Our thinking mind often has a life of its own. It produces a lot of thoughts, some of them neutral, some useful or positive, and if you are a worrier - a lot of them automatically negative. Like a train, they stack one after another, travelling in directions that we are not always aware of. The result of those invisible worrying thoughts? It's the jinx of the modern living - anxiety, depression, overwhelming emotions, disconnection.
So, how is this exercise going to help you? Mental noting will make you more aware of your thoughts and emotions. By doing this, they will have less control over you and you will have more freedom to choose what to do with your own life.
This exercise is going to be divided in two levels: the first one will be a little easier, and the second will be a little more advanced. Both of them are a version of the essence of mental noting. Level one is going to refer to mentally noting only your thoughts, while level two will include not only noting your thoughts, but also every other experience that might arise in you: emotion, physical sensation, events that were distracting, important or upsetting to you, etc.
Mental Noting Thoughts
Find a comfortable place where you won't be disturbed. Take a piece of paper, and set a timer for 5 minutes. Try to be in tune with the content of your thoughts. As you become aware of what you are thinking about, on the paper start writing your thoughts. Keep it short - don't analyze your thoughts, simply notice what you are thinking about at the moment and write it down. Then, keep being aware of your next thought. Little by little, you will practice being cognitively mindful throughout those 5 minutes.
Mental noting does not mean trying to control your thoughts, you are simply describing them, you are witnessing them. Try not to see this as a chore, instead be attentive and remember that you are practicing the mindfulness muscle.
So, how will this look like? One example of mentally noting your thoughts for 5 minutes would look like this:
I am thinking about how my work day went.
I am thinking about my dog.
I am thinking about the movie that I saw yesterday.
I am thinking about the plot of the book that I'm reading.
Use the form "I am thinking about X".
Mental Nothing Experiences
While the first part only referred to noting your thoughts, this part will refer to noting your thoughts, emotions, observations, physical sensations and thoughts about events. Basically, you will mentally note any experience that may arise in you.
Take a piece of paper, and set a timer for 10 minutes. Don't analyze or judge your experiences. You are simply describing them as an objective observer.
Instead of saying: I can't believe how depressed I feel! Another day where I won't be able to do anything useful.
try: I can notice sadness and depressed mood inside me. I also feel unmotivated and tired to do anything.
Instead of saying: I don't know how I'm going to make ends meet this month. I don't how I'll manage, everything is just going to be worse.
try: I am thinking about not having enough money. I feel hopeless, and I keep thinking negative things about the future.
You can notice that by describing the experiences (emotions, thoughts, events), instead of analyzing or judging them, you peel of a layer of unnecessary and useless suffering. Maybe you do have an objective problem, a negative feeling or thought, or an inconvenient event, but if you are being overly reactive to it, you make the whole situation even more difficult for you! This is why mental noting can bring some clarity and calmness.
There are several useful forms that you can use when mentally noting your experiences:
- I feel the emotion X.
- I am thinking about Y.
- When I think about X, the emotion Y occurs in me.
- When the event X happens, I feel Y and my thoughts are Z.
Some other useful examples that can show you how exactly you should note your experiences are:
I feel anxious when I'm thinking about finding a parking space tomorrow.
When I'm having an argument with my boyfriend (event), I feel extremely angry.
I am thinking about how hard it is for me to meet new people, and that makes me feel sad.
I feel irritable, and that makes me feel like arguing with my family.
After my retirement (event), I feel very lonely.
Print out this worksheet and use it to capture your thoughts. This will help you get the full impact from for the exercise.
It's my first time trying to mentally note my thoughts and I find it difficult. How can I make this exercise easier for me?
As with all new techniques, mental noting may require a bit of practice before you can start feeling familiar with it. Try not to think of the exercise as too difficult or serious and gently bring your awareness to your thoughts. What is the first thing that you are aware you are thinking? Write it down. Keep doing it, and don't worry if you are doing the exercise perfectly well because it takes practice to do that. Keep a lighter attitude and try to do it.
If I have an objective problem, like not having enough money or being depressed, how will mental noting solve that problem?
Mental noting is about observing our outlook on the events inside and outside ourselves. Objective problems, negative feelings and thoughts and unfortunate events are part of the human experience. But, by being too reactive to these negative experiences we might not see the solution to them. Mental noting brings a clarity which will allow you to eventually choose what to do with a certain situation. Gradually you will stop seeing the problems as hopeless bits of destiny but simply as events that are currently happening and that can be changed.
I feel like I'm writing down my experiences in a monotonous way.
Try not to see this exercise as a chore. After all, you are doing it for yourself and your well-being. Remind yourself that by practicing this mindfulness exercise you will calm the distracting thoughts and emotions, and you will have more freedom to choose what to do in a certain situation. Be aware of what the point of the exercise is. Know that when you become aware of a thought, that thought has less of an impact on you and it won't direct your behavior as much as it used to.