Distress Acceptance with Mindfulness

What is mindfulness?
You may have heard the word mindfulness a lot lately. It’s become a social media buzzword revolving around acceptance and doing activities wholeheartedly. You might be wondering what exactly mindfulness is all about and where it comes from. Mindfulness is when you are focused in the present moment; it is a state of being where you observe and take in whatever you are experiencing as is and without judgment. Mindfulness has been practiced in many forms for hundreds of years. It can be traced back to Eastern religious practices, with roots mainly in Buddhism and Hinduism. But mindfulness as it is utilized in our society does not necessarily have a basis in religion or spirituality. Recently, the idea of accepting experiences and situations as they are and without judgment has made mindfulness a beneficial resource in therapeutic settings.


Acceptance without judgment
When you are experiencing an uncomfortable situation, it can be very difficult to practice the idea of acceptance. However, accepting your stressful situation does not mean you have to enjoy being uncomfortable or focus on the experience. This acceptance is about recognizing your emotions for what they are—emotions. By accepting the emotions you are feeling, you may be able to change the way the negative emotions are impacting you. There are many ways you can accept distress as you experience it in your life:


  • Observe your emotions: Step back and recognize the feelings you are experiencing. Act as if you are a neutral party watching whatever you are feeling in the moment. Remember, you are not your emotions—you are simply experiencing
  • Label your emotions: Give a name to the emotions you are having. Describe each emotion as it increases, decreases, or changes in feeling.
  • Be non-judgmental toward your emotions: After watching and labeling what you are feeling, realize that it is exactly that: just a feeling. The emotion is not good, and it is not bad. It just is.
  • Visualization: Utilizing imagery and personal visualization can help to distance yourself from your feelings. With visualization, you can have the outsider perspective of watching your emotions manifest in your body; recognize and label them as emotions; watch them change and develop; and accept them as they occur.


Emotion visualization exercise
One way to practice the acceptance of emotions is to engage in a visualization exercise. A popular method for this exercise is to imagine your emotions as leaves on a stream*:

  • Find a comfortable position to keep yourself in for a few moments. Some people find it beneficial to close their eyes as they practice this exercise.
  • Visualize yourself near a stream or a river. You can visualize this however you would like. Maybe you are on a bridge overlooking the water, or maybe you are sitting next to the water. Take a few moments to breathe.
  • As you begin to feel, take each feeling and label it. Give a name to the emotion and place it on a leaf as it floats downstream. Label and place every feeling or thought. It can be a feeling you enjoy, or it can be a feeling you dislike. Simply place it on a leaf.
  • Watch as the leaves continue downstream, eventually leaving your sight. The stream may be slow, or it may be fast. Let it move at the pace you desire. If it takes a few moments to name other feelings, that is okay. Just continue to watch as the emotions come into your mind, label them, place them, and watch them drift away on the water.

*Adapted from—Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger publications, Inc.


Why this exercise?
This exercise might be difficult at first. You might find it boring, or you may find yourself distracted. That’s okay. Put those feelings and thoughts you are experiencing onto the leaves as well. This exercise is helpful because it helps you practice recognizing emotions as they are. You are paying attention to them, labeling, and eventually tolerating them, instead of reacting to and ignoring them. This will help you to fully experience being in the present moment and managing your emotions mindfully.

Wayne State University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers free, confidential counseling services to currently registered WSU students. Please visit the CAPS website at or call 313-577-3398 for further information.

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