How to Untangle from a Negative Emotional Cycle during this Difficult Time | Part Two

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Dr. Samantha Levy, PhD
July 1, 2024 / 5 mins read

I hope you have all been working on the techniques from Part One of the ACT (“Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”) skills for riding out the waves of negative thoughts and feelings. If not, it is never too late. If you missed it, you can review Part One to learn the basic concepts and skills.

In summary, we are learning to allow negative thoughts and feelings to just exist, like radio chatter in the background. We are not struggling against them, which inevitably leads to harmful behaviors. Nor are we buying into them, which leads to other negative thoughts and feelings.

In the last blog, I suggested several strategies for unhooking from harmful thoughts and feelings. While thoughts can be unpleasant, they are not actual threats. Our minds sometimes perceive them as threats and respond accordingly, but they are not threats—just words!

Here are a few more strategies:
After noticing and naming your thoughts/feelings, focus on your body for a couple of minutes. Take a few deep breaths and scan your body to see what you are feeling. Do you feel tension anywhere? Cold or hot anywhere? Any other physical sensations? Pay attention to one at a time and just notice it. You do not have to try to change it. Just focus on it, see how it changes, and then notice that.

After focusing on your body for a few minutes, briefly do something mindful. You can access this through your senses. Examples are taking a short walk (it can even be one minute inside), where you notice how your feet feel as they move, the sounds walking makes, what you see and hear, and the motion of your legs and arms. Listen carefully and notice all the sounds you can hear for one minute. Do a grounding exercise, such as five things you see, four things you hear, three things you touch (notice what they feel like), two movements you make with your body, and one thing you smell.

In a past blog, I discussed looking at the world curiously, like a child. This is another helpful tool for unhooking from harmful thoughts and feelings. Take a walk and notice what you see with the curiosity and wonder of a child. Notice what is in bloom: the shape of the flowers, the cloud formations above, the smells, the flights of butterflies, or the sounds of the birds. On my walk today, I noticed a bright blue bird I had never seen before. It was stunning, and I took a moment to watch it in all its beauty.

In another past blog, I described the exercise of noticing thoughts and letting them float away. That is another great way to avoid getting bogged down in thoughts or allowing them to spiral. As a reminder, close your eyes and take a few cleansing breaths. Spend 1-2 minutes (or more, of course!) simply noticing any thoughts you have. Acknowledge the thought and then watch it float away on a cloud, a leaf, a bubble, or anything you like. You can also imagine it floating down a river on a leaf.

The critical point is that no matter whether the thought is positive, negative, or neutral, you simply notice it and then watch it float away. You are not judging it or pushing it away. You are allowing it to float away. If the same thought pops back up, notice that too -- and then let it float away again.

Even if you only have a few minutes, you can stretch mindfully. Do some simple stretches. Notice your breath and the sensations of your muscles as you move. It will be good for your body and your mind.

Sit for a minute or two and breathe thoroughly and slowly. Allow thoughts to come and go naturally. When you have a thought, say “thought” to yourself. When you get momentarily hooked on a thought, say “hooked” to yourself and gently direct yourself to refocus.

Noticing Self vs. Thinking Self
Our Thinking Self judges, analyzes, compares, and engages in any other awareness of our own thought process.

Our Noticing Self is not producing thoughts about our actions and thoughts. It is simply noticing.

Our Noticing Self is like a silent witness that we access when we are in a flow state, not paying attention to anything but what we are doing. This may happen while playing or listening to music, writing, engaging in conversation, playing a sport, or whenever we are in the “zone.”

One reason that creative activities are healing is that they can allow us to access our Noticing Self more easily. It can be helpful if you take a minute here and there throughout the day to do any activity that puts you in that zone. If a thought process that your Thinking Self inserts is not helpful, let it just pass by. Only tune in if it is useful.

Remember that these techniques take practice. Try different ones from this series's first and second parts, and see what feels right for you. Then, commit to doing that technique throughout the day, every day, until it starts to make a difference for you. Enjoy the freedom of untangling from your negative thoughts, and have a good summer!