How a 'Noting Practice' Can Help You Calm Negative Thinking
August 23, 2018
Am I going to be late? Will I make a good impression? Why did I forget to buy groceries again? Why I always do this? How many steps have I walked today? Why am I such a sloth?
And so on. And so forth. These, as they say, are the days of our lives.
Throughout the day, so many thoughts can pop into our brains. Tens of thousands, actually. And yet, most of the time, they run through wildly, without being checked or stopped or taken measure of in any real way. This is the equivalent of picking up a 400-page novel and skimming through, never stopping to absorb a full sentence.
But there’s a simple way off this mental racetrack. It's called a “noting practice,” and it’s about to change how you experience each day and all the emotions that come with it. Think of it like this: Instead of skimming a book and getting overwhelmed by everything, “noting” is like dogearing a page out of that novel, telling yourself "this is interesting" but giving yourself space to read on, too.
Kristin Neff writes about the practice in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself: “The idea is to make a soft mental note whenever a particular thought, emotion, or sensation arises. This helps us to become more consciously aware of what we're experiencing. If I note that I feel angry, for instance, I become consciously aware that I'm angry...this then provides me with the opportunity to respond wisely to my current circumstances.”
We can use noting to become more self-aware and separate ourselves from being the thought, feeling, or emotion. But how, exactly, does it work?
"We can notice what is happening—an angry thought, a fear, a throbbing sensation in our temple—without falling into the trap of thinking that we are defined by this anger, fear, or pain,” writes Neff.
Writer and meditation expert Jennifer Howd also swears by the technique—and used it during a recent meditation session when she caught herself worrying, wanting, and fantasizing. Simply putting a label on these emotions brought her back to the present: Oh, so that’s what I’m doing!
Here’s how you can harness the magic of a noting practice in your own life.
1. Observe When You Catch Big Feels
Y’all know what I’m talking about. Maybe your heart is beating fast. You feel angry, or overwhelmed, or sad. You’re feeling capital-f Feelings, whatever they are. Take a second to acknowledge these Big Emotions. (And don’t judge yourself for them!)
2. Make a Little Mental Note
This sounds super basic, but it’s actually more complex than it seems. What exactly are you feeling?
Is it worry?
Literally putting a label over your Big Emotion can bring it from the unconscious tornado part of your mind into the more structured, conscious part of your mind. Suddenly, it has a name. Oh, I’m just scared, you might think. But what is there actually to be scared of? Maybe something—or maybe nothing.
3. Tweak Your Response
This is where the true magic of the noting practice comes in. Once you notice your feeling as something you're experiencing—not something you are—it becomes easier to deal with. You'll realize you can still choose how to respond to this inconvenient feeling. You aren’t defined by your emotion—these temporary thoughts can’t hijack your life. From here, you can move on to changing your actions and responses.
If you’ve ever gone through an entire day feeling kinda blah, then suddenly think to yourself, Wait, I’m just tired! Maybe I could go to sleep earlier today, or sneak in a nap in the afternoon. Or even just grab a second cup of coffee. Noting feels like that—figuring out what exactly is happening, giving it a name, and changing your response.
The beauty is that you can do it anywhere, at any time. You don’t have to cultivate a deeper practice or spend time studying terminology or unrolling a yoga mat (although, of course, those all have their perks, too).
I tried the noting practice myself during a particularly frenzied day this week. I was running from one appointment to another and found myself stressing out about a myriad of topics, from a far-away deadline to whether I would need an umbrella later that day. (Classic spiraling!)
For a just a second though, I wrenched myself off the emotional merry-go-round and thought, What is it I’m feeling? And the answer was surprising: I was worried. I wasn’t actually angry or annoyed or upset. I was worried. Then my brain could deal with my emotions rationally and objectively. What was I actually worried about? What could I do to change that?
Soon, a path became clear—and my brain did, too. And that, in a nutshell, is what noting can do for you.