How to label thoughts nonverbally

by eugman7 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."



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[-][anonymous]10y 8

You have basically reinvented Mahasi Noting. If you apply it to all sensations and rack up the frequency to about 10-40 Hz, you're doing straightforward Burmese Vipassana.

I think there is a real danger of avoiding unpleasant thoughts/feelings. You mentioned meditation. When I find myself thinking of something during meditation, I try to reestablish my focus and in the process I just drop the thought. I think that's correct during formal meditation, but dropping an unpleasant thought after noting it in daily life is wrong, as it leads to avoidance.

See the emotinal acceptance article that eugman linked to on why avoiding bad feelings is bad. If you feel sad because your dog died, just not thinking about it might be acceptable. But if you feel anxious because there is a deadline coming, ignoring the situation only makes it worse. If not-thinking is an automatic habit you can't distinguish between those two situation.

So the first thing to do after noticing that you thought something that makes you feel bad should be to not flinch away. If it's an irrational thought, dealing with it rationally probably keeps that particular thought from arising again for a while. If it's a rational and valid concern you should probably do something about it! If you can't (say, you are at work, so you can't do your taxes) you might feel bad, but I think not training yourself to avoid the problem is worth feeling a little bad (otherwise you might not do you taxes even when you are home).

I think eugman is more referring to negative thoughts that cycle through a depressed person's head on a regular basis. They're messages that remind you that you're a failure, you let people down, you're not going anywhere, and they play through your brain almost all your waking hours.

The negative thoughts you described are the ones that healthy people encounter in real, negative situations that must be dealt with. In that case, rumination is appropriate and finding rational solutions is desirable. But when your brain is essentially buggy and constantly replaying cached, (often incorrect or completely out of proportion) negative beliefs, it might be entirely appropriate to forcibly jump to another track instead of dwelling on it.

Put another way, in a depressed brain, rumination and focus on the "problem" is the default mode of operation. Sometimes it eventually yields positive solutions, but frequently it's more of a death spiral. Short circuiting that kind of process seems entirely reasonable to me.

The amount of worry and anxiety some people have in regard to their problems (say, health or financial problems) might not be healthy at all, and might lead to depressive moods. And yet, avoiding those problems by avoiding to think about them would be really bad.

Rumination and worrying are a habitual, unmindful and irrational type of thinking. They are just replaying cached thoughts, and that shouldn't even be dignified by being called "thinking". It's not good for depressed people, for anxious people or for anyone else. I absolutely agree that one shouldn't dwell on such thoughts. I'm just saying that instead of automatically stopping your thoughts, or doing anything automatically, one should have at least one good look at those thoughts and think. And I mean think mindfully, rationally and critically. I'm not saying one should necessarily think about the "problem", but rather about the thoughts themselves. Are they rational? How would I think about that if I weren't depressed? And no, don't feel depressed about being depressed or worry that you will never stop worrying ;-). Once that's done, you can let that thought drop, but not before.

Thanks for the clarification, I see what you mean. The distinction between repetitive, droning thoughts and actively reasoning about the problem makes sense.

May I make a comment? So first let me say you are right, it's bad to avoid negative thoughts. I think you made a very valid counterpoint and I updated on it. So I (now) think this is something one has to be careful with.

However, at times in one's life these depressive thoughts can be so overwhelming that none of them get the attention they need because the person just doesn't have the energy for them. So this has at least given me the chance to start fixing these thoughts, one at a time, instead of all at once.

When I find myself thinking of something during meditation, I try to reestablish my focus and in the process I just drop the thought. I think that's correct during formal meditation, but dropping an unpleasant thought after noting it in daily life is wrong, as it leads to avoidance.

I agree, that's something to be careful of. I think it depends on what kind of formal meditation practice you're trying to do. Concentration meditation (such as zhiné from Tibetan dream yoga) encourages you to focus solely on the object in question and to let thoughts drop. Apparently that trains a different part of the brain than does mindfulness meditation. (See The Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness, Destructive Emotions, and Mindsight for some of the research behind that claim.) Formal mindfulness meditation focuses on just being aware of thoughts as they arise without getting "sucked in" such that you lose awareness of your surroundings. My own experience with this has been that ugh fields and related phenomena seem to become much, much easier to notice as a result of mindfulness meditative practices.

