The Coping Kete

Author Archives: Engageblog

No. 162: Observe and Re-Colour the Mood

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

Coping Kete… practice using mindfulness and visualisation to self-soothe with an exercise in observing your emotions and comforting them with calming colours. Schedule a regular time to practice the exercise and as it starts to feel familiar begin testing out how to use it during moments of stress and distress.

Mindfulness simply means paying attention to the present moment, one thing at a time, on purpose and without making judgements about what is good or bad. We all make judgements all the time, so we won’t be able to stop doing it completely. But when we are being mindful, we pay attention to the judgements, name them for what they are (e.g. ‘I notice myself judging xyz to be something I don’t like’) and bring our minds back to the present moment, rather than staying caught up in or hooked by the thoughts. Paying attention to the present moment means we notice or observe what is outside and inside us and we describe it to ourselves in words. Once we are mindfully aware of what is happening inside and outside us, we are able to decide how we want to participate in the moment and what we need to do that – like maybe a bit of comfort. Rather than being pushed along by our mind’s autopilot settings, we can use mindfulness to make space for our experiences and turn our attention towards visualising something soothing. There are an infinite number of ways to do that and this visualisation is based on colours.

Try to spend 5-10 minutes each day, practicing how to use mindfulness and a colour visualisation to comfort the places you feel distress.

This is an exercise in three-parts. It can be helpful to learn each step separately first before trying to put them together and many people find it easier to start out with audio recordings to guide them. Find a list of apps and websites with guided exercises you can use to get you started in the Online Resources Pack.

  1. Brief Body Scan: Settle yourself into a comfortable position and close your eyes or let them fall on a spot in front of you. Allow your breath just to breathe itself in your natural rhythm while you observe what is happening in your body from your head to your toes. Just check in briefly with each part of your body and describe to yourself in words what sensations you notice – how hot or cold is my skin? is there tension, pain or discomfort? As you notice other thoughts, observe and describe these to yourself too, in the most neutral terms you can find, and come back to scanning the sensations in your body from head to toe. Find a more detailed guide for a brief body scan here.
  2. Mood Scan: Once you have scanned your body, check in with the emotions that are showing up for you right now – What is the strongest emotion? Where do you feel it in your body? How does it sit in your body? Is it heavy or light? Moving or still? If you could see it, what would it look like? What temperature and colour is this feeling or mix of feelings? Observe and describe the thoughts, urges and other emotions that arise in response or that pull you away from paying attention to this feeling fully, without judgement and without judging your judgements.
  3. Comforting Colours: Once you have tuned into the strongest emotion in this moment and found a colour that matches it, bring to mind a colour or mix of colours that you find soothing. This could be a colour you find peaceful, relaxing, happy, exciting, energising, calming, loving, gentle, supportive. What comes to mind when you think of this colour? What sensations, images, sounds, tastes and memories belong with this colour? Turn your mind back to the strongest emotion, where it sits in your body and the colour that goes with it. Next imagine you have filled a cup with your comfort-colour and you are drinking it down, into the part of your body where the strongest emotion lies. Each time you take a breath, imagine you are taking another sip. Imagine re-colouring that strongest emotion with your comfort-colour, seeing it settle more and more, seeing it cool down or warm up as needed, seeing space and tension free up, as you pour more and more of your comfort-colour into that part of your body.

Then you can gently bring yourself back to the room and the next task in your day. You can make each step as long or short as you like. It helps to prepare a few reflections on your comfort colours before you get started, especially the first time.

When you notice your mood shift throughout the day, see if you can practice observing it, noticing where it sits in your body, giving it a colour, finding a comfort-colour and re-colouring that space in your body.

Once you are familiar with using this mindful visualisation, add ‘Observe and Re-colour the Mood’ to your Personal Coping Kete as a way to self-soothe and create space inside yourself during moments of stress and distress. Instead of trying to stay away from what you think or feel, and being pushed around by it, you will be able to use this strategy to observe what is happening inside you, locate where you feel it, and create some comforting sensations inside you before choosing how you want to respond. With each wave of sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, fear or any other kind of stress, distress or upset, these three steps can allow you to tune in, observe the feeling and move your mind towards something comforting for a moment.

