What Does It Mean to "Label Your Thoughts?"

by Kirstie Bones

In the book "Get Out Of Your Mind & Into Your Life" by Stephen C. Hayes Ph.D, "labeling is a way to create some distance between yourself and the contents of you private experiences" and keep you grounded in the present.  

There's a difference between saying "I am depressed" and "I'm having the feeling of being depressed." One can be considered ingrained in your identity or your perception of self, while the other is an acknowledgement of a specific experience as just that, one of a myriad of human experiences. 

For a long time I used to say "I'm so anxious.." or "my anxiety..." when I was experiencing distress. I resigned to the idea that anxiety was just a part of my identity, and that there was not much I could do to change that. I let it dictate a lot of the decisions I made on a daily basis. My world became smaller as a result. I started learning about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and one of the practices that really helped me was "Labeling." When you label your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and experiences, you effectively create "breathing room" between yourself and the content of your experiences. You begin to untangle them from your identity, and come back to the present moment. Labeling helps to show you how fleeting and temporary these states are.  

So when I would feel the prick of anxiety on my butt (I know, so weird, but that's where I notice the panic hits me first physically), I would tell myself "Ok I'm having the feeling of anxiety and I'm feeling the bodily sensation of prickliness on my butt." Sometimes, that's enough to make me giggle a little and defuse from the anxiety, which is great! Less work for me. But sometimes when things are especially difficult I can label for 5-10 minutes until I feel well enough to get back into something productive.

If you decide to try out labeling, do it consistently for at least a week and see how it helps to lower your distress levels. 




infographic showing labeling exercise