Learn to Unhook: Getting Present
In my most recent blog post about the Choice Point, I noted that getting overly hooked into our internal experiences of pain can interfere with our ability to move towards what matters to us. Let's review briefly what it means to get "hooked". Put simply, getting "hooked" means you are getting caught, or consumed by your internal experience, be it a thought, memory, emotion, or physical sensation, which begins to dominate your experience and subsequently pull you away from your values. Here are some examples of getting hooked:
"I need to get rid of my anxiety."
"I'm a failure."
Becoming hyperfocused on a physical sensation, like a headache or stomachache
Replaying a painful memory
Engaging in unworkable control strategies
There are literally countless examples of what it means to get "hooked" into our experiences.
At first glance, the content of the "hook", or the specific internal experience, may appear to be the problem, but this is not the case. To illustrate this point, take the following metaphor: Imagine there is a large wagon attached to a rope with a hook on the end. You put on a harness and attach the hook to it, and I give you the task of walking up a large hill. So, you begin to walk, pulling the wagon behind you. And you pull. And pull. And pull. Before long, you become completely emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. So much so, that if I were to ask you to then spend time with your family, or do your job, or go to the gym, you'd have no energy to do so. In this metaphor, what's the problem? You may say the problem is the size and weight of the wagon. Perhaps you may point to the size of the hill you are pulling the wagon up. You might even blame your body or mind for not being strong enough. But these are not the problem. The real problem is the fact that you're hooked to the wagon. If you were to unhook yourself, your walk up the hill becomes exponentially easier. Bringing this back to our internal experiences, the problem isn't the thought, memory, emotion, or sensation. The problem is that you're "hooked" to it.
What now? In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT for short, there are four categories of unhooking, those being, mindfulness, acceptance, cognitive defusion, and the self-as-context, also referred to as the "observing self". This blog post is going to start with mindfulness.
Mindfulness is classically defined as the non-judgemental awareness of the present. A lesser known definition is "flexible awareness". So let's talk about what these mean and why it's relevant to unhooking.
There are times in our lives where we get pulled into the past. Maybe we are thinking about a traumatic memory, a painful loss, or a time you were let down by someone. The past is where trauma, depression, and anger often reside. At other times we may get pulled into the future. Maybe we are thinking about how we're going to do on an upcoming exam, worrying about the direction of a relationship, or wondering when the next COVID shutdown will happen. The future is where anxiety often resides. What happens if we get hooked into experiences from the past? Perhaps hooked into the emotions associated with those memories? Or what if we get hooked into the future and the accompanying emotions? Who's living here and now? What happens to your experience in the present if you're hooked into the past or future?
For example, imagine you are sitting at your favorite burger joint. The server brings you a really phenomenal looking burger. You can see the glistening juices on the burger and the nicely toasted bun nestled next to a pile of golden brown fries. Now, before biting into this juicy burger, you see a former classmate from high school, which reminds you of the most embarrassing moment of your life which happened in 10th grade. A time where you felt utterly humiliated. A moment in time that still makes you shudder with discomfort. What will happen to your experience eating that burger if you find yourself consumed with the discomfort of this memory? I'd imagine it might negatively impact your enjoyment, perhaps to a significant degree. All because your mind took you on a trip to this particular memory from high school.
How we engage with what happens in the present, how we find meaning and purpose in our choices, and how we connect to our values, is predicated on how well we can remain in, or bring ourselves back to, the present. This is why mindfulness is also referred to a "flexible awareness". Your mind will naturally take you to all kinds of different places. While practicing mindfulness, your job is to flexibly bring your awareness back to the present. Your mind is literally a thinking machine that churns out thoughts and memories 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So when your mind takes you to a thought or memory, or if you notice powerful emotions or uncomfortable physical sensations, you can utilize mindfulness to be aware of this discomfort and gently and compassionately bring yourself back to the present. This may also be referred to as "anchoring" or "grounding", which means using something in the present to "anchor" or "ground" ourselves to the here and now.
So how do you practice mindfulness? What's important to keep in mind is that mindfulness is not a "what you do", but a "how you do". Anything, literally anything, can be used as a mindfulness tool when connecting to the present. You can mindfully do the dishes, mindfully eat a sandwich, mindfully go for a walk, or mindfully breath. The key when practicing mindfulness is to take something in the present and notice it. The goal is to do so with curiosity, compassion, and without judgement. So, using the previous examples, mindfully washing the dishes might involve a focus on the temperature of the water, the feeling of the sponge in your hand, or the sensation of the bubbles.
Since breathing is something that is so central to our lives, and something that we so rarely focus on, I like to encourage people to begin with mindful breathing. So how might you begin to mindfully breath? Begin by putting your hands and feet in a comfortable position. Take a breath in through your nose and slooooooowly out through your mouth. As you continue to breath in through your nose and out from your mouth, begin to notice the rise and fall of your chest or the rise and fall of your abdomen. Allow yourself to notice the intricate details of the movement of your body with each breath. Your mind will naturally wander as you do this exercise, which is completely normal and natural. If your mind wanders, simply notice where your mind wandered and gently bring your awareness back to your breath. Regardless of how many times you may notice your mind wandering, simply bring it back each time. Below is a brief recording of a mindfulness exercise if you are open to trying this out.
What's important here, is that mindfulness is not a control strategy for distress. As noted here, trying to control our internal experiences of distress can actually increase our experience of distress. Mindfulness is not intended to control, avoid, or fix, what we are "hooked" to, only to allow us to gently reorient ourselves to the present to afford us the ability to step into our next choice point. In doing so, you are able to make your next choice as guided by your values, not as a reaction to your distress. So, if you find yourself saying, "I did the mindfulness exercise but I still felt anxious!", you may have missed the point of what mindfulness is intended to do. It's not to "get rid" of the anxiety; it's to allow you to have your experience of anxiety but still bring yourself back to the present.
Mindfulness, like any other skill, is one that requires purposeful practice. It requires consistency and persistence to build the muscle of flexible awareness. The goal, in many ways, isn't just to be more present, but to build the muscle to gently bring you back to the present if your mind pulls you away. For example, if you go to the gym and you're doing the bench press, the function of the movement is to stretch and strain your muscles to get stronger. The function of the movement is not simply to move the weight. If the goal was just to move the weight, wouldn't it be smarter to get a bunch of people to help you move it? Like you might if you were moving a piano? No one tries to move a piano and says, "No, don't help me, I need to do it myself to really work my lower back muscles". Here too, one of the central goals of mindfulness practice is to build the muscle of awareness to be able to bring you back if and when your mind gets hooked to something. With ongoing practice, you will find yourself more and more equipped to navigate your pain points when they show up and prevent the "hook" from moving you away from what matters most to you.
In the next blog post, I'm going to focus on the role of acceptance as an unhooking tool.