No. 161: Laughter Yoga

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice laughter yoga for just a moment every day.

Laughter yoga is the practice of deliberate, voluntary laughter. The idea is that forced laughter soon turns into real laughter and has the same benefits for body, mind and mood that spontaneous laughter does. Laughing on purpose can help us learn how to create laughter from the inside and how to use laughter to shift our moods, rather than waiting for our moods to shift before we can laugh. Laughter yoga is usually practiced in groups. We get the most benefit if we can laugh vigorously for 20-30 minutes, according to Laughter Yoga Aotearoa New Zealand. Natural laughter usually comes in bursts and this why practicing in groups can help. But there’s no reason why we can’t also practice laughter yoga alone, using a few simple exercises to get us started.

This week experiment with what happens if you schedule some time to practice laughing for no reason, without needing something ‘out there’ to give you a reason. It might help to start with just a few minutes and build up to 5 or 10 or even more. You might want to warn the people you live with to expect to hear some loud laughter coming from your room for a while – they might even want to join you and that can make it even more silly and fun.Laughter yoga is something that can wake your body up, so best not to schedule your practice time right before bed, unless you find that it tends to make you feel relaxed and tired afterwards. Test it out first. It will probably feel strange to do this at first, but that’s okay. This week, give yourself permission to be silly for a brief time each day.

Here are some simple Laughter Yoga exercises that involve forced, extending laughing.

  1. Take a Laughter Drink
    • Standing up straight, feet hip-width apart, raise one hand in front of you as if holding an imaginary (and bottomless) cup full of laughter.  Take a deep breath into the bottom of your belly then ‘pour’ the laughter into your mouth as you breathe out and force yourself to fake laugh until the cup is empty. Repeat this for ten breaths in and ten breaths out, trying to laugh for a little bit longer each time you breathe out.
    • You can also imagine the cup is full of different kinds of laughter. The light, giggling laughter is floating on the top, the deepest belly laughter is sitting on bottom. Start with light tee-hees and move through the whole range of laughs until you get to the loudest, deepest ha-ha-has. With each cycle of breaths, try to laugh for a little bit longer.
  2. Laughter Balloons
    • Stand with your back straight and feet hip-width apart, place both palms flat on your belly and imagine you are holding a giant, empty balloon against your stomach. This time, on your first in-breath laughter will fill the balloon as you breathe down into your belly and stretch your arms out in a circle in front of you. Then slowly release the laughter out of the balloon on the out-breath, laughing out loud until the balloon is emptied and your palms are once again flat on your belly. Repeat five to ten times, aiming to laugh for longer each time.
  3. Laughter Hand-Ball
    • Standing with your back straight and your feet hip-width apart, facing a wall, pretend you have a laughter ball in your hands. Take a deep breath in and on the out-breath, ‘throw’ the ball at the wall with a burst of laughter, and ‘catch’ the ball when it bounces back with another burst of laughter. The louder your laugh, the faster the ball will travel. Experiment with a different kind of laughter each time.
  4. Laughter Body Fill
    • Standing with your back straight and feet firmly grounded on the floor, this time, laughter will fill your body. Imagine each in-breath fills a different part of your body with the energy to laugh. On each out-breath laugh out loud from that part of your body, whatever that means to you, starting with your toes, and moving up through your legs, stomach, chest, shoulders, nose and the top of your head.

If you work up to spending five minutes on each exercise, eventually you will be doing 20 minutes of yoga laughter a day. As you move through the week, observe how this affects your body and moods. Test out different ways to adapt the exercises to suit.

Once you are comfortable using yoga laughter at an everyday kind of time, add it to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping during times of stress and distress. Doing some laughter yoga could allow you to take a break from my distressing thoughts, shift your body’s physical stress responses and help release some of your brain’s happy chemicals.

