Two exercises to deal with negative thoughts and worrying based on cognitive behavioral therapy

I want to share two exercises that have helped me to deal with negative feelings (suffering, pain, anxiety, sadness etc.) and excessive worrying.

Exercise 1 – Decomposing pain: Dealing with negative thoughts

This exercise is based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (see for example [1]). Big thanks to Kaj Sotala for introducing me to this type of exercise in a workshop last year. ACT considers psychological pain normal part of life. ACT suggests you cannot deliberately get rid of your psychological pain, but you can take steps to avoid increasing it artificially.

Clean pain = original, primary reaction to a painful event or loss (e.g. grief and loss of losing a loved one, being hurt after somebody treats you unfairly, hurt or sadness over an past or present experience that you have’t grieved or worked through)

Dirty pain = pain that is caused when we try to limit or avoid feeling the clean pain or when we imagine things or hold beliefs that are not likely true (e.g. ruminating and worrying about painful experiences, blaming yourself or others for something that was out of your/their control, thinking and spinning thoughts about what should have happened in the past or could happen in the future)

EXERCISE #1: Choose a negative feeling that has been bugging you lately

  1. Estimate what part of the feeling is caused by clean pain and dirty pain (remember dirty pain is something we create ourselves). Write down what part of the feeling constitutes clean pain and what part of it is dirty pain.
  2. What beliefs do you think are underlying this feeling (threats, beliefs about yourself or others, etc.)? Write them down.
  3. What personal needs does the feeling reflect (often negative feelings reflect real unmet needs that are important to acknowledge and pay heed to)? Write down any needs you come up with.
Exercise 2 – Decomposing worries: Dealing excessive with worrying

This exercise has a cognitive behavioral (cognitive restructuring) vibe to it but it is actually based on a Buddhist proverb I encountered some time ago:

“If you have a problem that can be fixed, then there is no use in worrying. If you have a problem that cannot be fixed, then there is no use in worrying.” – Buddhist proverb

EXERCISE #2: Choose a thing you have been worrying about too much.

  1. Consider can you realistically affect the likelihood of whether the scenario you have been worrying about is going to actualize. (yes/no)
  2. Assess do you want to do something in order to affect the probability of that scenario coming true (yes/no)

If you answer “no” to either one of the above, it is just best to accept, embrace and breath into the uncertainty you are facing in the form of the scenario you are worrying about.

If you answer “yes” to both, decide what are you going to do about the scenario and when.

[1] Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D and Wilson, K. G. (2016) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. 2nd edition

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *