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Dropping Anchor: Three Steps for Tolerating Strong Emotions

Updated: May 7

We all have times when our emotions build up and become intense. At these times it's very common to get fused with our thoughts and feelings and we can find ourselves reacting in unhelpful ways, based on our emotions and assumptions. Dropping Anchor is a mindfulness practice developed by Russ Harris, an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) trainer and expert, to create a holding space when we feel overwhelmed. Mindfulness practices help us to slow down and connect with the present moment, which puts us in a better position to choose how to respond.

The aim of Dropping Anchor is to (i) notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking and at the same time become aware of the present moment by (ii) connecting with your body and (iii) engaging with the external world through the five senses.

Dropping Anchor has three steps, which can be remembered with the acronym ACE:

A: Acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling. It can help to notice and label your internal experiences. E.g. "I am having the thought that I'm a failure" "I am having a flashback. This is a memory of my accident." "I notice that I am feeling sad, I can feel it in my stomach".

C: Come back into your body. Whilst acknowledging your thoughts and feelings, begin to connect with your body, by gently moving a part of your body that feels comfortable. You could wiggle your toes or tap your foot on the floor, you could touch the tips of your fingers together, you could stretch, you could roll your shoulders, you could bring your hands together, you could take a steady breath.

E: Engage in the world around you. Notice what is going on around you. Look around. E.g. you could look out of the window and notice the weather. If you are in conversation, you could focus on what the other person is saying. Use your senses. Continue with your day, think about how you want to respond, do something that is important to you or make a plan to solve any problems that you might be facing.

You might be wondering why this mindfulness practice is called Dropping Anchor. Imagine a boat that is out at sea in a wild storm. The anchor holds it steady until the storm passes, after which it can set sail again and continue its journey. The anchor doesn't get rid of the storm, but it minimises the damage of the storm and stops the boat moving off course and travelling to undesirable or unplanned locations. Dropping Anchor is a way of holding yourself steady when you experience intense emotions, difficult thoughts or memories. It will help you to pause and gently guide your attention to your body and the world around you, so that you can start to unhook from the intense experiences and decide how you would like to respond.

Dropping Anchor, like any new skill, will take some practice. Sometimes you will need to go through the steps a few times. Keep experimenting and see if you find it helpful.

Dropping Anchor and some other ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are discussed in our free masterclass, "From Overwhelmed to In-Control", delivered by Dr Rachel Lee. You can access this instantly here. Alternatively, you may like our free PDF guide, which includes five ideas from ACT to help you live a more fulfilling life.


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