No. 160: Call On Your Compassionate Self

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… create a compassionate self to call on in times of stress and distress. We often have a strong self-critic or even a self-bully that pipes up to tell us all the worst things about ourselves and what we are going through. If we reflect on our self-talk in times of distress we might notice we use blaming, judgmental and sometimes downright mean words with ourselves that leave us feeling ten times worse. Having a compassionate self allows us to use soothing, understanding, non-judgmental, kind and supportive words with ourselves instead of or in response to the self-critic or the self-bully.

Start out by creating a character map of your compassionate self.

  1. First, think about what compassion means to you. Think about what you might need from your compassionate self and what compassion involves for you. Is your compassionate self forgiving, respectful, kind, aware of what is important to you, caring, accepting, warm, humorous or all of those things and more?  What does your compassionate self think about making mistakes, flaws, limitations, weaknesses, failures, and negative life events? Write your reflections down somewhere so you can keep them for later and add to them as you develop these ideas further.
  2. The next step is building a visual image for your compassionate self. What does your compassionate self look like? They could look like someone who has treated you with compassion in the past, a creature you have found comforting or it could look like you when you are being compassionate, understanding and kind to someone you care about. Think about what facial expressions and gestures your compassionate self might make to show their empathy, understanding and warmth and what it feels like to be near that. How does your compassionate self look at you? What do they do when they see you suffer?
  3. Next you need to create a voice for your compassionate self. What does your compassionate self sound like? Think about what tone of voice it uses, what it sounds like, how loud its voice is and how fast it speaks. Finally, create some words for your compassionate self. What does your compassionate self say to you? Think about what words and phrases your compassionate self uses to soothe, show kindness and be understanding. It’s easiest to do all this on a piece of paper, in writing or drawing, to make it concrete and give you something to come back to later.

Now you are ready to practice, take one to two minutes a day to sit mindfully with your thoughts and practice responding to them with this compassionate self you are learning to build inside you. What would this kind, accepting part of you say back to these thoughts and feelings you are holding right now? What would they offer you? How would they do it?

Once you are familiar with visualising your compassionate self and responding to your thoughts with a compassionate voice, add “Call on Your Compassionate Self” to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping with stress and distress. You will be able to call on the compassionate part of yourself to support yourself through stressful times with soothing, kind, respectful and understanding words, ideas and images, instead of being pushed along by your mind’s negative self-talk on autopilot.

No. 159: Mindful Drawing

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice being mindful by taking a few moments a day to sit and draw something you can see.

Drawing can teach us to notice properly rather than gaze absentmindedly (The Book of Life), it doesn’t have to be about artistic ability at all. The aim can be simply to notice properly the parts of things and how they fit together. This makes it a good way to strengthen our mindfulness muscles.

Your drawings could be simple scribbles in pencil or ballpoint pen. If you notice that you get too caught up with trying to draw a ‘good’ or accurate picture, do the exercise without looking at the paper at all – it really matters that little what you actually put down on the paper.

It’s never easy to start a new practice, so as usual you might need to schedule in some time to do this each day and organise yourself some basic materials to have on hand. Snatch a moment at lunchtime or plan a little trip to somewhere you might enjoy noticing in more detail.

Sitting down to draw, take a moment to settle into stillness and allow your breath to fall into its natural rhythm. Sometimes concentrating on drawing can lead us to hold our breath – this isn’t a breathing exercise, but it’s still important to breathe. Allow your eyes to wander until they settle on a scene or object to draw. For the next few moments, simply draw what you see in front of you on the page, however it comes out. As your mind wanders, notice the thoughts and bring yourself back to what you are drawing. As you notice your thinking mind judge the ‘goodness’ of what you are drawing, use the watching part of your mind to observe the thoughts and bring your attention back to what you see and continue to participate in the task of drawing it, no matter what shows up for you in the present. Start with just a few minutes and add another minute each day.

As you move through the week, experiment with drawing in different locations and drawing different things and observe how focusing on these different things effects your thoughts and feelings.  What is beautiful and soothing to you? What is energising and awe-inspiring for you to see? What sights and scenes weigh you down? How does your body respond to different things?

