Mindfulness: Some Initial Experiments
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.
Below are some initial experiments used in various “third-wave” or mindfulness and acceptance-based forms of CBT to help clients learn about automatic thoughts and how to respond differently to them, in a detached and mindful way, without struggling to control or avoid them. To begin with, we tend to use relatively neutral thoughts for such initial experiments, such as the image of a tiger. However, these skills can then be practiced using personally distressing thoughts and images, and form the basis of learnable coping skills.
Mindfulness is an alternative to trying to control your thoughts because that doesn’t work well for many people in the long-run. It’s neither fight nor flight, neither grasping nor pushing thoughts away. Automatic thoughts are hard to control, by definition. Although we can choose to stop thinking about some things, we can’t “unthink” thoughts that just pop into the mind out of the blue. The alternative is to accept them, in a detached way, and let go of any struggle against them, as you will see below.
The Tiger Task
Close your eyes for 2-3 minutes and visualise a tiger. Don’t deliberately try to control or change the image, just keep it in mind for a while and let it do whatever it wants to do. Don’t try to change it; don’t try to stop it from changing. Just let go of control completely, and allow the tiger to have a life of its own. You may notice that you need to refresh the image every few seconds otherwise it will fade naturally from your attention – that’s normal. This experiment allows you to observe the difference between “automatic” and “strategic” (voluntary) thought processes. The tiger will probably change automatically, without any deliberate attempt on your part to change it. Most of the individual thoughts and images you experience each day are automatic. When people are emotional (angry, anxious or depressed) they may experience more automatic thoughts than normal. Often automatic thoughts occur “out of the blue” or just “pop into your mind”. You can’t “unthink” them once they’ve happened, though. Trying to control automatic thoughts can cause even more suffering. It’s therefore important to distinguish thoughts that are automatic (spontaneous) from those that are deliberate (voluntary).
Now close your eyes for 2-3 minutes and try to avoid thinking about the tiger completely. How difficult was that? How difficult would it be to do it permanently? If you managed to focus on something else and distract yourself for a while, that might seem to work. However, how do you know it’s working? (Only by noticing that you’re not thinking about the tiger, which requires thinking about it!) What happens when you finally give up trying to suppress the tiger thoughts? Do they bounce back? Sometimes suppressing a thought can subsequently make you have more automatic thoughts about it, causing a “rebound effect.”
Now close your eyes again for 2-3 minutes and imagine that it’s highly dangerous to think about tigers and really important that you don’t do this even for a split second. Watch out for those tigers! Imagine that you’re wired up to a sophisticated brain-imaging machine and if it detects any tiger-related thoughts a bomb will be detonated that will destroy the whole building you’re in, including you and everyone else around you. So it’s really threatening to have the slightest little thought about tigers and really important that you avoid doing so. How can you make sure you don’t have those thoughts without triggering them? The more you look out for tiger-related thoughts, the more you’re likely to automatically think them. If you look for trouble you’ll probably find it, especially if you look in your own mind. Just believing that certain internal experiences are dangerous (thoughts, feelings or urges, etc.) tends to make them more likely to happen automatically.
Imagine that you have a control dial that goes from 0-10. It’s currently set in the middle, at about five. This measures how much you want to control thoughts about tigers. Slowly turn it up to ten. Imagine feeling a growing urge to control and avoid thoughts about tigers, until it becomes an overwhelmingly strong desire to master the tiger-related thoughts. Notice what else you experience when you turn up the dial. What effect does it have on your thoughts? How does it feel? Observe what it’s like for a minute. Now turn the dial slowly down to 5, then all the way down to zero. Let go gradually of any effort or desire to control tiger-thoughts, until you finally abandon control and avoidance completely and utterly and just allow your mind freedom to do what it wants, with total acceptance. What effect does relaxing control have on your thoughts? How does it feel? Observe what it’s like for a minute.
Think of the words “fierce tiger” and allow yourself to notice what they automatically evokes. When you say the words 2-3 times, and really focus on their personal meaning for you, what thoughts, images, memories, or feelings come to mind? Now say the words “fierce tiger” aloud, moderately quickly, for 30-40 seconds, while noticing how your mouth feels as it pronounces the syllables. This will probably feel like it takes longer than you expected. What happens to your experience of the words’ meaning? You may feel that the words start to sound silly or meaningless, or that they become awkward to pronounce aloud. Words often become less evocative when repeated in this way. It’s best if you pick one word or a short phrase and repeat it quite quickly for about 30-40 seconds to get the effect.
Application to your Problem
Now you might want to repeat some of these experiments while thinking of a specific upsetting automatic thought that bothers you. These might be “What if?” thoughts, for example – “What if something bad happens?” However, it’s not a good idea to become too dependent upon using gimmicks like these to change how you feel. Treat them like ladders you climb and then throw away. Once you’ve learned how to view your automatic thoughts as merely passing events in your mind, rather than becoming absorbed in their meaning, and entangled with them, then you can quickly shift to this way of looking at them with a bit of practice. Doing so will tend to reduce the intensity of your emotions and, over time, may also reduce the frequency and duration of the automatic thoughts as well.
Distancing techniques used in cognitive therapy such as picturing your thoughts written on a blackboard and taking a few steps back from them, or talking about your thoughts and feelings in the third-person (“Bill is asking himself the question: ‘What if something bad happens?’”) can be useful ways to prevent thoughts from becoming overwhelming, without having to resort to unhelpful control or avoidance efforts, which often backfire and cause more problems than they solve in the long-run. Anything that allows you to focus more on the process of thinking rather than the content of upsetting thoughts will tend to be a helpful way of coping. So repeating automatic thoughts very slowly, with pauses, or in a foreign accent, or silly voice, can be helpful as well. All of these strategies, ultimately, are meant to help you get the knack of shifting to a state of detached mindfulness or self-awareness, in which you can distance yourself from your thoughts and accept them, without struggle.