anxiety

Overwhelming Emotion? Try Unfusing

Feeling bad? If, inside, you are saying, “I’m anxious,” or “I’m depressed,” or “I’m furious,” or any other overwhelming and unpleasant emotion, Try unfusing1—as in uncoupling—from it. Unfusing works way better than trying to wish or push away emotion. Pushing against emotions actually keeps us in contact with them (and increases the tension as an added bonus!). And wishing strong emotions away—we all know how well that works. Unfusing from emotions, in contrast, is like swimming out of deep, turbulent waters to the lapping shore. The tossing waves may still be there, but now they’re at a safe distance.

Here’s how unfusing works. Let’s take anxiety as an example (though you can use this technique with any emotion).

  1. Allow yourself to notice the feeling, and say out loud:
    “I am anxious.”
  2. Next, say out loud to yourself:
    “I am experiencing the feeling of anxiety.”
  3. Say aloud:
    “I notice I am experiencing the feeling of anxiety.”
  4. Say aloud:
    “I notice that sometimes I experience the feeling of anxiety.”
    (If it’s the first time you’ve felt anxiety, you can say “I notice that I am capable of feeling anxiety.”)

Notice how you feel now in relation to your experience before you did the unfusing. By voicing these successive variations, you are changing your inner world. The original emotion might still be there, but the “I” in every sentence (“I am experiencing… I notice…”)—this “I” is growing bigger and bigger relative to the emotion. Unfusing moves you from being anxious (“I am anxious”) to being the “I” that is experiencing and noticing and owning the emotion. You can feel your emotions in a more aware way, a way that is literally self-contained.

So, when intense emotions well up and it feels like you and the emotions are one and the same—fused together—you can unfuse from them. You may still experience them, but with greater tranquility. The emotions can be with you, and you can be with your emotions, and feel more possession of your self.


  1. This exercise is my adaptation of a concept and set of techniques in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) called defusion. See the Cognitive Fusion section of “The Six Core Processes of ACT”.
        Notes from a dictionary nerd: Why have I changed the word to unfuse? I wanted to use the word as a verb, and the verbal form of defusion, defuse, already has a meaning that is resonant in the context of strong emotions: “To remove the fuse from an explosive device” (OED). While I acknowledge that some intense emotions can lead to explosions of temper, I am loath to associate the world of human feeling with “an explosive device.” The adjective unfused was recorded in John Ash’s The new and complete dictionary of the English language (1775) as meaning “not fused, not put into a state of fusion.” This is closest to the concept that ACT is trying to get at, so I’ve shamelessly coined the verb unfuse from that adjective. 

Get Started on To-Dos Without Anxiety

It’s all in the cards

Using a to-do list can be immensely helpful. But maybe, just maybe, your to-do list might start to overwhelm you. If you find yourself struggling to scale a mountain of to-dos, starting to panic that you’ll never be able to reach the top or work your way to the bottom, and contemplating just hurling yourself off the mountainside back into bed for the rest of the day—then try this.

It’s a card game. For fun, I call it Priorities Deathmatch, or sometimes Project Thunderdome. If you don’t like those names, you can call it anything you prefer.

You will need blank cards or the equivalent; index cards, stickies, even cut-up pieces of paper.

  1. Write one to-do on each card, for all the ones you want to consider right now (i.e. if you have ten to-dos you’re considering doing, you should end up with ten cards). When you’re done writing all the cards, you may optionally shuffle them.
  2. Stack the to-do cards in front of you, face down.
  3. Pick two cards off the top and turn them over. Here are two to-dos. Choose one that strikes the best balance between (a) being important to do now, and (b) your feeling prepared and willing to do now. You must choose only one of the two. (You can see why I alternately call it Priorities Deathmatch and Project Thunderdome: two tasks enter, one task leaves).
  4. Put the losing to-do in a discard pile, and take the next card off the top of the original stack. Repeat step 3: choose one of the two to-dos.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is only one to-do left standing. Now, do your to-do. If you complete it, great! Do whatever you want with the card—toss it, frame it, give it to your dog to chew… If you don’t complete the task, write a new card for whatever remains to be done, and stick it back in your to-do deck.