Practicing mindful drawing could help you get grounded in the present moment during times of stress and distress. It can be a useful way to learn mindfulness when it is hard to do breathing or visualisation-based exercises, or if mindfulness is an unfamiliar practice. Really, mindfulness just means paying attention to the present moment, this involves using the part of our mind that is aware of our experiences (our ‘watching mind’) instead of being totally caught up in the part of our mind that is doing the thinking (our ‘thinking mind’). Other names for our watching mind are our ‘Observing Self’ (in ACT) or ‘Wise Mind’ (in DBT). In DBT our ‘thinking mind’ is broken down into our ‘feeling mind’ and our ‘rational mind’, because we really do have lots of different kinds of thoughts running through our brains at any point in time.

Once you are comfortable doing mindful drawing in ordinary moments, add Mindful Drawing to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping with stress and distress. Mindful drawing could take you out of your thoughts for a moment, allow your body a chance to calm down, and give you something neutral or positive to focus on for a while, which could give you a tiny injection of positive vibes when things are feeling chaotic or overwhelming. You could also use the exercise as an excuse to take yourself somewhere you might enjoy. Giving yourself pleasurable experiences is an important part of engaging with a life you feel is worth living.

No. 158: Plant Seeds and Nurture Them

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice being aware of your valued actions by visualising or symbolically planting seeds for each of your valued intentions.

It is New Years Eve and that is good time to set goals for the coming months, but goals tend to be short-lived and easily side-tracked by shifting priorities. On the other hand, our values represent how we want to be in the world, regardless of the state of our goals. Values are always in progress, whereas goals can be achieved, failed or finished with. A goal might be to ‘Quit Smoking’. A value might be ‘Caring for my Physical Health.’ See the shift? A goal is a place on a map, but a value is a direction on the compass we use to guide us. Different values tend to take on differing levels of importance as we move through life. Much of the suffering we go through is the result of being distant from our values, or prioritising one set of values over things we also hold dear to our hearts.

So this week, try doing a ‘Seed Planting Ceremony’ for the New Year, or the day or week ahead. First, take a moment to sit in stillness and bring your mind to what you want to nurture in your life. How do you want to treat yourself, the planet and others in the coming months? What is most important to you right now? When your mind throws up thoughts of what you don’t want, name it to yourself and bring your awareness to the values you would like to be guided by in such situations. What do you want to stand for as a person? What brings vitality and meaning to life for you? Write everything down as you go, then read back through and pick out the things that are priorities for you at the moment.

Next, make ‘paper seeds’ for each of values you want to ‘plant’ and nurture in your life by writing each one down or drawing them on a separate piece of paper. Give a name to each of the ‘seeds’ you are planting so you can easily bring it to mind when you need help to find a valued path forward. Choose a small object or picture for each of the important ‘seeds’ too if you would like. Next reflect on what you are doing, have done, or would do when living fully in line with this value that is so important to you? What small actions will grow it? Write these down too and then place the paper and the object in a special jar or container.

Try to create at least one different ‘seed’ for each of the areas of your life that are important to your health and wellbeing. As you learn more about what you value in your heart of hearts, you can return and create more paper ‘seeds’ to grow.

Take some time once a day to turn your mind to the ‘seeds’ you ‘planted’. Pick a few out of the jar, reflect on the ways you have moved towards it that day, acknowledge the things that have pulled you away with compassion, and visualise yourself nurturing this in yourself tomorrow.

As you move through each day, see if you can practice bringing your attention to these valued directions, by naming them to yourself as a reminder and seeing how they can guide your next steps.

Once you are comfortable with setting your intentions by naming and visualising the values you want to nurture, add ‘Plant Seeds and Nurture Them’ to your Personal Coping Kete. Then in times of stress and distress, you’ll be able to returning to your values as helpers and visualise how you want to move forward, given what you have got.When you notice myself feeling lost or confused or distressed or uncertain, pause, find a valued direction, and choose one workable step towards it.

