June 16, 2014

Catch and Release

image: Don Harrison, Up North Memories 

By Crabby McSlacker

So if any of you are fishing fans hoping this might be a post about actual fishing? Sorry! Just another strained metaphor for how to optimize your brain and be happier and that kinda stuff.

Also, the post started to run long, so it's really more like "Catch and R... oh crap, I'm tired, let's finish this puppy up later." So it's just Part One, the "Catch" part.

And yeah, no actual fishing tips.  I'm not an angler.  But as a life and wellness coach, a former psychotherapist, and a lifelong crankpot neurotic whiner who has finally rewired her own brain for the better, I keep marveling at how much more important how we think and feel about the world is than mere flimsy "reality."

Like most of my advicey posts, I'm repeating stuff that has been said a million times before, much better than I can say it, though usually it doesn't come with swear words.  Cranky Fitness readers are already way well-informed, so none of this will be a big News Flash.

Yet we need reminders and motivational encouragement, right? So here's some more cheerleading:

Control your own thoughts and feelings and Rule the World!

But... how the hell do you do that?

What is "Catch and Release?"

So in order not to be bossed around and bullied by counterproductive thoughts, feelings, reactions and habits, you have to be able to Catch them, and then Release them.

Which as anyone knows who's ever tried, is simple and theory and quite a bit harder in practice.

Most of the time we run around on autopilot and don't even realize what we are saying to ourselves.  But these thoughts lead to feelings, which when they get big and nasty enough, can seem too overwhelmingly unpleasant to go poking at too deeply.

Of course, you also want to Catch and KEEP positive thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we have more of these than we realize and can build on them.  And you want to discover what kind of awesome, happy, motivational thingies you want to put in your head instead of any nasty uglies with scary teeth you end up with when you start poking around.

But more on that in a future post.  In the meantime, Rick Hanson's Hardwiring Happiness is an excellent resource for the Positive part.

And sure, not everything can be solved by tuning up your brain.  There are real-world problems that can kick your ass if you don't attend to them, and there are real world rewards and accomplishments that feel pretty damn good.  So this doesn't mean you should stop doing the stuff you need to do to put food on the table, or keep your kids from committing murder and mayhem, or run that marathon or bake awesome organic gluten free brownies or whatever.  But most people seem to spend 95% of the time looking outward at the demands of the world, and 5% inward towards their own subjective experience, and I can't help thinking that's kind of a f--cked up formula for happiness.

So, what the heck does "Catch and Release" entail?

Catch and Release Procedures

Step One: Preparation.

The great thing about "mental" catch and release, as opposed to the "wake up at 3 am and drive forever and get all soggy and sweaty and sunburnt and mosquito bitten" kind of catch and release, is that you can do it any time, anywhere, and equipment needs are minimal.

But you DO have to be prepared and cultivate the right mindset. You kinda need to accept the following principles.  This itself take a little thought and effort:

1.  Brain change takes time and energy! Checking in occasionally to discover the tapes that run through your head and noticing how they impact you, both positively and negatively, is interesting for sure! But won't get you very far. Cultivating the habit of catching and letting go of negative thoughts all day long though--that can change your life.

Sadly, it takes the same kind of motivational commitment as cleaning up a crappy diet or starting an exercise program does, which sucks, 'cause who needs another thing to nag themselves about? But on the other hand, you can control your brain while going about your work day, while running a 10K is way harder to do while composing a power-point presentation or meeting with a new client.

2.  Brain change requires a leap of faith!  You have to be willing to experiment with the idea that your own thoughts and feelings are more responsible for your happiness or unhappiness than anything in the real world, in order to have the motivation to work on them.

But it sounds totally fucked up and wrong, counterintuitive, doesn't it?  Everyone knows that you will be way happier if you get a big raise than if you get fired, or if you hit a weight loss goal rather than gain an extra 50 lbs, or if you win the lotto rather than get in a horrible accident and lose a limb or two.


