How to label thoughts nonverbally

by eugman4 min read15th Dec 201128 comments




Recently I've been attempting to put a damper on my ruminations. Sometimes they can get out of control and be somewhat self-sustaining. These negative, repetitive thoughts can be harmful and make depression worse. Accordingly, I've been looking for techniques to help manage this.

In a previous post, I talked about how I stumbled onto a way to track emotions through kinesthetic memory. Specifically, I am using a checkmark gesture to mark negative thoughts, and at this point it has become semiautomatic. The results have been quite interesting.

A little later, someone wanted to know about the process in detail. My first impulse was to shout "MU!". It seems contradictory to try to use words to describe something that is inherently and intentionally a nonverbal process. However, I decided that is was worth a shot. Below, I cover the skills that you will need, how the process works, and my personal experiences with it.

Skill building

So, in order for this process to work, you need to develop three related but separate skills. First, you have to be able to tell when you are thinking/feeling. Second you have to be able to label these thoughts and emotions. Third is something I call the Pivot. It's changing the direction of your thoughts without mentally moving forward. Each of these are not natural skills, so don't be discouraged if you need a lot of practice.

Basic meditation is perfect for noticing what you are thinking. Starting out, catching thoughts is the hardest thing to do. In my experience, there are a surprising number of things that you think without even being aware of it. What's worse is most of them are quite fleeting. Until you get very good at catching fleeting thoughts, this process probably won't work for you.

Besides meditation, mindfulness practice helps too. The next time you are eating a meal, try to focus just on the food itself. Your thoughts are likely to wonder, or you may even end up checking Facebook on your phone. When you notice this, smile. You just caught yourself, congratulations. One last technique is to sit with a tablet and just write thoughts as they come to you. This is slow, but good starting practice.

The second step is to start being able to label your thoughts and emotions. At first this may be difficult, and I would suggest simply trying to label them as positive, negative, or neutral. The three techniques I used personally were CBT, straight-up practice, and monitoring my emotional set point for a few weeks. With the CBT, I would first experience an emotional trigger (maybe I forgot to send an email). Then I would write down the trigger and any related thoughts I was having. Then I would identify any cognitive distortions related to these thoughts.

The final skill is difficult for me to describe by it's very nature. Whenever you are practicing meditation or mindfulness, your thoughts will naturally wander. At this point, you are supposed to gently guide yourself back to your original focus. It is this mental muscle that is being used in the Pivot. To use this muscle, you have to learn how to act without thought. Otherwise you'll always be thinking of white polar bears.

The Pivot is a matter of completely changing your thoughts without thinking about it. It's a way of stopping where you are going, turning 90 degrees and continuing onward. I really don't know how to describe it any better than that. I can tell you that it was feverishly hard for me to develop as a skill. It's a lot like a Chinese finger trap. The more you struggle, the less it works. That's why the gesture works so well. It is a very gentle way of initiating this.

The process

So, now having the skill base, you can try making use of this technique. First you need a type of thought or feeling you want to monitor. It should be something easily recognizable. It doesn't matter if there's no word for it. The idea here is to reduce the cognitive load as much as possible. If you are thinking to yourself "Does this count as anger?" you are doing it wrong. If you are thinking "I feel so...'GRRR' ", then you are getting closer. Remember, the goal is to label without verbally thinking.

Then you need a gesture that you can do anywhere, unobtrusively. A checkmark, a circle, or an X all work fine. Whenever you run into the type of thought you are trying to monitor, you want to make that gesture. If you are iffy on whether or not something counts, I'd say just throw it in. You'll get better at making distinctions as you practice. Additionally, we want to make this an automatic process.

Finally, you'll want to do something whenever you notice this thought/feeling. If a positive feeling, it may be to try to extend it. You may want to bring it up to your conscious system for processing the thoughts intentionally. If it's a negative thought spiral, you may just want to pivot right out of it.

The results

The results have been promising so far. There are two tags that I've tried using. One was a circle for buoyant happiness. It's this sort of uplifting sense of happiness that feels like the rising crescendo in a song. I could extend the feeling slightly by continuing the gesture and and focusing on the feeling. I believe that if I had continued to build the association, I could summon the feeling at will. However, I didn't have the motivation to keep using it.

The other gesture I used is a checkmark gesture. I don't use it to track emotions specifically, but more emotional triggers. These triggers feel like mental mosquito bites. They are really small things, sometimes hard to catch, sometimes really painful, and after a while they all add up. Usually these triggers have an automatic negative thought associated with them, but some are nonverbal.

Now, a quick word of warning. If you are using this technique to deal with negative thoughts, be very careful. You don't want to create a general association and have it backfire. I once took an arbitrary word and tried to use it as a short circuit for a very specific type of thought I desperately wanted to avoid. It completely backfired and acted as a sort of key code for the ENTIRE subset.

That's why I would suggest that you a) aim for broad targets, b) make categorization as easy as possible, and c) don't think about it. By aiming for reflexive and nonverbal, it's possible to avoid creating a specific association.

So, if I had to guess, I'd say that there are two effects going on with this technique. First, I think the gesture acts as some sort of minimal amount of self-empathy or emotional acceptance. It's a way of acknowledging the part of my brain that's screaming "You remember when something bad happened with something related to that?". Once that's been done, it's easier for me to move on.

The other effect is that it seems to function as some sort of intra-brain communication. Now, this makes a lot of sense if you believe in a modular model of the brain. But from the inside it's weird as hell. There are now times where I'll make the gesture and then be surprised about it. At the same time, I feel responsible for the action and can generally recall intending to do it. The issue is that it's sort of done with a background process of my mind, just like walking. It feels like one part of my brain can't communicate very well with another part of my brain, so it reroutes the information through physical action.

Despite any weirdness, I've found it to a useful habit so far. It has had a similar effect to using GTD to clear my brain of annoying thoughts by acknowledging their importance. Also, I can tell if I'm in a bad mood if my finger keeps going off every few seconds. Usually that means I need a nap or some coffee.

Finally, it seems to act as an awesome Geiger counter for hidden ugh fields. There are some things that are too hard to even think about contemplating, and this offers a way of finding those things. As example, I might be on someone's Facebook page and my finger will go off and I'll think "Oh, there must be something I'm trying to avoid."