This is Part 2 of a series on Distress Tolerance. Part 1| Part  3

The following tools are variations of cognitive therapy and other thought-work exercises. These are useful when you want to feel better by way of noticing and amending the scripts, contents, sequences, stories and wordings of the mind.

Why this works: the brain works like a radio, picking up messages from the particular mental radio station you’re tuned into. As Anne Lamott says, if you’re tuned in to KFKT (pronounce K-f-worded, of course), then that’s the broadcast you’ll hear. A lot of people are tuned into that right now.

There are many ways to tune the dial to something else, (maybe KLUV?) and in states of acute distress, I favor the Body Tools I shared in part 1, because body is where it’s all taking place, ultimately.

But since we experience life through multiple channels of awareness which do not cause each other directly but are more like co-arising, we can really therapeutically intervene with ourselves wherever works for us (I say more about the different channels of experience here.)

In general even if we’re not particularly cerebral people it is wise for us to do our best to become aware of the way thoughts appear in the mind, how we can source them, change them to better fit our true heart’s intentions, choices and perceptions, and so on.

I am not talking about forced or toxic positivity, but rather feeling into one’s own chosen perspective. Sensing the difference between the thoughts currently in our headspace and the thoughts we would like to have, the thoughts we would choose if we felt more able to choose them. Gradually we may recover that ability.

Remembering we have influence over which thoughts we tolerate to linger in our minds, which thoughts we voice with others, and which ideas we transmit out into the collective.

In that spirit, here are a few exercises that have worked for me & my clients over the years. You can probably tell they are partly adapted from the work of others and partly made up, and I invite you to do the same as you customize for your purposes.

1. Body Log

Describe the emotion/mental state in terms of physical sensations as though to a third party who has no idea what suffering feels like and needs you to explain it in terms of body sensations. Eg. “What I’m going through feels like there’s a compression, a tightening all around the chest area, a kind of dead feeling in my arms, like they feel too heavy to lift, kind of inert and powerless, etc. My mouth is very dry. My head feels like it’s in a vice.” If you have a supportive witness, do this with a partner, otherwise say it out loud to yourself or write it down.

2. Flip the Record

a) Write down everything negative you’re feeling & thinking right now however it comes out by writing “I don’t like…” For example, “I don’t like the sensation of feeling rattled and jangled, like my nerves are on edge”.

b) Flip the record over & play the other side. Use each negative statement to identify what you DO like and want, what you value and love that is the opposite of what you wrote down as sthg you don’t like. Really dig into that, writing three sentences about it for every 1 line of negativity you wrote down.

In this example, “I love how it feels when my whole body is warm, open and relaxed. I love the sensations of ease, comfort, when I feel liquid and open, and my breath feels full and delicious. It’s like that feeling of lying down on warm sand after being in really cool ocean water, when you’re all tingly & the ocean is still crashing in your ears a bit, I love that feeling, and when my body feels awake and alive but super warm and safe and I can just feel heat seeping into me from the sand.” Go on and on if you like, like I just did.

3. Magnifying Glass

a) Draw a large circle with a handle on a piece of paper (your magnifying glass). Underneath, write down a positive, present tense statement of what you DO want to have or experience, such as “I want to experience a peaceful state of mind”.

b) Inside the circle write 12 positive statements of facts that provide shreds of evidence (can be so small that you would need a magnifying glass to find them, is the idea) that what you want is possible, something you experienced in the past, on its way, or maybe even already here a little bit and in some ways.

In the above example of “I want to experience a peaceful state of mind”, I wrote this: “1. My toes seem totally peaceful, I really don’t sense any stress there. They’re not part of this whole stress thing. 2. I recall that in the past, I have had periods of feeling peaceful, so it’s possible. For example I just described how it felt to get out of the ocean and lie down on the sand, that was only in August. I felt peaceful then, which shows my body is capable of producing that feeling. 3. I’m pretty sure that at the latest, tonight when I fall asleep I’ll have some peace even if I’m not awake for it. My body makes peace feelings all the time. 4) I feel at peace about some things, such as the fact that it’s spring. I love spring and winter is behind us for now, we’re in the bright half of the year now.” And so on.

4. WHAT IF…

With the same level of excitement that children use when they play pretend, shouting “WHAT IF…”, use your imagination to think up at least twelve wonderful scenarios, a bit like the John Lennon song Imagine, except way more flamboyant. Please don’t worry about reality. Come up with at least 12 statements, challenging yourself to go bigger and bigger into more and more wonderful flights of fancy. If you’re with a fun/safe friend, ideally shout these back and forth with great enthusiasm.

For example,

Me: “WHAT IF…. we woke up tomorrow and someone had transferred 1 million dollars into each of our accounts, with messages that said, ‘I love you, spend it however you like, there’s more if you run out. ~Sincerely, Anonymous’. !”

You: “WHAT IF…. we had a super cute pet koala named Keiko, that would just ride around on our back all day hugging us!”

Me: “WHAT IF…”

ad infinitum.

Please be ludicrous.

5. The Upside

With your current negative situation, try to identify at least 12 possible upsides that maybe aren’t initially obvious. Can also be potentials, like “Maybe after I get through all this, I will feel more connected to my colleagues than I did before.”

