get completely hooked by the monsters in our mind.  And that is all that we can see- monsters, only monsters.  Thought suppression is akin to the “yellow jeep” effect- we are trying so hard to not think about something that this becomes the primary focus of our attention.  For a more in depth description of these common traps, please take a look at my previous post Two Common Thinking Traps. 

In this post, we will be looking at ways that you can start to unhook yourself from this never-ending battle with the monsters of your mind.  This isn't about getting rid of your monsters, nor is it about feeling better.  If either of these two strategies worked I’m guessing you wouldn’t be sitting reading this now.  This approach is more around how can you learn to cultivate the skills of mindfulness and compassion towards yourself and your monsters while also being willing to do what it takes to create and live the life you want to live.

The strategies I share here come from an evidence-based therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or Training, (ACT).  I will share three classic defusion strategies that you can try and I have accompanying MP3 audio files to make it easier for you to practice this key skill at home.

Words of Warning- please be aware of the “deep end effect” where people choose something too evocative to start off learning a skill and inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot.  And please also be aware of the “yellow jeep effect”, which happens when you do these exercises in an attempt to make the thought go away.  This usually results in you thinking the though even more than you did before.  If you notice you get caught in either of these traps, first give yourself credit for spotting these common traps we all fall into and then come back to the exercise with an air of childlike curiosity.

Here is a link to the two audio files if you would prefer to be guided through audio.

Ways to Overcome Thinking Traps

  1. Put the phrase “I'm having the thought that” before the thought you’re struggling with.  For example, if you’re struggling with the thought “I’m not good enough”, then saying “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough” either out loud or in your minds eye.
  2. You can expand on this by then putting the phrase “I notice I’m having the thought that” before your thought e.g. “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.
  3. And if you really want to go another layer again, thirdly putting the phrase “I’m aware that I’m noticing I’m having the thought that” before your thought e.g. “I’m aware that I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.

Simply notice if you’re any more or less hooked in the struggle against your monsters now after doing this exercise. 

There are some ACT classic exercises that sound a little wacky or zany when you hear them for the first time.  They are grounded in scientific research though and the purpose isn’t to ridicule or demean your thoughts in any way.  Rather the aim is to look at your thoughts from a different perspective.  If you’d like to try this out, here are some strategies you can try.  I would suggest doing these strategies with thoughts that are not overly evocative for you.

  1. Close over your eyes or fix your gaze at the floor.  Bring your favorite cartoon character to mind.  Now imagine the cartoon character saying your thought out loud with all of their usual mannerisms.  Simply notice what that’s like for you.
  2. Use the Talking Tom Smart Phone App and say your thought into the phone and then mindfully listen to Talking Tom repeating your thought back to you in his voice.  Simply become aware of what this feels like for you. 
  3. The last strategy I’ll share with you today is the Happy Birthday strategy.  Take three mindful connected breaths.  Now imagine singing your thought along to the tune of Happy Birthday in your minds eye.  Gently notice what this feels like. 

There are many thought defusion strategies.  There isn’t one particular strategy that works for everyone.  Although, most people will find one that works for them.  I will share more defusion strategies in the future.  Hope you found some of this useful.  In my next post, I will share how you know when defusion works or doesn’t work from an ACT perspective.  There will be an audio in my next post that requires me to sound a little silly.  Just wanted to give you the heads up. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Two Common Thinking Traps

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

I, for one, can get really trapped with my mind, by my mind, and in my mind sometimes.  Even that sentence alone puts my head into a bit of a spin.  When I first came across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) over a decade ago I was somewhat shocked to discover that I seemed to spend the majority of my time in one of these two common thinking traps.  I’d like to share these two common traps with you now.

One of the things we know from psychological research is that we remember relatively little of what we hear and see.  However, we remember consistently more of what we do.  So if this is something you’re truly interested in and you would like to remember so you can apply this in your life- I’d like to invite you to do something to illustrate what I’m talking about.  Put your hands in front of you and imagine that these hands represent a thought that you get hooked by.  Most of us have some version of the “I’m not good enough” thought.  I know that I, personally, have many versions of this thought at various times.  I’m not smart/attractive/slim/reliable/accomplished enough. 

So imagine that your hands represent whatever thought you’d like to work with and gradually start bringing your hands closer and closer to your eyes.  Until your hands, representing this thought, are completely covering your eyes.  Simply notice what this feels like.  Try to look around the room.  Notice what you can and can’t see.  Check in to see if this in any way resembles physically what it feels like for you psychologically when you get completely hooked by your thoughts?  This is the first thinking trap, which is known as “thought fusion”- essentially I look at the world through the lens of this thought. 

What kinds of things are you more or less likely to do when you relate to your thoughts in this way?  Do you move closer towards or further away from who and where you want to be?  The vast majority of us, myself included, end up moving further away from who and where we want to be when we get completely hooked by unhelpful thoughts.  It’s useful to recognize that this is part of being human.  Absolutely every single one of us makes mistakes.  And as Brene Brown would put it- we are all still worthy of connection.

Now let’s take a look at the second thinking trap, which the quote that opens this post alludes to.  Try not to think about a yellow jeep.  Try not to think of you having a yellow jeep.  Try not to think of me having a yellow jeep.  Try not to think of a yellow jeep being the next mode of transport you see.  And just become aware that even if you’re having the thought “I’m doing well, I’m not thinking about the yellow jeep.”  How did you know that?

Okay, so it’s probably not going to have any major impact on our lives whether we think about a yellow jeep.  However, what if the thought was “don’t think you’re depressed/anxious” or “don’t think about your deceased loved one/ex-partner”.  Can you see the potential pitfalls?  We end up getting more and more entrenched in a cycle that we were essentially trying to avoid in the first place. 
Here is a link to an audio file where I summarize the main two thinking traps that we can fall into. 

In my next blog post, Overcoming Thinking Traps, I will give you strategies that have been supported by psychological research to help you to unhook from unhelpful thoughts.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Three-Minute Breathing Space

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” ~ Pema Chödrön

Many of us pass through the hours, days, weeks, and sometimes even months, years and decades without stopping to drop anchor.  We keep going, almost as if we are afraid to stop and look within.  We are so busy, moving towards where we are going or living in the past, that we miss out on so many amazing opportunities to just be who, and where, we are. 

We also have a really good knack of brushing things under the carpet.  A loved one lets me down.  I let one of my nearest and dearest down.  I lose a loved one.  I act in a way that inspires guilt and sometimes even shame.  At each of these points, there is a choice.  I can look in this moment at what’s going on for me internally, drop anchor to my breath and what matters, and bring an expanded level of awareness to my body and those around me.  Or I can simply suppress, repress, and pretend that life, and the unexpected events that come with it, don’t bother me.  Of course, the latter for most of us is just so tempting.  And yet, if we choose this option repeatedly across a large span of time and situations, we now know that we are increasing our chances of developing depression, clinical levels of anxiety and so many other things that we were trying so desperately to avoid in the first place.

There is a tool that I have found incredibly useful to aid dropping into the present moment more frequently so that we can deal with issues as they arise rather than letting them build up to an overwhelming level.  The three-minute breathing space, originally developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale for use in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), is now widely used in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and many other mindfulness-based approaches. 

There are three main stages of the three-minute breathing space, which can be easily remembered as AGE (Awareness, Gathering and Expanding). 

Here is a link to my version of the three-minute breathing space, which also connects to values- that which matters most to us.  Hope you find this beneficial in dropping anchor more regularly in your daily life.  It is recommended to practice the three-minute breathing space three times per day.