The other effect is that it seems to function as some sort of intra-brain communication.

This is not so surprising. Intra-brain conflicts are well-established neuro-psychological phenomena, primarily on account of the presence of two hemispheres being thinly connected by axon fibres. There is a degree of modularity in the brain, because each hemisphere tends to work within its own sphere as a general rule.

I am curious to know: which hand/finger generally exhibits these non-verbal cues for you to recognize and label particular thoughts consciously?

My dominant hand, the right. Specifically the pointer finger. Sometimes, if my right hand is occupied, it will happen with my left hand. However, I usually get upset if it does, because it feels like I'm messing something up. I hate how bizarre this sounds, but it's as if my hands are speaking in homophones and the left hand has a slower, deeper pitch, so the word/gesture has a different meaning when coming from the left hand.

Interesting. I thought it would be. The left-hemisphere (controlling the right hand) is inhibitory of right-hemispheric activity, and so it would seem you've found a way for your left to counteract negative thinking patterns (which are typical of right-hemispheric thought).

Anyone willing to write a summary?

In a previous post . . .

More data! This apparently is also an awesome way to deal with the heebie jeebies of walking alone at night.

I think you tend to get that signal for a very good reason, and it's not generally not a signal you want to turn off.

I should have clarified. It helps me deal with the heebie jeebies of walking in my backyard alone at night.

Thanks, that makes more sense :-)

True, but identifying it can lead to action, not necessarily suppressing it. (E.g. I notice I am unsettled, let me consciously and rationally examine my environment for threats.)

[-][anonymous]6y 0

I'd also like to see more data. Not for the same reason specifically though. This whole approach is really incredible. I'm so impressed. Is anyone else here willing to give it a go and report back?

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I've been trying this today and early results are encouraging. Every time I have a negative or limiting self-thought I make a double-clicking motion, and remind myself to not to reinforce negative beliefs.

It happens more than I would have predicted!

I like the "double click" analogy. If I started this for something I wanted to avoid, I'd do a "right click left click" for "open context menu, click close".

Reminds me of hanging spells...

I've been using this for the last couple of days. I have a tendency to clench my teeth without paying attention, and I suspect that this leads to headaches. Labeling the teeth-clenching forces me to notice it so I can stop. It's already had some effect, and I'm hopeful that continuing effort will get rid of it.

I've been trying it for the last couple of days. Current I have a gesture where I trace a lower case letter 'n' in the air for negative thoughts (I've had similar depressive tendencies to you) and 'd' for 'distraction' (my anxiety issues cause me to find distracting activities rather than concentrate on the task at hand that is causing me distress). So far it has been quite helpful its definitely interesting to notice when I'm distracting myself semi-subconsciously.

I'm also trying a 'p' gesture for when I'm going over past thoughts, a sideways gesture of dismissal to get something true but irrelevant off my mind and consciously smiling when I notice I'm thinking happy thoughts. But these aren't as rigorous as yet.

I'll report on my results later. Any comments on my methodology?

It sounds like a very good start. I can easily see how the use of letter can help with remembering the gestures. Let me know how the distraction one goes especially, because I have similar issues currently.

I'd say just monitor the process carefully. One, by trying to learn multiple gestures at once, you risk burning out on all of them. The two week timeframe seems like a good counter to that. Also, as I mentioned, be careful with a gesture for negative thoughts, especially because you have it linked to a letter. The gesture should be as general and sensation-linked as possible. That way you don't ever spark negative thoughts as a result of the gesture.

This seemed long enough that it shouldn't go in discussion. However, if anyone thinks otherwise, let me know and I'll move it.

Being long is not a disqualifier for being in discussion. In fact, every main post could go into discussion; the question is whether a post deserves to be in main.

After reflecting upon your statement, I believe that I committed a case of attribute substitution. I substituted "Is this a fully fleshed out idea?" with "Is this a long post?". Although, on further reflection, being fleshed out is perhaps necessary but definitely not sufficient for main.

Ah. This did not occur to me, since I tend to regard length as a cost.