Um, except years ago they actually did a study a study of lottery winners and accident victims who were rendered paraplegic...and found that after a few months neither huge event made all that much difference in people's happiness. The study was small, and probably has been probably made a bit too much of, but still. While I think it's pretty clear that life events can influence happiness, it's by FAR less than we think.

3. Brain change requires courage!  Many people avoid looking at their thoughts and feelings too closely, because they're afraid that their particular brain is more fucked up than most people's, or that they won't be able to handle what they find.

But guess what?  I've explored the contents of many brains over the years, mine included, and insecurity, delusions, hang-ups, hurts, grudges, shame, doubt, grandiosity, irrationality, and weird-ass fantasies and compulsions are all pretty much the norm. And airing them, questioning them, and exploring them usually helps defuse their impact, not make 'em worse.

Caveat: if you've had a traumatic and/or abusive past or have moderate to severe mental health issues, then yeah, probably best to do your exploration with a trained psychotherapist.

4. Brain change requires motivation!  If you are not used to prioritizing your interior life rather than your outside achievements and responsibilities, you may feel weird and even guilty about it.  Our society is very goal focused, and time spent thinking about thoughts can feel "self-indulgent" or something.

But just picture this:

What if a year or so from now, it was second nature to think of negative emotions like worry, guilt, frustration, gloominess, dread, anger, jealousy, and insecurity as optional states that you could simply release when you didn't want to feel them?

And perhaps you couldn't eliminate them entirely, but you knew that by applying yourself, you could blunt them by about 90%?

Wouldn't that be kinda cool?

Well, it all starts with learning to Catch those the slippery thoughts and feelings in the first place and get familiar with them.

Step 2: Catching Elusive Negative Thoughts and Feelings:

Before you can begin to change negative thoughts and feelings, you have to be aware that you are having them.  And earlier is better! Many people miss the signs of screwed-up thinking and emotional over-reaction until they're so scared or annoyed or gloomy that it's hard to turn anything around.

The Arbitrary Check In:

Set a timer or designate some daily triggers to take from a few seconds up to a minute or two and ask yourself:  What are you feeling right now?  And yes, it sounds dumb, and like an incredible nuisance, but whatever, if you are not someone who is generally aware of what you're feeling, it's a great way to get started.

If it's kind of a neutral emotional state, no worries, you're done.  But if there's a subtle positive or negative energy, spend a little more time exploring:

How does your body feel? Where do you physically feel the emotion?

What thoughts might be contributing to the feeling?  Are those thoughts helpful to finding a solution to something or motivating you? Or are they stupid and lame and counter-productive? Are they realistic or are you being melodramatic? Is there something you'd rather be thinking or feeling instead?

What events may have triggered the thoughts that triggered the feeling?

If it's a good feeling, savor it!  Find yourself curious about how you can have more of it!

But if it's a shitty feeling, and you've caught it at a mild stage, congratulate yourself because this is very useful data.

Over time, you will be noting patterns and scheming about ways of shifting your perspective so that you can experience the same situations without feeling lousy about them. More on that later, but for many people, "catching" the feelings and thoughts in itself is kind of a challenge.

Note: Acceptance is a hugely important part of this process. Humans have feelings, sometimes silly ones, and some of the things you catch yourself thinking and experiencing will be downright asinine.  Do not despair or beat yourself up! Just laugh at yourself and move on.

The Programmed Check In

This is taking the Arbitrary Check In but doing it more formally, as part of a self-help program of some sort.  There are tons of Cognitive Behavioral Self-Help books out there with handy charts and workbooks, or you could even sign up for a workshop or class or something.

For example, a quick google turned up a bunch of free CBT worksheets, or you could design your own or keep a little notebook or find an app or whatever.

The Reactive Check In

This kind of check in happens when you've already caught that you're feeling something, usually something Big and Unpleasant. You may have less ability to calmly observe and question yourself than with the arbitrary check in, but there is lots more potential data!

And actually, if you find yourself whalloped by a big emotion, taking the curious observer role can not only gather information to help you later, but can help in the moment to keep you from panicking or lashing out or otherwise acting like an ass.