No. 157: Say Thank You for the Stories

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

…practice noticing and naming the ‘stories’ your thinking mind tells you and thanking your brain for trying to keep you safe, because that’s really is what our negative automatic thoughts are trying to do underneath it all. We usually all have a few chains of thought that repeatedly pop up when we encounter stress and distress and pull us away from the things we really want to be doing to focus on all the possible risks to our physical and social survival (as well as a bunch of the improbable ones too, thank you, creative imaginations). Basically our minds are natural problem-solving machines and they are geared to spot problems and solve them wherever we go. It would be a bit much to do this from scratch every second, so our minds create a set of stories or scripts to follow in situations that seem similar and they shoot off a bunch of physical responses and unpleasant emotions that are designed to make us act so quickly we often aren’t even aware what is pushing us forward.

Unfortunately this storyteller part of our mind is often using out of date or incomplete information, so following along with it isn’t always helpful. And trying to simply shut off or ignore that part of our minds usually just makes those stories intrude into our thoughts more and more. Often we get so caught up and stuck in the stories our minds are throwing up at us, we get pulled into doing things that actually make life much worse. So fighting our minds doesn’t help, ignoring or shutting it down doesn’t help, and acting upon everything we think isn’t helpful either. One way to detach from those stories, is to practice naming each one and then literally thanking your brain for doing its job. We don’t need to believe, accept or agree with the story or reject and disagree with it either.  Instead of resisting it and struggling against it, this week practice naming it and saying ‘thank you brain, I get you are trying to help!’

To prepare, take some time to write down some of the things that your mind often throws up when you’re distressed. Then name the most repetitive thoughts or the ones that trigger the toughest emotions, literally give each story a title that is easy for you to recall. You don’t need to be especially creative about it either – there is often some kind of “I can’t cope” story, “bad self” story, “not good enough” story or “dangerous world” story in the mix.  These are tough thought-chains to deal with when we are caught up believing them or struggling against them, especially when they have been ‘true’ for us in the past. Underneath every tough emotion is a message about something our mind thinks is important, something you value or need. See if you can spot what that is, what is each story trying to alert you to? The ‘i can’t cope story’ could really be a message to stay away from something or a message to prepare for a challenge ahead. The “not good enough” story is often alerting us to our aspirations, the standards we are holding ourselves to, or the way we are being treated by others. Guilt, shame, sadness, anxiety, anger – they are all their to help us navigate our connections and hold on to what we need. Naming the story and saying ‘thank you brain’ lets our mind know we are aware and reframes the thoughts as ideas and words instead of realities we need to act on – this often lets our mind know it can stop telling the story so loudly and allows us to find a workable path forward, a way of testing it out.

Once you have named some of the stories you notice your brain often repeats, practice naming them as you notice them throughout your day. This week, pause whenever you move between tasks or situations to practice observing what stories your brain is telling in the moment and saying “Thank you brain, for telling me the xyz story. I hear you. There are important things at stake for me here.”  Then move forward with your valued direction or do another coping strategy to make things workable.

To start with, practice naming stories and thanking your brain for telling them in ordinary, transition moments, rather in times of intense distress when it is most difficult to detach from our thoughts this way. When the stories hook you, see what happens if you name this to yourself too. As above see if you can observe what the function of the story and the emotions that go with it might be.  It can also help to name what your intentions and valued directions are too.  These can be like alternative stories we are learning to tell ourselves. For example, “Thank you brain for the “I can’t cope” story, I know you are trying to make me anxious, to keep me safe from failure. My intention is to discover how to handle this risk because independence and new experiences are important to me.” Sometimes the risk really isn’t worth it though, so sometimes we do need to pay attention to the story and test it out cautiously only if it really is safe to do so. The aim is to be able to respond flexibly based on what works in the situation.

Once you are comfortable naming your mind’s stories and thanking your brain for telling them, Add the strategy to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping during times of stress and distress. Naming and acknowledging the chains of thought will help you to untangle from the automatic stories your mind repeats, and focus on the other story about what is important to you.

