Imagine you are walking through your grocery store, I live in the same small town that I grew up in, so going to the grocery store is often like a class and family reunion in one. This is a very real scenario in my life.   You see a woman that you graduated with and she looks the other way without saying hi…….

One possible way this scenario plays out:  

                      First thought: “She’s stuck up and thinks she is better than me.”

          Emotion: self-righteous indignation

                      Action: Huff and puff and continue to grocery shop

          Body Sensation: shoulders stiffen initially and then slump, sinking feeling in stomach

A scene like this has the potential to send you into a spiral of shame and anxiety.  Why didn’t she say hi? Did I do something wrong? What is wrong with me? And on and on…..

I often introduce this breakdown exercise in the early stages of therapy and I do it myself on a regular basis. It is the basic recognition of the connection between your emotions, body sensations, thoughts, and actions to gain a self-awareness that what we are feeling is more than that- that there is more going on behind the scenes.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize how anxious we are.  In some of us, anxiety has been a way of life since birth. We grew up in anxious families and the constant worry is so normal that we don’t know any differently. Think this, the phone rings and you instantly think something has happened or someone has been hurt.  Or something goes well and your first thought is to prepare yourself for when it goes wrong. If this sounds familiar, read on.

We can also grow into our anxiety.  A subtle shifting toward a constant feeling of being on edge, a swelling sense of dread and worry that stays with us through the day.  Thoughts that circle around and around until they spiral up into a knotted mess that keeps you trapped in fret and worry.

The use of mindfulness, defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “ an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” to manage anxiety and stress is prevalent in therapy today.  I find that focusing on the present moment brings an awareness to how we are feeling, giving us the ability to ask ourselves “What is going on?” with a gentle curiosity.

Combining this gentle curiosity, with the time-tested and accessible skill building of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy produces a highly effective way to untangle and let go, or at least observe, all of those worrisome thoughts.

A way to practice this in action is to start paying attention the next time you find yourself feeling highly emotional.   

First, take note of what is happening, or identifying the triggering event. Where are you?  Who are you with? What is happening? What time of day is it?  

Observing the thoughts, emotions, behaviors and sensations of your body in connection to the triggering event:

  • What is your first thought when this happened?  Don’t try to edit yourself.  Even if your first thought is something horrible or mean. Name it. Step into a place of accountability.  Honesty with yourself has to happen or this exercise will not do you any good.
  • What are you feeling in your body? Our bodies often tell us what’s up before we have any clue.  Do your palms get sweaty? Do you turn pale? Do you get shaky?  Heart beat fast? Nauseous? Take a moment to listen to how your body is speaking to you.
  • What emotion are you feeling? Most of us have limited emotional vocabularies, we think in terms of happy, sad, angry or hurt.  But in fact there are so many beautiful and nuanced emotions out there that can describe how you are feeling.   Try some of these out: discouraged, embarrassed, sarcastic, jealous, remorseful, secure, confident, worthwhile, playful and optimistic.   
  • What actions do you take?  We always have a behavior linked to these thoughts, emotions and body sensations, even if it is to not do anything.  Do any of these sound familiar? I ignored what was happening. I avoided seeing that person. I said I was sorry immediately.  I took a deep breath. I rolled my eyes. I became restless in my seat.

I have found that each person is unique in that they naturally gravitate toward one area.  Some of us instinctually move toward identifying the thought first, others identify their body’s sensations, actions or emotions initially.  Wherever you start is ok, just go where you naturally lean into. I am a thought person, that’s what I recognize first. The rest I have to work at a little bit, especially the emotion.

It isn’t the complete or only answer to stop worry or bothersome thoughts.  But the self awareness that comes out of this skill is a vital and necessary step to being able to interrupt a potential anxious thought spiral that could keep you up at night with its nonsense.  

So let’s replay the grocery store scene with a little glimpse into how we can potentially interrupt the anxious cycle of thought.

          First thought, “She’s stuck up and thinks she is better than me.”

Challenge the thought.  What other possibilities exist?  She could have just heard

           some bad news.  She didn’t see me.  She was in a hurry. Her dog died that morning.

          Emotion: self-righteous indignation

Feel the emotion and know that it will pass

                      Action: Huff and puff and continue to grocery shop

Take a deep breath and check yourself.

          Body Sensation: shoulders stiffen initially and then slump, sinking feeling in stomach

Notice what is going on in your body.

Try it out.  See what you come up with.  

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