Noting Practice: A Quick & Simple Tool for Worried Thinking


Picture a a fish swimming along, minding it's own business, and then all of the sudden it gets caught by a fishing hook and starts being pulled this way and that way, struggling to free itself. As humans we can related to this experience when it comes to our thinking. We can be walking down the street, minding our own business, and then all of the sudden, a train of worried thoughts bombards our mind and pulls us around. We have a hard time shaking the thoughts and may try to get rid of them, only to find they come back twofold. In this post I'll introduce you to a simple tool called "noting", offering two ways of applying this technique in your daily life.

Trying To Get Rid of Thoughts Backfires.

Maybe you’ve had the experience where you try to distract yourself from uncomfortable thoughts or stop them, but somehow they end up stronger and become more of a problem. I know I’ve been in this situation. Relying on stopping or deleting thoughts and memories for your well-being is tenuous, not only because it can backfire and thoughts gain even more momentum, but also because it’s not always possible to simply stop thinking a thought. Think about anytime you’ve received the frustrating advice to “just stop worrying about it!” Pretty sure we would all be doing that if we could! So pause for a moment and explore this idea for yourself;

  • Pick a self critical thought that often runs through your mind, for example, "I'm a bad Mom" or "I'll never be a good enough friend".

  • Now delete this thought from your memory completely.

If you were able to successfully delete that thought from your memory, that’s great! But if you struggled with that and are starting to get curious about an alternative to resisting or stopping thoughts, continue on!

Acceptance & Creating Space

An alternative option to thought stopping or resisting thoughts, is practicing acceptance. Noting practices help us train our mind in acceptance instead of avoidance. Acceptance of thoughts doesn’t mean we love them, with acceptance we’re neither chasing after them nor running away from the thoughts that arise. We’re just noticing what’s here and getting a little space. We’re unhooking from thoughts, and stepping back to simple observe what is here. Now try this thought experiment to play around with the idea of acceptance.

  • Bring to mind again a self critical thought that you often struggle with.

  • Now instead of trying to delete it, just allow the thought to be here. Maybe you can mentally whisper "yes", or "ok, this can be here"

Now notice what that felt like to just allow the thought to be there instead of trying to push it away. Compare that to your experience above of trying to delete the thought.

Basic Noting Practice Instructions

So now maybe you're open to the idea of playing around with accepting thoughts vs pushing them away. Noting practice is perfect for practicing this on the spot throughout the day as intrusive, unhelpful or sticky thoughts pop up. The basic instruction for this practice is simply to mentally note any processes that are happening inside of you. This could be one of the following; thinking, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling.

If you're caught up in worry, the labelling or noting will likely be more focused on thinking. You could be more specific and categorize the mental processes too if you'd like, for example; worrying, planning, catastrophizing, feeling sad, feeling anxious, etc. After you note what's happening, take a nice deep breath in and out, and come back to whatever you're doing in that moment. It's important to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude towards whatever is arising. If you notice judgement coming up, simply note that as well.

  1. Label/note mental processes that are happening (thinking, worrying, planning etc.)

  2. Take a deep breath and come back to the present moment

  3. Maintain a nonjudgmental, kind attitude towards your experience.

Noting Practice For Stickier Thoughts

Sometimes the thoughts are extra sticky and it can be helpful to have an additional tool in your back pocket. When this happens I like to draw upon this exercise that I was first introduced to from psychologist Russ Harris. We'll be practicing acceptance again, and creating a little more space for our thought to exist in instead of being totally caught up in a cloud of thinking. Pick a thought that's somewhat stressful but not overwhelmingly so, a mild frustration. Walk through the following steps using your thought:

  1. Fuse with your mild frustration, bring this thought to mind and turn up the volume on it for a moment

  2. Now mentally whisper this sentence before your thought "I'm thinking... (insert your thought)"

  3. Take a deep breath and then mentally whisper this sentence before your thought, "I'm having the thought that... (insert your thought)".

  4. Take another deep breath and mentally whisper this sentence before your thought, "I notice that I'm having the thought that...(insert your thought)".

Take a moment to notice what that felt like. You didn't try to erase your thought, but hopefully you found that you were able to get a bit more space from the frustrating thought as you went through each step. To use this practice on the spot, you don't have to walk through all of these steps. Simply pick one of the three spacious sentences to focus on placing before troubling thoughts and practice with it throughout the day!

How Formal Meditation Can Support Noting Practice

In some forms of meditation, the basic instruction is to note your thoughts and come back to your anchor (oftentimes your breath). Practicing meditation can help train your mind to more easily drop into noting practices on the spot in your day to day life. It can be hard to pick up the practice of noting as a new habit, and meditation can support you in this. Meditation is not necessary for noting practice, but it's definitely a helpful support and may be worth experimenting with if noting resonates with you and you'd like to go further with your practice. Check out this quick 3 minute meditation if you'd like to give meditation a try.

Wishing You Spaciousness & Ease.

I love noting practices, because the instructions are so simple, and applying them takes only a brief moment. I know these practices have been immensely helpful to myself and my clients in our journeys towards learning how to more effectively work with our minds, and I hope you find these tools helpful in unhooking a bit from unhelpful thoughts!