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Note: Saying ‘thank you brain’ is a common technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – pronounced ‘act’). You can find some worksheets to help you identify your common stories and understand how they pull you away from your valued directions at  

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No. 156: Extend the Image

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice using extended imagery as a way of coping with unhelpful thoughts of the future that hold you back.

Often future-predicting thoughts come to us as images. We ‘see’ ourselves making a fool of ourselves or feeling awkward or finding something unpleasant or ‘failing’ in some way. In real life, events keep unfolding after that moment. Everyone moves on. Someone helps. We learn from our mistakes, solve problems, come away stronger. But our minds usually only give us a flash of the worst bit. This week,  practice seeing the extended view.

Take a minute or two each day to practice extended imagery so you are familiar with it during times of distress. At your chosen time each day, sit for a moment just breathing and tune your thoughts to the coming week. As you notice images surfacing in your mind, observe and describe the images to yourself and then imagine what might happen next, and after that, and after that, until you can take the image all the way forward into the future. Instead of stopping with the image of us feeling tired and unmotivated doing some chore, we could carry the image forward to seeing ourselves resting, guilt-free, with a small sense of accomplishment afterwards. Instead of stopping with the image of ourselves embarrassed or uncomfortable arriving somewhere, we could carry it forward three weeks when the meeting is a distant memory or a year down the track with some new friends.

It can seem risky to stay with a distressing image our mind has predicted and extend it out. Our first instinct is often to stay away from the thought (and the situation we’ve imagined). It can seem like staying with it would make the emotion worse. But by extending it out beyond that single worst threat moment, we can learn to send our minds safety signals about that threat in the wider context of our lives.

This can be tricky to do during times of distress if we are unfamiliar with the strategy. The temptation can be to use the strategy to linger over a series of possible worst moments or to to linger over that one moment. If you notice this happening, try extending the image even further, jump forward in time past the image you are stuck on, or extend the image out for the other people present – how will they feel about it the next day/month/year?

As you practice extended imagery, you might also need to practice using the impartial observer voice that goes with most mindfulness exercises. Extend all the way forward until you get to a point in time, when the current predicted image falls into perspective. Maybe you discover that all the consequences are bad ones; that can be good info to attend to as well. If that’s the case then we really need to change the course we are on, not our thoughts about it. Time to shift strategies. Try seeing what someone you trust thinks.

Practice daily with your thoughts of ordinary upcoming situations until you are used to this kind of strategy and have figured out how to make it work for you. We each have our own methods of getting in our own way and you’ll have your own barriers to work around too. Sometimes we are simply too distressed for our minds to allow us to adopt the long view and we need to do a bit of grounding or self-soothing first.

When you are comfortable and familiar with extending images, add it to your Personal Coping Kete as a strategy for times of stress and distress. When you find yourself upset or anxious, tune into the images your mind is throwing at you and visualise extending those images forward in time.

During moments of distress, we are often stuck on a particularly distressing image. By moving our minds beyond that single imagined moment, we might find some perspective. Even if something terrible has just happened and our lives are irreversibly changed, we might see that in many years time we may have found a way to adapt and make meaning out of the experience.

No. 155: Make Space for What is Here

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

…practice allowing and making space for tough emotions when they appear. Rather than tightening up around them and getting stuck struggling against them or having to make them stop, test out what happens when you allow the thoughts and feelings to be there. Being human involves a wide spectrum of emotions; we are allowed to feel them all and we are supposed to feel them all. One way of allowing our feelings to be there without becoming engulfed in them is to observe them inside us and make room for them to be there. This is often called an acceptance or expansion strategy.

To begin with, pick a couple of neutral anchor-tasks that you do every day and can use to practice with, like making your morning cuppa, walking to the bus, eating a meal, or waiting for emails to load, something that allows your mind to wander.

