When was the last time something made you so angry that you couldn’t help but act on your anger? Or when you were so worried that you ruminated about it all day? We all know those moments when emotions take over, and we don’t seem to be able to control them anymore. To some people, this happens more than to others. 


ACT exercises to help you deal with unpleasant emotions

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In my counselling business, I have had several clients needing help in their emotional regulation, so I introduced them to the practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The idea behind ACT is to accept and therefore embrace negative emotions instead of fighting them. Resisting unpleasant feelings may actually cause them to become stronger and more frequent. By embracing our feelings and gently letting them pass through us, we can neutrally observe them, allowing us to not act on them.

Negative emotions – often manifesting as urges – can lead to us acting out of alignment with what we really value in life. One of your values might be a romantic relationship based on kindness and compassion, yet when you feel stressed and irritated, you feel the urge to scream at your partner – which would be you acting out of alignment with your values.

Today I would like to introduce you to three different ACT exercises to help you deal with unpleasant emotions.



ACT Exercise 1: Urge surfing 


In the book “The Happiness Trap“ (2019) the author Russ Harris compares an urge to the way a wave moves: Starting small and building up gently. Growing and gaining power and speed until it reaches a peak and then gradually subsides. That’s how urges grow in our bodies as well. Starting small and then building up until they naturally sink and die. However, if we resist these urges, we don’t allow them the space they need to expand. Therefore, causing these waves to crash forcefully. 

So next time you feel a strong urge to do something, let it roll through you like a wave instead of acting on it.

  1. Observe what is happening in your body
  2. Acknowledge the urge you are feeling. “I feel the urge to…. “
  3. Give your urge some space and notice how it rises, peaks, and falls. Maybe even rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. How strong is the urge in each moment?

Once you have noticed the urge moving through you, ask yourself: What can I do right now that aligns with my values that will also enhance my life in the long run? 



ACT Exercise 2: Dropping anchor or ACE-Exercise

“Dropping the anchor“ is a great tool to help handle difficult emotions and thoughts, as well as urges. When you find yourself in the middle of a chaotic storm of thoughts and feelings, you can picture dropping an imaginary “anchor” that connects and secures you back in the here and now. Or, you can use the 3 points below for orientation:

A – Acknowledging thoughts and feelings: Just like in the “urge surfing“ exercise, you want to be mindful of what is going on in your mind. Notice every thought and emotion that is coming up. No need to judge, but simply acknowledge what is happening.                

C – Coming back into your body and observing sensations. Intentionally shift your focus from one part of your body to another. You can start with your toes and slowly move your attention up your body.

E – Engaging in what you are doing. This can be achieved by using the 54321 technique: acknowledge 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.

The ACE-Exercise is most effective when practised often, especially in less challenging situations. That way, you can build up your skill level when a more demanding problem arises.



ACT Exercise 3: Playing with thoughts

Playing around with your thoughts can help take away their seriousness, making them less likely to hook you. You can do these exercises when the thought arises, or as a precaution for thoughts you know repeatedly come up in your life.

  • Silly voices: Say the thought to yourself in a silly voice – either aloud or silently.
  • Singing: Sing your thoughts – either out loud or silently.
  • Imagine your thoughts in different scenarios, on a billboard, like a t-shirt print, on a restaurant menu etc.
  • Write down your thoughts into a thought bubble as well as a character the thought bubble could come out of. This could be a human, an animal, a plant, or anything you can think of.
  • Come up with your own playful exercises that help you hear or see the thought.

Keep in mind that this is about experimenting and being playful with your thoughts and feelings, not about controlling them or making fun of them!

I regularly use many of these exercises with clients during my online counselling sessions. These exercises are most effective though when being integrated into one’s life repetitively for them to become habitual. The more you do them, the more of a habit they become. After a while, you won’t have to think about it anymore, and you will do it naturally.

Two more beneficial ACT exercises to help you deal with unpleasant emotions are the “Radio Doom & Gloom” Metaphor, and “Hands & Thoughts”. Another blog post worth looking into is “How to let go of negative thoughts”.





I want to challenge you to pick up one of these exercises for the next seven days and apply it whenever an unwanted thought arises. I am very interested to know how that goes for you!

And if you would like to regularly receive mental health tips and exercises from me, sign up for my monthly newsletter!


3 ACT Exercises for dealing with unpleasant emotions

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