Isn't it interesting to feel your chest pound or the pit of your stomach roil? Wow, feel all that energy! What a fascinating thing, to feel all this activity as a result of external triggers combined with internal thoughts! Wow, funny how strong the temptation is to keeping ruminating and justifying and reinforcing thoughts that aren't very helpful--it's almost like you can't stop yourself!

However "justified" a strong emotional reaction may seem, when your brain is hijacked by emotion, it goes into emergency self-defense mode. Logical thinking may not be your strong suit when you're all riled up.  Self-righteous anger, blaming, panic, guilt or helplessness may be familiar responses, and other more rational ways of thinking about the situation that would result in far less turmoil may not be easy to access.

So congratulate yourself for ANY ability you can muster to step back and just observe your process, and know that by doing this whenever you feel strong emotions you are creating the building blocks to eventually get to control how you feel. Even aggravating or scary stuff can eventually be handled with much less angst--most of the time, anyway.

The Mindful/Meditative Approach

If you do yoga, or meditate, or practice "mindfulness" in one form or another, this is a great opportunity to look inward and observe the amusing things your brain does, and to cultivate that openness and acceptance you're going to need when dealing with difficult feelings.

And the brain training that comes with meditative practices greatly aid the ability to "catch" wandering thoughts and direct your attention to wherever you'd rather it rest.

There may be a some choices further down the road as to whether you will be trying to "talk yourself out" of problematic thoughts and emotions, or just accept them and be with them and not be overwhelmed by them... but more on that in a future post.

Step 3:  Turn Self-Awareness into a Habit

Ideally, you may want to eventually weave this whole check-in process into your daily mental life, coming to rest frequently in Observer mode. Over time, it can become an unconscious habit to audit the contents of your brain, catching any signs of misrepresentations and malfeasance, correcting and cleaning things up along the way.

You can set reminders, create external triggers, and just generally keep on yourself to check in whenever it occurs to you... and the more often you do it, the more often it will occur to you.

How far you want to take this depends on how motivated you are.  But playing with this stuff and actively choosing to discover what's going on in your head and decide if that's what you want in there... it really is kinda freaky what a difference it can make.


Again, easier said than done, but there are lots of methods of letting go of the crappy stuff and moving your mind to a more positive, effective place. So too bad that I prattled on forever about the "Catch" part.

But be forewarned, more on all this stuff in a future post!

So, are you guys already pretty good at catching negative thinking or does it ever sneak up on you? 


  1. Negative thoughts sneak in at times, but not like they used to. I used a mindful approach beginning about a year ago where I caught them one at a time, forced myself to go through them, and let them go. it helped quite a bit, but once in a while a particularly wily one sneaks in.
    Great post, Crabby Looking forward to part two.

    1. Thanks leah! You always really seem to have a positive attitude, even when dealing with tough stuff!

  2. Or, to put it the way this crazy church lady has learned it, "Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ..." ~ 2 Corinthians 10:5, KJV

    Negative thoughts aren't godly, they are against what we know about G-d. We take them captive and make them obedient, that is, release them and substitute truth, the positives.

    1. Interesting Messymimi, I'm so ignorant about Biblical stuff, and had no idea there were thought-wrangling passages in there! Glad it inspires you to release negative thoughts!

  3. Death Ride GrandmaJune 16, 2014 at 1:48 PM

    My solution has been very effective, but is definitely not marketable. My brain tumor seems to have been in a place that makes everything feel less dramatic & worrisome. I actually came out of the seizure that happened when the diagnosis scared me badly feeling calm. I am not always calm - no way - but am much more so than I was before. Had it not been so directly connected to the seizure and surgery, I would have thought it was something I had learned from my experience. But I don't think I get that credit. Physiology is amazing.

    Even with that, your "catch" system is very helpful. Can't wait to read all about release.

    1. That's fascinating DRG, you think the seizure and surgery actually helped tone down worrisome thoughts and feelings? Like you said, not so marketable, but that's wonderful that it had that effect on you!