Start out with the easy stuff: “Pollution has gone down, the dolphins came back to Italy, hooray for dolphins!” And gradually work up to things that may feel like more of a stretch, like “Humanity is evolving and transforming through this suffering, and it will bring out our gifts and cause us to mature. This is like our adolescence but we are totally going to turn into fantastic adults.” etc. Push yourself, but don’t go too far into things you can’t believe, or it won’t feel good. For example, I can’t say “This is actually a good thing & I’m so glad it’s happening” because that’s too far for me.

6. Find the Cognitive Error

Using a list of common cognitive errors, (this is a CBT thing) identify which ones may be contributing to your current bad feelings:

~All or nothing thinking (black or white)

~Overgeneralization (making a single instance into an “always” or “never”)

~Mental filter (dwelling on a part of the truth & ignoring the rest)

~Discounting the positive (a type of filter that filters out all positive thoughts, focusing on negative only & not believing in positives)

~Jumping to conclusions (thinking you know what something means or how it will turn out)

~Magnification (exaggerating the importance of something)

~Emotional reasoning (because I feel this way, it’s true)

~Shoulding (using should-statements to judge self or others)

~Labeling (giving things bad names or labels, putting things or people in boxes)

~Personalization (thinking things are about you, when they aren’t)

~Blame (looking for someone to blame)

7. Bigger context

Write down what feels “true” right now, then write 12 statements that add bigger context. It won’t work if you apply denial, simply saying “it’s not true”, but rather look for tucking it within a larger perspective, a truer, bigger truth, that works for you.

For example, for me: “We’re all going to die” can be contextualized by adding: “We all die at some point. It’s true that some of us will die and some have already died due in part to this particular virus, and that causes heartache which hurts us all really badly and is really sad. However at the moment the vast majority of us are brimming with life. New babies are being born, trees are growing new leaves. There is plenty of aliveness all over the place. Anyway I believe death of the body isn’t the end of the consciousness, but more like leaves falling from the tree, to be composted by the earth. There may be a reason I can’t currently see, that will help it all hang together once I see that piece…” And so on.

If these particular thoughts don’t work for you, don’t worry, that’s exactly the point– you have to find the thoughts that work for you.

8. Acceptance

This exercise is like taking a horrible, painful thought out of its isolation and putting it in a bath of ok-ness where it can slowly be digested, transformed & reintegrated.

Write down all the unacceptable things. Now write out statements in the following format, “Even though [xyz is the case], I completely love and accept myself fully and totally no matter what”. The latter part of the sentence does not need to feel logically related to the first part, because what you are accepting is your own feeling state about it. Can be used any way, as in

“Even though the news is very frightening, I completely love and accept myself fully and totally no matter what.”

Or, “Even though I am triggered into a state of negativity right now, I completely love and accept myself …”

Or, if this is what’s going on for you, “Even though we’re totally doomed, I completely love and accept myself…”

9. Noticing thoughts

a) Write a painful/scary thought you are having.

b) Place that thought in a sentence that begins “I notice there is a thought in my mind that says…”

This practice gradually puts you in neutral witness observer mode.

Example: when the original thought is “The authorities are doing everything wrong!” reframe it to “I notice there is a thought in my mind that says the authorities are doing everything wrong”. Take note of any difference in your experience as you distance from thoughts that take place in and around you.

10. Tell a different story

Tell the story starting with once upon a time there was a…and start with your current situation. Make up a narrative in which things turn out wonderfully, exquisitely, beautifully, with a surprisingly amazing and heartwarming ending. Tell this story to someone, if you like, and ask them to tell you theirs. Many cultures believe that storytelling is a form of prediction/reading the field. When you find a story that feels true, possible, and good to you, pay attention to it. Remember that stories using a hero’s journey tend to feel true and good, and ones that have no struggle fall flat.

11. Time Machine (tell the story backwards)

Imagine getting into a time machine and traveling forward in time to a point in a positive future timeline where things have worked out magnificently. Choose the moment in time which is the most perfect expression of how things could have possibly gone for your particular heart. Now tell the story backwards in time — how did that happen? For example, if you land on a peaceful version of planet earth where everyone is living sustainably in giant trees and they communicate to each other through singing, what happened before that scene? Maybe the people discovered that the trees sing, and like to be sung to. Before that, people found the giant trees. Before that, the people lived together in a safe, green valley all together for 100 years while they recovered from the negative events. Before that, people moved out of cities, planted gardens everywhere and allowed nature to regrow the cities. You get the picture!

12. 144 wishes

Simply write out 144 wishes, starting out selfish. Don’t stop until you’ve completed the list, even if you repeat yourself or write weird stuff. Allow the free flow. What often happens is you see the heart of your essential wishes so clearly, you feel more compassion for yourself, and/or sometimes more hopeful, or at least in acceptance of yourself and your feelings.

As I hope these sample exercises show, variations are potentially infinite and if you like to, play with it. Best of luck and may we all learn to tune into KLUV, experiencing the peaceful thoughts that give rise to a world worth living in.

Image lovingly lifted from Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations for Rabbit Makes a Monkey of Lion, by Verna Aardema