We often go about our lives without noticing what our mind is telling us because we are too busy attending to our hectic lives. Blithely unaware, we comply with the advice our mind dictates to us all day long.
Some of you may say, “What’s wrong with that?” Well, there is nothing wrong if the advice is helpful, and it moves us closer to our values and goals by following it. But when we are unaware of what our mind is saying, we can end up making unwise choices.
For example, if you experience social anxiety, your mind may provide advice that to stay home from a social event is the best option. You believe your mind and don’t go out. In your experience, does that usually get you closer to the goals you have in life? Does isolating yourself at home help you live the true values you hold dear, like wanting to connect and developing intimate relationships?
You may feel stuck in this dilemma. Your mind tells you to remain at home in order to avoid anxiety. On the surface this appears to be a great solution. Yet when you do, you feel the pain of loneliness. So what can you do?
You can first remember that your mind’s job is to keep you safe and comfortable. As you’ve behaved according to that unhelpful advice, it’s inadvertently created the habit of avoidance for months or even years.
The good news is that when individuals increase thought awareness they are able to broaden the gap between the thought and the choices they make. Awareness can enhance people’s ability to notice if they are also feeding their thoughts that fuel their anxiety. The goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to help individuals develop psychological flexibility. Thought watching is something that can help you increase your awareness.
Thought Watching Exercises
When individuals begin learning to watch their thoughts, it may feel weird and foreign at first because they have not done it before. Don’t get discouraged and notice what your mind may be saying as you go over these skills.
Find a quiet and comfortable place where you can practice this exercise for 5 minutes. You will close your eyes when ready. As you sit quietly, take a few deep breaths. Then imagine sitting or standing by a pier watching boats and ships slowly come in and out of the harbor. As you continue to breathe in and out, notice the thoughts that are coming out from your mind. As you notice each thought, place it on a boat. Observe it, and when you notice there is another thought, place the next thought on another boat. Continue to watch until you notice another thought show up. Keep noticing what happens.
At one point, there will be a thought that leads you to start ruminating about something. You may forget that you were doing this exercise. Don’t worry. This happens all the time. Your mind will produce thoughts that may entangle you with other thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. You may want to figure them out and end up obsessing about them.
When you realize this has happened, acknowledge it by saying, “I just got fused with my thoughts.” Then bring yourself back to the pier and continue watching from a distance as the boats continue to carry your thoughts.
It takes repetition to see the effects of this exercise. Be patient and don’t give up on just one try! Make it a goal to complete this exercise for 5 minutes every day.
You can literally do this if you have a chance to be at a street where cars are going by at 25-35 miles per hour. You can also use your imagination and sit in a quiet place to practice for 5 minutes.
As with the thought-boat watching exercise, notice when each thought shows up and place it on a car. Notice it go by until the next thoughts shows up. At some time during the five minutes, your mind will produce a thought that will entangle you with more thoughts as previously mentioned. Once you realize this has happened, acknowledge it by saying something like: “I just got entangled with my thoughts.” Then gently get back to watching the automobiles carrying your thoughts.
Remember to be patient and flexible as you go over these exercises. The more you repeat them the more you will realize you can watch your thoughts without having to act on them. You get to decide if they are helpful in the long run. Increasing your thought awareness will expand the space between them and your behaviors. This is something we all can benefit from, whether we have anxiety or not.
Good luck as you continue to increase and apply your newly acquired skills!