4 Tips For Living With Our Brains

Eitan Zerykier, LMSW
March 5, 2019

Hands Exercise

Try this: Slowly raise your hands in front of your face, until they are covering your eyes.  Try to see the world through the cracks between your fingers.  Feeling weird enough yet?  Take a moment to stop reading and try this.  When you are done, come back.

What would it be like to walk around like this all day?  How much would you see?  How much would you not see? This is what it is like to see the world while looking “from your thoughts.”  It is an experience called cognitive fusion, from latin root “fuse”, meaning “poured together” (Vitalle, 2007).

Now you have removed your hands by now, but they haven’t gone away.  They are holding your phone, or sitting in your lap or on your keyboard. Can you feel them right now?  How much more comfortable are you when your hands are not covering your eyes?  What is it like to have that broader view of the world?  Looking at your hands, feeling them fully is what it is like to look “at your thoughts.”

Our thoughts are the same way.  They can (and will) remain, yet they do not have to block out our experience of this world.

How can we “take our hands away from our faces” and create some distance from our thoughts?  How can we allow ourselves the flexibility to have a brain which thinks at all times, but to notice it in real time, and then choose to respond in the way we want?

Methods

As we walk through the world, we are able to imagine an infinite number of ways to evaluate whether the things around us are useful or not, and then choose how to interact with them.

Thoughts, on the other hand, are more difficult to evaluate objectively, and our brain likes to be right.  Our brain can justify almost any thought we have  (Hayes, et al, 2001).

The four methods provided below are intended to help us learn to look “at our thoughts” as opposed to “from our thoughts” by utilizing language (Hayes, 1987).  Each one can increase cognitive de-fusion, a process in which we can more strongly distinguish between our interpretation of the world by our thoughts, versus the act of thinking itself (Masuda et al, 2004).

1. Labeling: Take a minute now to look away from the words on the screen.  Make one single, long out breath, take one in breath, and then just notice what comes to mind for a few moments.  Come back when you are done.

Examples that often arise are the likes of: “Hamburgers”, “My knee hurts”, “What time is it?”, “How much longer do I have to do this?”, “I am bored”, “I am hungry”, “I am tired”, “Am I tired or dehydrated?” “What did I eat for breakfast?”, “Hey look, a kitten on the internet”, “Oh man, I have a lot to do.”

Instead, we can label our thoughts into categories:  Thoughts, Feelings, Memories, Bodily Sensations, and Urges.

From this list, the above thoughts might to: “I am having the thought that a hamburger would really taste great right now”, “I am noticing the bodily sensation of my mouth watering”, “I am having the urge to click away from this article,” or “I am having the memory of the time an article helped me.”

2. Floating leaves:  What is it like when our minds are churning out thoughts?  We can end up following each one to their farthest destination, forgetting where or what we were thinking about or supposed to be doing in the first place.

Instead, we can notice our thoughts and imagine them being carried down a conveyor belt, off into the distance, or somehow out of sight.  This visualization can be done picturing nature: watching leaves on a stream, floating clouds, or whisps of wind blowing by.

3. Be the sculptor: Give your thoughts and feelings some characteristics.  What color, shape, size, weight, speed, and texture is your thought or feeling?  After doing so, do you notice any changes to your experience with those thoughts and feelings?

4. Be The Painter: When we see or experience something painful, we are usually attaching a story to the event.  These stories contain evaluations and are made up of our personal history and subjective experiences, but not the actual item.  If we can see the situation as a painter would, with the objective and descriptive details, it can help us create more distance from our thoughts related to the scenario.

For example: your child is jumping up and down and screaming at you.  How does that feel?  Instead of the evaluations “The kid is a spoiled brat who does not appreciate me”, we can choose to notice the parts of the scenario which would remain the same no matter who was witnessing it.

In this case we might say “There is a child of 6 years wearing sneakers and a blue shirt and yellow shorts before me.  His arms are flailing, his face is red, and his voice is bellowing. His fists are clenched and he is jumping up and down.  His eyes are a bit wet and he looks hot, perhaps sweaty.”

Examples of evaluations: good, bad, unbearable, unfair.  These are opinions.  We can justify any evaluation our brain can create, and someone else can justify the opposite.

Examples of descriptions: wooden, fast, slow, hard, soft, loud, quiet, red, blue.  These are objective and true, regardless of who is looking.

What was it like to try these exercises?  Have they helped increase your cognitive defusion?  Were you more able to choose your response, instead of simply reacting?

Follow up with any questions or comments!

About Eitan:

After receiving his MSW in 2007, Eitan embarked on a successful career in hedge fund operations.  He has since returned to the field of mental health.  Leveraging his training in evidence-based, third-wave CBT, he provides acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness training, CBT and DBT to adolescents, adults and couples. He has offices in Manhattan and Woodmere, Long Island.