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Mindfulness: Calling A Truce with Our Thoughts and Emotions

Mindfulness: Calling A Truce with Our Thoughts and Emotions

  By Marcos Caro

Thoughts can be sticky things. Mindfulness helps us get unstuck. In this article Marcos Caro helps us understand how.

I first heard about mindfulness five years ago and immediately dismissed it as a passing trend. Two years ago, I put my preconceptions aside and gave it a go. The effect it’s had on my life has been profound.

What is mindfulness?

Much of our time is spent ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. While some thoughts may be necessary for assessing and planning, we often live in a trance of unhelpful thoughts that can be destructive in our lives.

Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and accepting without judgement whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions come our way. 

In my own mindfulness journey two broad methods have proven themselves to be very effective in helping me deal with uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. These are defusion and expansion.

Defusion

Our mind bombards us with thoughts throughout the day, many of which can be unhelpful. When we take these thoughts literally, we are in a state of fusion; our mind and our observing self are stuck together like a stamp on an envelope. 

Thoughts can be sticky things. Mindfulness helps us get unstuck.

When faced with an unhelpful thought a natural reaction is to fight against it. But as our minds throw up new thoughts continuously, we find ourselves in something akin to a never-ending boxing match in which after defeating one opponent we are soon faced with a new one.

Instead of struggling against our thoughts, defusion involves sitting with and observing them without judgement until they eventually leave our consciousness of their own accord.

Say you have a ‘bad’ day at the office and you suddenly become aware of the unhelpful thought “I’m useless at my job”, followed by a surge of anxiety in your stomach. Instead of trying to convince yourself that this is not true and that you are in fact a competent and valued member of the team, defusion invites us to simply let the thought exist without challenging, replacing or judging it. In the analogy above, this would be like the boxers throwing in the towel, taking off their gloves and refusing to fight any more.

So how exactly does one defuse from one’s thoughts? Here are just three popular examples of defusion techniques.

Naming the Story

Your mind is a great storyteller

All day, every day it is weaving a narrative for a captive audience of one, complete with villains, heroes, romance, horror, comedy and catastrophe. 

So, when your mind tells you the thought “I’m useless at my job”, instead of fighting with it, tell yourself the phrase, “my mind is telling me the ‘I’m Useless at My Job Story again’, thanks mind”. 

By constantly reminding ourselves that our thoughts are just stories we distance ourselves from them and make it less likely that we will buy into them.

Leaves on a Stream

This is a more visual technique. 

Imagine you are sitting by the side of a stream. On the bank is a tree from which leaves occasionally fall. Now imagine your thoughts, words or images, appearing on the leaves as they float on the surface of the water. Now simply observe the leaves as they drift away downstream, taking your thoughts with them. 

It’s important not to try to make the stream go faster. 

All you have to do is observe the thoughts until the stream carries them off in its own good time.

Try it with this guided meditation:

   

Voice Variation or Funny Voices

There are many ways to defuse from one’s thoughts by using voice variation or funny voices.

Imagine you become aware that your mind is telling you “I will never be successful in the future “. Try repeating this sentence at half speed, like a faulty record player, or in a high- or low-pitched voice like a song that’s been sped up or slowed down. 

You could also try repeating the thought using the voice of a politician, famous actor, someone you know personally, or a voice you find amusing; like Homer Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or any funny voice you want.

“But how is this going to help me feel better?”, you may ask. 

Well, the point of these techniques is to remind us that our thoughts are just words and images spewed up by our minds, and that we don’t have to take them seriously. 

By not buying into the thought, we make it less likely to trigger uncomfortable emotions.

The objective is not to eliminate the thought or replace it with a new one. But to create some distance between ourselves and our minds so that our unhelpful thoughts have less control over our lives.

Expansion

Unhelpful thoughts often give rise to uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety, anger or sadness. When such emotions arise, our natural reaction is to struggle against them. The problem is that this creates even more emotional tension. 

Say you’re in a situation which brings up feelings of anxiety, a job interview for example. You may instinctively try to control this emotion, perhaps by telling yourself to stay calm or distracting yourself with your phone. But doing this often compounds one’s anxiety with a secondary emotion such as anger, shame, or more anxiety. 

By fighting with our emotions, we increase the grip they have on us. 

It’s like trying to extract your fingers from a Chinese finger trap. The harder you struggle, the tighter its grip on your fingers becomes. In order to release your fingers, you must relax and gently push them inwards.

And so, it is with our emotions. Expansion invites us to stop the struggle with our emotions altogether. Expansion encourages us to sit with, accept and make peace with them. 

Putting Expansion into Practice

When you notice anxiety, anger or any other emotion, start by asking yourself where you feel the discomfort. Is it in your stomach, chest, throat, legs, arms? 

Get curious about discomfort. 

Is it on the surface of the skin or deep inside your body? How does it feel -sharp or dull? Is it tingly, does it burn? Does it have a temperature? If so, is it hot or cold? Does it have a shape? Does it have a size? 

Simply observe the emotion without any judgement. By judgement I mean labelling the experience – good, bad, horrible, unpleasant.

Like any skill this takes practice but with time it becomes second nature.

Of course, your mind will insist on telling you a story about your discomfort: “this is unbearable”, ” I hate feeling like this”, “I can’t take it anymore”

But remember this is just another story your mind is telling you from which you can defuse by using the defusion techniques above.

Conclusion

Mindfulness has proven to be an effective tool in the mental health tool box.

If you often find yourself in combat mode with your thoughts and emotions to no avail then perhaps it’s time to call a truce with them.

 

Want to learn more about Mindfulness?

Our team of therapists at Therapy in Barcelona can help.

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