The Coping Kete

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.

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