In this post, I follow up on how detached mindfulness can be applied in therapy and in everyday situations. This is my last post in the series Inside the Mind of a Metacognitive Therapist. You may want to catch up on the other posts as well if this topic has your interest.
In Adrian Well’s handbook on metacognitive therapy, Metacognitive Therapy for Anxiety and Depression (1, 2011), he describes 10 detached mindfulness (DM) techniques. In this post, I point to the techniques that I use the most. I do not use all the techniques in a single therapy course. I choose techniques from client to client and from session to session.
DM helps a person change the way he or she responds to thoughts. Using the techniques, I make sure that DM is used appropriately with the right goal in mind. DM can be achieved by techniques, but it can also be achieved by simply asking meta-level questions, such as:
- Are you the belief or the person that observes and uses that belief?
- Is that thought important or is it a passing event in your mind?
- Can you see yourself as separate from that idea?
- In future, can you separate your sense of self from the mere occurrence of that thought?
DM is used to re-discover the control of extended thinking processes (the so-called CAS – The Cognitive Attentional Syndrome). Therefore, all the techniques that I mention are used in an already established meta-level dialogue, and they cannot effectively stand alone.
Here is an example of a meta-level dialogue: Just before practicing a technique, I ask something like: “How much do you believe that you can leave a thought alone at this moment, if I ask you to – from 0-100%?” After having practiced a technique, I might follow up like: “Considering this new evidence, how much do you now believe that you can leave a thought alone from 0-100%?“.
After having practiced in the session, homework could be to postpone any problematic extended thinking process, such as worry or rumination, about a specific matter or about some thoughts. This is how you apply DM to an everyday situation. You simply spend less time dealing with specific thoughts over the course of therapy.
You might experience that dealing with thoughts is different from actually solving problems, and that solving problems gets easier when you are not overthinking.
This kind of homework can help you re-discover that you have control over the CAS. In the beginning of therapy, you might postpone worry for a short period of time, but with practice it gets easier and you get more confident, meaning that your metacognitive belief about uncontrollability will decrease.
You will have to re-visit your uncontrollability belief again and again while considering your new evidence in order to challenge and change that belief.
Detached Mindfulness Techniques
The Free-Association Task
In this task, I ask you to watch your thoughts that are triggered spontanously by different words that I say. I want you to observe your stream of thoughts – no matter the content. The aim is to passively observe whatever your mind produces by itself – instead of engaging with it. To see what your mind comes up with, without getting caught up in any thinking process about it.
The task is introduced in the following way by Adrian Wells (1):
So that you can become familiar with using detached mindfulness, it is helpful to practice in response to spontaneous events in your mind. By doing this you can learn to relate to these events in a new way. In a moment I will say a series of words to you. I would like you to allow your mind to roam freely in response to each word. Do not control or analyze what you think, merely watch how your mind responds. You may find that nothing much happens, but you may find that pictures come into your mind. It doesn’t really matter what happens. Your task is to passively watch what happens without trying to influence anything. Try this with your eyes closed. I’m going to say some words now… (1, p. 81-82).
After completing the free-association task, I ask you about what you noticed when you observed your thoughts.
Was it possible to leave your thoughts alone? Some of them? If not, we try again (and again) to take the observer perspective. If you get caught up in your thinking process while practising, you will be asked to merely observe that as well. In this way, you will return to the observer perspective. Most people say that it is rather easy to leave neutral thoughts alone, while negative thoughts are difficult. We practice with all kinds of thoughts to gain confidence.
The Suppression–Countersuppression Experiment
In this task, you will experience the difference between leaving thoughts alone (detached mindfulness) and trying to control or avoid them. This distinction is very important as thought control can backfire!
When you try to stop thoughts, it is a kind of active engagement with them. It is like pushing a beach ball under water. How can you push a beach ball under water and not be in contact with it and not use energy?
When you try to supress a thought like that, it gets a place in your mind as you need to be aware of the thought to see whether it is there or not. You can try the following task yourself to see what happens.
The task is introduced in the following way by Adrian Wells (1):
For the next 3 minutes I don’t want you to think about a blue giraffe. Don’t allow yourself to have any thought connected with it, try to push it away. Off you go.
What did you notice? Did you think of a blue giraffe?
Let’s now try detached mindfulness and see what happens.
For the next 3 minutes let your mind roam freely and if you have thoughts of blue giraffes I want you to watch them in a passive way as part of an overall landscape of thoughts. Try that now.What did you notice? How important was the thought of the blue giraffe the second time around? (p. 82-83).
The Daydream Technique
The daydream technique is used to separate your sense of self from your thoughts. It is used to explore the difference between having thoughts and being thoughts.
When we daydream, we think about memories or imagary places, as if they are happening right now. Sometimes, the daydream can be experienced as a movie that is playing within our minds – even to a degree where we no longer pay attention to what is going on around us. We become completely immersed in them, which illustrates a complete inner focus.
The technique can be introduced in this way:
Try to be aware of your location at this moment in time. Notice that you exist entirely separately from your thoughts right now.
Now try to image a pleasant daydream, such as driving an exotic car or sipping champagne on a Caribbean beach. What is it like to be right there? Try to allow the daydream to continue, give it its own space in your mind. While you do so, notice that you are the observer of the daydream as it unfolds (p. 85).
The Passenger Metaphor
The passenger metaphor can be used to illustrate what it is like to step back from thoughts or detach from thoughts:
It is helpful to think of yourself as a passenger waiting for a train. Your mind is like a busy station and your thoughts and feelings are the trains passing through. There is no point in trying to stop and climb aboard a train that is passing by. Just be a bystander and watch your thoughts pass through (p. 84).