When you want to tackle another to-do, play the game again (reusing the undone to-do cards), end up with one, and do it.

Why the game works

This game is based on sound psychological and neurocognitive principles.

Two is a choice, all is chaos

How many to-dos are in a long to-do list? All of them. Can you do all of them at once? No. And often that’s the feeling that comes with looking at the whole list: I can’t do all of these!

Looking at only two to-dos at a time is a straightforward choice between two things. That’s what a choice is supposed to feel like:

This one, or that one?

Simple. Not overwhelming.

Executive functioning is fundamental

The process of choosing between two items based on the specific criteria of importance and doability is essentially a complex discrimination task. You are differentiating which to-do is more important and which is less important (however greatly or slightly); which to-do is more urgent, which less (i.e. time-sensitivity); which to-do is easier and which is harder; which you feel better prepared for and which less prepared for; which more inclined to perform at this moment and which less inclined to perform. You are unitizing (seeing a whole rather than the parts) by determining that one to-do strikes the balance between importance and doability better than the other one. You are also thinking calmly about your feelings, which is a powerful way of regulating emotion without suppressing it.

In short, you are engaged in executive functioning, and lighting up your prefrontal cortex. When your prefontal cortex activates, your amygdala (which starts the fight-flight-or-freeze response) calms down. Executive functioning reduces anxiety.

One step at a time

Even simpler and easier is having only one task to do at a time. The human mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so give yourself one thing only to concentrate on and do.

The to-do card game is a simple way to replace a daunting mountain with a single cute mole hill—that you can easily whack!

Write Off Worries

Overwhelmed by too many things to do, too many situations to keep track of, too many worries about what could go wrong in all those situations? All these concerns can weigh heavily on your mind. Why not unload them? Here’s how.

  1. Get paper and pen (handwriting this is better than typing it), and make a list of everything that’s weighing and preying on you. Don’t worry about order or organization; we’ll take care of that in a later step. For now, put on paper each thought, task, nag in your head in whatever order they come in, like dealing cards off the top of a deck. When the stream slows to a trickle, add anything that’s missing. Done? Let’s do some annotating.
  2. In the margin, write “DO” next to anything that is a task you can physically accomplish.
  3. Next to anything you’re worrying about that is not a clear to-do, draw a worry-icon (a frowny-face, or a dark circle—anything simple). If it’s a task you’re worried about, you can alleviate your worry by doing it; not so with worries that have no clear DO that will make them go away. Keep DOs and worries separate.
  4. If there are any situations you want to do something about, but aren’t sure how to deal with, mark those with a “?” (or “Huh?” or “WTF”…). These are things you need more information about, to enable you to do something about them.

If you want, you can now put all the DOs, all the Worried Faces and all the ?s on their own individual sheets.

Separated from all the worries and question marks, DOs feel more doable, ’cause now they’re merely to-dos and nothing else.

Worries, when written down and separated from doable tasks, start to lose their mystery and menace: they’re merely thoughts, and often there’s nothing that need be done other than accept them.

Questions about situations are merely another kind of DO: get information. Knowing that you need to find something out is much less stressful than feeling like you have to do something but don’t know what.

Finally, notice if there are any recurring themes. You might discover that many worries are really about one or two things—work, for example, or money, or relationships.… What appear to be a multitude of worries often boil down to a few manageable categories of concern.
 

Worries are like hungry hyenas: they’re terrifying when we know they’re there but can’t see them; they’re still scary but less monstrous when they’re in front of us and we can keep an eye on them; they’re not so dangerous when separated instead of in a pack; and they’re harmless when they are mere words on a page. When you’re dogged by hungry hyenas, transmute them into ink on paper, and see who’s laughing then!

Sanctuary Visualization

Sit or lie so that you are completely comfortable. Let your eyes close.

Focus on your breath. Breathe naturally, and follow the rhythm of inhale… exhale…, as if your breaths were the sea gently washing up and back over the shore.