  1. Whenever you find yourself doing your anchor-tasks, take a moment to observe the moods, sensations, and urges that arise within you and put words to what you are feeling in this moment. As you observe, take a step back and be aware of yourself noticing. There are these feelings inside you, and then there is you, noticing them. If you can notice them within you, they cannot get bigger than you.
  2. Notice the feeling again, where does it sit in your body? Where are the edges?  Gently remind yourself “I have space for what is here” and imagine yourself expanding around it, making room. Take a deep breathe in to help you do this. Feel your belly and your chest expand as you breathe in and let go as you breathe out.
  3. Take a second deep breath in and shift into an open, relaxed posture, and remind yourself gently “I have space for this” as you allow your breath to let go and your muscles to go loose.
  4. Then take a third deep breath. Imagine sending this breath to the place these feelings sit in your body, see space opening up around them, whatever that means to you. There is the feeling, and there you are noticing it. Remind yourself again that you have room for this. Then after a moment, bring your attention back to your surroundings and the task at hand (or what you really need/want to be doing), carrying this sense of space with you and returning it to when you need to.

You can practice this on any experiences at all, positive feelings can drive us into unhelpful responses sometimes too. There are no good or bad, right or wrong feelings. Once you are familiar with using this strategy at a planned time, it will get easier to do it throughout the day when you notice yourself dealing with stress and distress. Sometimes, part of making space for stress and distress, means soothing it. It might help to respond to distressing thoughts and feelings with supportive self-talk as you breathe, observe and open up around them. Expanding to make space also means accepting what you need and getting those needs met. You might need some self-care or distraction or support to help you, making room for our own distress, doesn’t mean you have to carry it on your own, give up on trying to feel better, sit in it, agree with it, like it, or want it. It just means that we start out by allowing it to be.

When you are comfortable doing this, add ‘expanding to make space’ to your Personal Coping Kete as a way to survive the times when you are struggling.  You’ll be able to take a moment of observe your thoughts and moods in the moment by putting words to them. Breathing deeply, remind yourself “I have space for what is here” and imagine yourself expanding around it.
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Acknowledgement: “Expansion” is an acceptance strategy found in Russ Harris’s ACT self-help book ‘The Happiness Trap‘.

This post is one person’s way of learning and practicing expansion – it isn’t necessarily the right way. When it comes to coping there is almost never a right way. We’ve each got to experiment to make it our own.   


No. 154: Supportive Self-Talk

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

…practice catching your inner critic when it’s up to its tricks and responding to your self-talk with kindness. This is about learning to label your unhelpful self-talk for what it is and deliberately talk to yourself in a way that builds you up instead of cutting yourself down.  Self-talk is automatic but we can bring it into our awareness and use it to support ourselves through moments of stress and distress. That last bit is key here.

It is important to choose self-talk that feels supportive to you and that you can believe to be true. Sometimes we take ‘supportive’ to mean that we are supposed to try to cheer ourselves up with lots of positive phrases that oppose what we have been thinking and that can often make people feel worse, especially if they really do not believe the positive statement at all. It doesn’t usually work when we try to do this with others, and it doesn’t usually work when we try to do this to ourselves either. Supportive means to hold up, so try to experiment with finding a way of talking back to harsh self-talk that can hold you up in the struggles you find yourself in.

This can be really hard to do, so practice in the ordinary moments first, maybe with your morning cuppa or something like that. Just sit and observe what you notice in your mind as it arises for a few minutes a day. If it’s empty, observe and describe that. If it’s focused on the cuppa, observe and describe that. Practicing noticing the detail. Eventually your mind will start to wander and chatter like minds are designed to do. When you notice, observe and describe that too. Keep a look out for how your mind talks to you. When you notice critical, judgemental or harsh self-talk, describe what you observe, put words to it, name it for what it is. Then take a deep breath and deliberately respond with self-talk that is supportive towards yourself, in a way that has your back, as if to hold yourself up in this moment, not to deny your reality, but to hold you steady there.

