When you have a negative thought or feeling, it’s tempting to push it away or drown it out. After all, we all know that negative thoughts and feelings are typically uncomfortable for us.
However, has this approach worked for you when it comes to your emotional health? For instance, do you usually feel better or worse, having pushed your thoughts away? Maybe you feel better for a little while but then the thoughts and feelings come back stronger or with added negative thoughts. Most likely you feel worse and you haven’t experienced the changes that you want.
There is a different way to manage your thoughts—a “Third Wave” approach when it comes to therapy. ACT offers you the opportunity to stop fighting and start accepting with mindfulness Here’s how.
What Is the “Third Wave?”
In cognitive behavioral therapy, there exist what are known as three waves.
The First Wave is behavioral therapy, where the objective is changing behaviors or shifting emotions. This is accomplished by reinforcing more behaviors or emotions that are considered or judged as appropriate. We all are familiar with this First Wave of behavior therapy as it is actually behavior modification and we were exposed from a very young age. We get goodies for doing good. Gold stars on school papers, ice cream for eating all your vegetables, and other positive reinforcement for desired behaviors.
The Second Wave uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and its purpose is to shift one’s thinking or thoughts with the goal of bringing about a change in behaviors that are deemed negative or problematic. A common saying for CBT therapy is to change your thoughts change your life. Time is spent examining and questioning distorted thinking to hopefully correct distorted thinking.
The Third Wave uses mindfulness-based techniques with an emphasis on the context of one’s thoughts or feelings, instead of the actual feeling or thought. In other words, ACT which is a Third Wave behavior therapy helps you change your relationship with your thoughts to assist in being able to be aware of your internal thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges and emotions without getting entangled with the struggle to change your internal experience. It’s quite counter-intuitive.
How Does Mindfulness Actually Work?
Developing a mindfulness practice allows you to gather a set of tools that you can use whenever you are struggling with difficult thoughts or emotions.
For example, let’s say that you are shopping at the grocery store. All of a sudden, you hear a loud noise. It was the sound of a can falling to the floor that another shopper accidentally dropped. You’re hooked by that sound as reminds you of your car accident. In the past, you would have become stiff as a board in the aisle, frozen with fear. Now, you still have that initial feeling but you remember your mindfulness training. You turn your focus toward the present moment in using mindfulness skills of becoming aware as if you are an observer of your thoughts. Below are some things you can do.
You can close your eyes and take a deep breath. This brings you into the here and now of the present moment. You can also accomplish this by using your five senses, what do you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. It only takes a few seconds and it allows you to drop anchor and get centered. Then what? You can reconnect to your goal and are able to continue shopping without having the rest of your day hijacked by the past traumatic experience. Sure you may have the memory and mindfulness helps to create space around the memory giving you time to engage in behaviors that are important to you.
Accepting the Uncomfortable and Unwanted and Take Action
One of the more radical concepts regarding mindfulness is that it requires accepting the negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that you experience. Not like you are surrendering. Acceptance as a stance of being willing to acknowledge your own life experience. I like to think of this as a natural learning experience as if you stick your finger in a light socket you get shocked. You remember the shocking lesson and still manage to plug in electrical cords when you need power. I say to people I work with that is takes your willingness to experience unpleasant or unwanted or to feel discomfort in the service of being aligned with your values in how you choose to live your life.
In our culture, we are taught—either directly or indirectly—that many of our negative uncomfortable and unwanted feelings are “bad” and need to be avoided at all costs. That we should control them or get rid of them. Funny thing is those “bad” thoughts and feelings keep coming back.
The struggle, of course, often results in negative coping mechanisms such as substance abuse as well as emotional distress. That’s because you know, deep down inside, that those feelings and thoughts still exist. I equate it to being at war with your own mind. Mindfulness asks us to accept unwanted internal experiences of negative thoughts, or unpleasant feelings and to use better ways to cope with them through the willingness to accept our human experience. It’s really quite amazing.
How to Practice Mindfulness
In short, developing a mindfulness practice takes place one step at a time.
There are many different techniques that you can practice. However, that doesn’t mean that all of them will work for you. The only way you will know is if you try. Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness. Learning to meditate is a skill that may or may not help you develop mindfulness. What you want to ask yourself when developing mindfulness skills is, “does it work?” I am referring to the skill of being in the present moment here and now and to freely choose the behavior you want to engage in.
A Meditation example:
Meditate in a calm, soothing space.
Use breathing techniques in moments of distress to help you stay focused.
Allow your thoughts to flow, acknowledging those thoughts and then releasing them. Sometimes it helps to label your thoughts such as that is a worry thought or a judging thought as if you are an observer learning how to sort thoughts into categories. And then bring your attention back to your breath.
Combine meditation with physical activity such as walking or running. This requires your awareness and focus on your body and the immediate surroundings.
You can repeat a phrase that is meaningful to you and will help keep you grounded.
Find joy in the small things life offers.
Move Toward Acceptance
As you develop a practice that resonates for you, it becomes easier to accept things as they are.
Situations or events that would have bothered you before will likely impact you much less. As you begin to practice mindfulness, you find it easier to accept yourself for who you are. This makes it easier to accept other people and situations too.
The Third Wave of behaviorism with mindfulness does not force change. Instead, it empowers you to accept both the positive and negative in yourself.
If you’re ready to start practicing mindfulness to improve your life, I would like to help. Please, contact me today to learn more about the Third Wave of behaviorism and mindfulness.