    2. Yes, it sure made my life easier. I had scared myself into the seizure when I read the MRI report and tried to make sense of it without calling the doctor. Big mistake. When I woke up from the seizure, the sense of panic was gone. I later read a book by Oliver Sachs in which he described a woman with a brain tumor in the same lobe (left temporal) who was feeling very peaceful in spite of her bad prognosis. As one of my doctors once said, "Well, if you had to have a brain tumor, you had the right one."

      I'd like to think that there is also some learning element, that I am not entirely dependent on the disruption to the brain to approach life more calmly these days. Your suggestions of ways to get a grip on those less than ideal thoughts & feelings are great. I am a huge fan of anything that gives us an understanding, and so greater control, of stuff that we thought was automatic, that we didn't realize we could change.

  4. I love this - I don't have all the steps but I work on this very thing all the time. Even with that, I still have times that those negative thoughts creep in and it is hard to get rid of them.

    1. Sounds like we're totally on the same wavelength Kim! And yeah, I'm still a work in progress on negative thoughts; just happens to be a LOT better than it was before I started really trying to kick 'em to the curb.

  5. I recommend going to see Wolverine when you are overwhelmed. It shockingly shut down my panicking brain for the entire movie last week. It wasn't like the bad thoughts were gone, they just had to make room for processing an action scene to the song "Time in a Bottle."

    My negative thoughts processing has a ways to go. If nothing else, some growth almost always happens. That is about the best thing I can say sometimes.

    1. Woverine therapy? What a cool idea QD! And "Time in a Bottle" as background to an action scene would indeed mess with my mind enough to distract it from anything else.

  6. You used the word caveat. Quit being on fancy, dammit!
    As for anglers, the only way I know how to do that to angle my jaw bone perfectly around the pie slices for chewing.

    1. Hey that's my kind "angling" Yum Yucky, bring on the pie!

  7. What a great post!! It's one of those that I may have to figure out how to print, laminate and put giant check boxes next to the steps as a "job aid" :) Thanks also for reminding all of us that thoughts and feeling are simply that and not to get so judgmental on ourselves: it's all just interesting information (and sometimes kind of funny!)

    1. How did you know I always wanted to be laminated Ultra Kaz? :) You are always too kind about my silly posts, thanks!

  8. A friend once told me that everything we do is either out of fear or love. At the time, that seemed a tad too simplistic to have any value, but I started applying it to some of my bigger actions, and they actually were fairly easy to put in one category or the other. My main bugaboo is not so much negative thoughts or feelings but this dang fear factor. I seem to have inherited the Worry Gene from my mother--we have exactly the same habit of not only worrying about things we have absolutely no control over, but then to extrapolate from those worries (if that bad thing happens, then how will I deal with xyz, and what about this whole other thing?). I don't know if worry/fear is the kind of negativity you are talking about, but it's the thing I work the hardest to catch and then release. I don't fear or worry about anything happening to me, the fears are usually about losing a person close to me or a pet or being put in a position that threatens a loved one.

    1. Peggy, worry/fear is totally one of the negative feelings and it's the one I"ve made the most progress on. But sheesh, it can be hard sometimes!

      And love what it says about your generosity that your worry is almost always about others!

  9. I'm definitely looking forward to the release portion. That is relevant to my interests.

    1. Thanks OTF, probably next week!

  10. This is exactly what I needed to read today. Just when I think I've got something figured out...WHAM...I show myself that I haven't....I'll be there when I'm about 432 years old.

    1. LuckyMama, is anyone ever really done screwing up, making mistakes, learning from 'em when we can, and picking ourselves back up? I think it's the human condition. Just be sure to be good to yourself during the process--THAT part you can control!

  11. I think I learned this unconsciously as a child, watching the "worrying" side of the family worry about Everything in the World and not wanting to be like them. Of course, I seem to have been ridiculously cheerful from the start, probably, like DRG, due to lucky brain chemistry.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  12. Eh I don't know about this being aware of negative thought and then releasing them. I think it would work better to drown them out with positive thoughts until all the negativity is crushed.

  13. I am way too aware & during this stressful time - yes, AWARE! ;) Great post!


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