Our minds are kind of messy in real life and so observing them can be too. It might go something a bit like this inside in your mind as you do this: “I am sitting here with my cup of coffee I notice my mind is blank. [cue distracting chatter] I can never do these things. How does this even work as a thing. I’m not even thinking anything important. I want to have chicken for dinner. Dammit I’m not paying attention… [good noticing, and you’re back. Describe where you went just then and try your supportive self-talk again]….I notice I am judging the way I am confused about doing this. I notice I am kind of hungry… [take a deep breath and meet this with some supportive self-talk]… This is a kind of hard thing to learn really. At least I am trying. Did I have breakfast? Dammit again! [Good noticing again, and you’re back. Describe where you went just then and try your supportive self-talk again]...I notice hunger distracting me. I notice harsh words about that. No one can focus properly when they are hungry…

Stay with it for a couple of minutes if you can, and then continue on with your day. As you move through each day, pause when you notice your mood change and take a moment to observe what you are telling yourself about the situation and your experience of it, and see what happens if you meet it with some of the supportive self-talk you’ve been practicing each morning.

When you are comfortable noticing, labeling and responding to your self-talk with support, add ‘Supportive Self-Talk’ to your Personal Coping Kete for moments of stress and distress. When times are tough, you’ll be able to catch your harsh inner critic and feed yourself supportive self-talk that helps hold you up. Self-judgement adds another layer of distress to already difficult situations. Giving ‘voice’ to your inner supporter can make distress less intense and easier to cope with.

No. 153: Label Thoughts As Thoughts

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice noticing your thoughts and seeing them for what they are – thoughts. This week, whenever you notice yourself look at a clock, take a brief moment to be still, take five deep breaths, register what is in your mind and name what you notice in this time. As you notice a thought running through your head, say to yourself “I notice the thought that…“.  For example, if I look at the clock, breathe and think “I am going to be late”, I will say to myself “I notice the thought that I am going to be late”.

Sometimes we have second thoughts about our first thoughts. Thoughts often come in chains of ‘this’ and ‘then that’ and then… etc. If you notice a second thought attached to the first, describe that too.  Try to be an impartial observer, not a bullying or critical observer and use neutral words to describe what you notice.  If you notice yourself judging or labeling your thoughts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in some way, describe that to yourself self too, “I notice the thought that…”.

If your mind goes blank or you feel distressed, label your thoughts about that and come back to your breathing. After you have taken five good breaths in and out, move your attention outwards again by describing what is around you right now, “Right now I see…Right now I hear… “. Then turn back to whatever you were about to do before. As thoughts pop up to distract you from your task, label them as thoughts and return your focus to what is around you and what you are doing now.

Usually our thoughts are constantly running through our minds without us noticing them and we just go along reacting to them on auto-pilot.  By doing this exercise, I will get used to taking a step back to observe my thoughts and recognise them as ideas happening in my mind. Labeling my thoughts as thoughts will highlight the distinction between what is coming in through my senses and what is the meaning attached to it by my mind. Often these two things we will be an obvious match. However, just as often things are a bit more ambiguous and unclear. Often there are multiple potential meanings and labeling thoughts can help me keep sight of that. This can help the body know it is safe to calm down any stress responses it has been automatically firing off.

It is harder to step back and label our thoughts as thoughts when our emotions are high. This is why practicing for just a moment at regular intervals when emotions aren’t high is helpful while we get the hang of it. You might find that looking at a clock isn’t the most useful reminder to practice for you. If that’s the case, pick another thing you do everyday to use as a reminder to practice.

When you are comfortable with stopping to label thoughts as thoughts during everyday moments, add it to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping in times of stress and distress. When you notice emotions getting high or your mind starting to race, take a moment to breathe into your belly and observe your thoughts one by one. As you notice a thought, describe it to yourself “I notice the thought that…” . Then turn your mind to your senses and the world around you. “Right now I see… Right now I hear…”. When you are ready to move on to the next task in your day. Think to yourself, “Right now I could…” . This might be a self-soothing or distraction exercise or some form of expression, support or engagement.  Labeling distressing thoughts as thoughts might help to soothe their sting if they are overwhelming, slow them down if they are racing or make them clear if they are clouded. If we can notice thoughts as events that happen inside us, we can choose which ones we want to act on and which ones are just the chatter of our minds on autopilot.