Float through experiences mindfully

Dr. Claire Weekes was an Australian physician and an anxiety treatment pioneer who started writing about acceptance-based methods for relating effectively to anxiety in the 1960’s. She used the concept of floating through anxiety, as opposed to swimming through it, to emphasis the need to let go of control, rather than focusing on coping with it. The concepts “don’t just do something, sit there!” and “let time pass” come from Claire Weekes.

Here are the three main concepts:

  • Paradoxical effort is a trap.
  • Metaphors facilitate your internalization and ownership of your growth.
  • Compassion reduces secondary processes that undermine your growth.

First, before we talk about paradoxical effort as a trap, let me tell you a joke.

Paradoxical effort is a trap.

What do overcoming anxiety, falling asleep, sneezing, feeling happy, and having an orgasm have in common?

Wait for it…

They all require surrender! You have to surrender to the process to allow it to either pass or to happen.

The opposite of this is called paradoxical effort, where the more effort you put towards a certain outcome, the further you get from it. Paradoxical effort undermines people and keep them in their stuck places, unable to move through uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

Let’s use sensations as an example: Panic attacks occur when you perceive a threat, have the fight-or-flight response, and add an “oh, no, I shouldn’t be having these sensations!” reaction. When this happens, your amygdala will give you some more adrenaline. You’ll keep having more and more of those sensations until it subjectively feels out of your control.

In this case, paradoxical effort is: the more you try not to have sensations, the more sensations you have.

As you’re learning to work through panic attacks, you might learn that you need to invite in your sensations in order for them to decrease. Yet, if you secretly hope that when you invite in your sensations, they go away, you will get caught in paradoxical effort and have more sensations.

This also happens with sleeping. One thinking pattern that maintains insomnia is thinking, “I need to sleep tonight or I will be exhausted and unable to perform tomorrow.” If you worry and worry about this as you try to sleep, you won’t be able to relax enough to fall asleep. Paradoxically, you have to let yourself surrender to the possibility that you might not sleep, you might be exhausted tomorrow, and you might not be able to perform in order to relax enough to sleep. If you try to trick yourself into thinking this, but you are not actually willing to surrender to being tired tomorrow, you won’t be able to relax enough to sleep.

My final example is happiness. Happiness is also a paradox. The more that you’re striving for the feeling of happiness, the more elusive it becomes. Oftentimes when people are saying that they’re striving for happiness, they might actually be striving for the feeling of pleasure or joy.

Acceptance and commitment theory teaches us that the trick is to strive for psychological flexibility. The three components of psychological flexibility are:

  • Show up to the present moment.
  • Let go of unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
  • Do things that you value.

If we, regularly committing to things that we value, are able to do those things with present moment awareness, and allow any thoughts or feelings that are uncomfortable as we engage in our valued action, then we might not feel happy every moment, but we’ll have all kinds of different thoughts and feelings. Within our varied thoughts and feelings, there will be more likelihood of moments where we feel happy.

The paradox is if you strive to feel something all the time, it’s going to feel more and more elusive. But if you commit to things that you care about and live with the possibility that your thoughts and feelings change, then, over time, you’re likely to feel as though your life is rich, full, and meaningful.

Metaphors facilitate your internalization and ownership of your growth.

For the next concept, as we’re striving to float through our experiences mindfully, we want to use metaphors to facilitate our personal internalization of relevant ideas, frameworks, and concepts. While the concept of going towards our internal experiences is theoretically simple, it’s not easy to do and there are numerous nuances to it that can make it hard to remember.

Metaphors fall into two major categories.

One category includes personifying the different internal experiences. Personification of our internal experiences helps us to notice the different voices, in real time, and decide how to respond to each particular personified voice. 

Examples of personification of our different internal voices includes Worried Voice, False Comfort, and Wise Mind. Once personified, we can notice the voices as they happen, label them, and respond to them more effectively. For instance, we know to challenge Worried Voice, particularly when it’s urgent and spiraling. We also want to intentionally access our Wise Mind to help us defuse from the back and forth between worried voice and false comfort.  Many people in group have created different names for Worried Voice, False Comfort, and Wise Mind. You could also have the voice of Depression, the voice of OCD, the voice of Mania and the Self-Critical voice.

All these examples can help you personify your experience and help you remember that just because a certain thinking pattern arrives in your mind doesn’t mean you have to follow it.

The other category for metaphors includes processes. If certain processes get you stuck, you can use a metaphor to help you remember what to do differently.

For instance, inflated responsibility is a process that many people get stuck in. Inflated responsibility occurs when you take as much responsibility for a thought as you would  for an action (e.g., thinking about hurting someone is equally as terrible as actually hurting someone). The other form of inflated responsibility is taking responsibility for something that we don’t have control over, like how other people think or feel.

One example of a metaphor that could help you remember what inflated responsibility is:

“My OCD has a Rolodex of bad memories. Whenever I feel guilt, it starts thumbing through that Rolodex.”

You could use this as reminder that having the feeling of guilt is making the thoughts seem true or seem like you’ve done something wrong. Rather than engaging it, you could think, “I’m going to throw away that Rolodex.”

The next metaphor is for intolerance of uncertainty. The metaphor is:

“My OCD is like a congresswoman filibustering any decision I try to make.”

When you notice the filibuster, you can think, “Quit the filibuster, Mind. I should make a decision and live in it.”

Here’s a third metaphor:

“My worry is like a faucet. I’m trying to contain it before it spills over.”

This metaphor could cue you to use scheduled worry time to contain your worrying.

Compassion reduces secondary processes that undermine your growth.

We talk about compassion all the time in Huddle.care. I want to emphasize that we’re not just talking about the sort of formal compassion practice done while sitting on a cushion, although formal compassion practices are also great.

When I think about compassion, I think about it as an intervention that targets a secondary process that’s very common in anxiety, OCD, and depression.

The secondary process that keeps people stuck is shame and self-criticism. As you start to learn more about CBT and how anxiety disorders operate you might be thinking, “Well, I theoretically understand how this operates. Why does my anxiety keep coming back? Why do these intrusive thoughts keep coming back?” If your “why?” is very critical and brings up the feeling of shame(e.g., “because I’m truly a horrible person”), then it might be difficult to observe and stay with what’s happening long enough to not do anything to avoid it or to reinforce it.

From that perspective, compassion is a skill you can learn.

It can help you stay with the process of whatever’s happening. Regardless of what you know, anxious sensations or intrusive thoughts can show up at any time. Just having information about what’s happening doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. In any given moment having a compassionate stance that allows your mind to observe what’s happening is going to help you get through it faster. And that doesn’t mean that the sensations and the thoughts are necessarily going to go away. You’re just not going to do something that reinforces it.If compassion by definition is sympathetic consciousness of distress together with a desire to alleviate it, then self-compassion is turning towards yourself with concern and a desire to do something to alleviate your own distress.

When it comes to relating effectively to anxiety, turning towards your experience would be observing that experience mindfully — floating through it mindfully — and not doing something to make it worse. You don’t have to be particularly warm and fuzzy about this. Just notice what’s happening, don’t criticize yourself, and don’t add anything that will make it worse.