Relax each part of your body, one part at a time, from your feet to your head. With each breath, imagine light entering that part of your body as you inhale, and all tension draining away as you exhale:

  • Your toes—inhale light; exhale tension
  • Your feet—inhale light; exhale tension
  • Your calves—inhale…; exhale…
  • Your thighs…
  • Buttocks…
  • Pelvis…
  • Abdomen…
  • Back…
  • Chest…
  • Shoulders…
  • Upper arms…
  • Lower arms and wrists…
  • Hands and fingers…
  • Throat…
  • Back of your neck…
  • Back of your head…
  • Jaw…
  • Mouth…
  • Eyes and nose—inhale…; exhale…
  • Forehead and temples—inhale light; exhale tension
  • The top of your head—inhale light; exhale tension

In this state of relaxation, continue your breathing for a moment that lasts as long as you like.

Clear a space in your mind. Just ask everything else on your mind to step back for this moment. Your thoughts need not vanish, only stand back to give you space to be.

Let appear in that cleared space in your mind—a venerable stone stairway. This stone stairway leads down to a place that is solely for you. There are ten steps. When you want to, with one complete breath, in and out, go down the first step and hear a voice inside count:
  “10”——inhale—exhale
    With each subsequent breath, descend another step, counting down, slowly:
      “9”
        “8”
          “7”
            “6”
              “5”
                “4”
                  “3”
                    “2”
                      “1”

You may now step into your sanctuary, a beautiful, peaceful outdoor space created by your imagination, your inspiration, your intuition.

It can be a meadow, a lake, a beach, a waterfall, a grove, a mountain—any natural place where you feel completely secure and at peace. Here you are always safe and content. Here everything is beautiful and true.

No one can enter this place except you, and anyone you expressly invite in. Anyone you invite in will leave the moment you think of them leaving.

Explore your sanctuary. Walk around and discover what’s here. Let your bare feet luxuriate in the grass or sand, or whatever is on the ground. Breathe in the fragrances. Taste the air. Bask in the light and warmth. Hear the sounds—waves, breezes, rustling leaves.…

Everything here understands your every thought and feeling. If there are animals, you may communicate with them, and they will always love and obey you. You may have one or more animals who are your special companions. You can send thoughts to the flora, and every plant can soothe and heal you. Any water here is healing and refreshing when you drink or bathe in it. The air invigorates and inspires you. The light is suffused with warmth and nourishment for your spirit.

Somewhere in the landscape of your sanctuary, there is a source of fresh water; perhaps a spring, or a well, a pristine pool, a stream, an ancient fountain.… There can be more than one. The water here washes away pain, regret, error. It rinses away negative thoughts, opens your senses and pores to the light and warmth. Drinking the water cools and dissolves stuck emotions into new, lighter feelings, new understandings.

Somewhere there is a healing garden. You may create it yourself, or find it already in full bloom. You can cultivate anything you wish here: ideas, dreams, forgiveness, positive feelings, health… and anything you plant will grow. You can prune back whatever hinders your growth. You can weed out what you no longer need. You can plant things you’ve never grown before, new possibilities. Here your love and goodwill always increase.

Somewhere there is a seat for you made of stone or wood, or both, and any other material that makes it perfect for you to sit in. It is here that your Guardian—an angelic being dedicated to your welfare and best destiny—may visit you from time to time (and always when you call), and give you exactly what you need at that moment; guidance, insight, perhaps a special gift, and always comfort and reassurance.

You may stay in your sanctuary as long as your heart desires.

When you are ready to return from your sanctuary, you will find yourself at the bottom of the ancient stone staircase. Climb the ten steps, one at a time, taking a complete breath, in and out, at each step, starting with…
                      “1”——inhale—exhale
                    “2”
                  “3”
                “4”
              “5”
            “6”
          “7”
        “8”
      “9”
  “10”

You are back at the cleared space in your mind. You are rejuvenated, as you always are by a visit to your sanctuary.

Feel your breathing—in, out.…

Feel the solidity and definite shape of your body.

Feel the surfaces that are contacting and supporting your body where you are sitting or lying down.

When you’re ready, open your eyes. You feel rested, alert, energized, calm, embodied, grounded, safe, secure, assured.

You can return to your sanctuary any time you want or need. It is there, always, for you.

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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