We all know moments when we are so stuck in our thoughts that we no longer feel capable of participating in everyday life. Next time this happens to you, I would like to invite you to try the “Hands & Thoughts” exercise, a technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
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ACT Excercise Hands & Thoughts
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced like the word ‘to act’) is a therapy and coaching method which encourages people to embrace their thoughts and feelings rather than fighting them or feeling guilty about them. I frequently use the “Hands & Thoughts” exercise with my online counselling clients, as it helps to show how much our thoughts and feelings sometimes constrict and limit us. The exercise, which requires nothing more than 5 minutes of your time as well as your hands, is used as a metaphor for defusion – the process of creating distance between us and our feelings and thoughts, in order to minimise the hold they have over us.
What are you struggling with?
Start by imagining a thought or feeling that you are struggling with right now or that you keep getting stuck in. This can be something related to a specific situation happening right now, like a conflict at work or in your relationship, or something that keeps coming up, like the feeling of not being good enough, of not being loved, etc. Place your hands next to each other like an open book and imagine that they are those thoughts and feelings. Now imagine that your entire life, with all the things you would like to focus on, is right in front of you in the room, whether it’s your children you want to spend time with, that book you would like to read, or a work task that needs to get done.
What are you missing out on?
Now raise your hands (i.e. your thoughts/feelings) towards your face and cover your eyes. See how much of your life (i.e. the room in front of you) you can still see. Imagine that in this state, with your hands right in front of your face, you would have to do something or interact with some of the people in your life. Quite difficult, isn’t it? That’s what it’s like when you get hooked by your thoughts and feelings. With your hands over your eyes, ask yourself some questions: What are you missing out on right now? If someone you love was here right now, would you be able to connect with them? How easy or difficult do you find it to focus your attention on the things you would like to be doing (i.e. the things in the room in front of you)? If there was something important that needed to be done, could you do it right now?
Learn to “unhook”
Move your hands slightly away from your face. What do you notice? How does it feel? What can you see now? What can you do like this? It’s probably already a lot more than before, but your hands are still blocking part of your view. Gradually keep moving your hands further and further away from your face and pay attention to how much more you can see and could do, if the thoughts were a little further away. Finally, let’s see what happens when we “unhook” from our thoughts and feelings. Place your hands on your lap and notice how much easier it is now to connect with anyone that might be around us, to get things done etc.
Distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings
The “Hand & Thoughts” exercise isn’t about getting rid of the thoughts completely. We’re not putting all our efforts into fighting them, debating them, trying to prove them wrong. Your thoughts are still very much here (in your lap), but you can distance yourself from them in a way that enables you to see and do other things again. If there isn’t anything useful we can do with our thoughts and feelings right in this moment (and sometimes there is, for example when they alert us to a problem we need to take care of), we can just let them sit there and not allow them to keep us from all the things we enjoy about life, or the things we need to do in our lives. Take a look at your daily life and see how often thoughts are actually so in front of your face that you can’t really see your life and the things around you anymore. Next time this happens, try this exercise and see how it feels when you move your thoughts a little bit further away.
What did you think of this little exercise? Let me know in the comments! And, if you would like some additional help handling your thoughts and feelings, don’t hesitate to reach out.
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