ACT Therapy Techniques: Expansion

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Trap" by Russ Harris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the expansion technique? How can practicing expansion help you deal with negative emotions more productively?

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, expansion is a technique that uses our observing self to create space in our body to accept our emotions, rather than fight against them. Once we accommodate these difficult emotions, we can focus on taking meaningful action to improve our lives.

Keep reading to learn about the ACT therapy technique of expansion, its benefits, and how to apply it. 

The Expansion Technique: Making Space

To understand and practice the ACT therapy technique of expansion, we first have to develop a concept called body awareness

Developing Body Awareness

Harris describes body awareness as using the observing self to notice your physical sensations and where they’re originating—without engaging the thinking self. He suggests practicing this exercise to attune with your observing self and internalize the difference between actively thinking about your body and passively noticing your body. If you do notice your thinking self engaging during this exercise, try to recognize that your thoughts about your body are separate from the attention you’re paying to your body.

  1. Starting with your head, pay attention to each of your major body parts in turn. Focus on your head, your neck, your shoulders, your arms and hands, your back and stomach, your legs, and your feet. 
  2. Pay attention to your breathing. Is it fast or slow? Regular or irregular? Deep or shallow?
  3. Pay attention to any tension you feel in your body. Often, this is concentrated in the neck and shoulders. 
  4. Pay attention to the heat of your body. Is it equally distributed or are some parts of you cooler than others? 
  5. Repeat step 1, focusing on the sensations you experience in each part of your body. Are some parts of you stiff or tense? Are there parts of you that are more comfortable than others? 
The Benefits of Body Scan Meditation

This exercise is a body scan meditation. While Harris includes it in The Happiness Trap as a way to build body awareness and connect with your observing self, regular practice of this meditation technique carries benefits that Harris doesn’t mention. 

The benefits of body scan meditation include: 

-Better sleep: Body scan meditation reduces insomnia and improves sleep quality by decreasing stress and anxiety, which are common reasons that people struggle to sleep. 
-Decreased anxiety and stress: Not only does body scan meditation decrease the general symptoms of anxiety (such as restlessness, irritability, and muscle tension), but it also helps you manage stress. 
-Decreased pain: While body scan meditation doesn’t necessarily stop chronic pain, it helps you pinpoint where pain is occurring—rather than feeling a globalized pain—and that can make it easier to accept. 

Expansion: A Four-Step Process

Now that we’ve developed some body awareness, we can walk through how to use expansion to accept your emotions. Harris identifies four steps:

Step 1: Use your observing self to connect with the sensations in your body. 

(Shortform note: This step is similar to the exercise on body awareness. If you struggle with it, go back to the previous exercise and practice it until you develop the skill.) 

Take a few moments and notice the sensations or discomfort in each area of your body. Remember that we register emotions as physical sensations—essentially you’re scanning your body for negative emotions so that you can respond to them. 

Focus on the least comfortable sensation in your body. Notice its dimensions: Is it large or small? Uniform or irregular? How deeply do you feel the sensation? If you can, visualize this sensation as a distinct object with its own material and properties. 

Step 2: Use deep breathing to explore the sensation. 

As you scan the uncomfortable sensation, focus on breathing deeply. Your deep breathing should decrease the tension in your body. As your tension decreases, imagine your deep breath forming an eggshell-like shelter around the discomfort.

Step 3: Make additional room in your body for the sensation.

Imagine that eggshell growing in size until your body can freely accommodate the discomfort. Rather than the feeling that the sensation is trapped in your body, causing disruption and tension, you should feel that the sensation has room to move and grow, because your breathing can accommodate it. 

Step 4: Tolerate the sensation, and give it space to exist. 

Accept the emotion, rather than entertaining your thinking self, which might be saying that the emotion is a threat (and therefore something you need to eliminate). 

If your thinking self is still active, use it to reinforce the goal of expansion: acceptance. This is called “acceptance self-talk.” For instance, you could say out loud, “This is a difficult feeling, but there’s enough space in my body to accommodate it.” While, eventually, you want to be able to practice expansion using only your observing self, these words can help in the interim. 

(Shortform note: In the larger context of ACT, expansion is used alongside defusion, which we covered in the last chapter, and connection, which we’ll cover in the next chapter.)

The Physiological Effects of Deep Breathing

Meditation exercises like this help release tension in our bodies and process emotions that we can’t simply “reason” our way out of. But just how does it work? 

Research has shown that specific emotions have different kinds of breathing associated with them. For instance, an emotion like joy involves deep, slow breathing while an emotion like anger involves rapid, shallow breath. Most people can remember a time when they were so upset that their breathing became irregular (for instance, while crying) or shallow (for instance, while hyperventilating during an anxiety reaction). It also works in the reverse: If you follow the breathing pattern for a particular emotion (even if it’s not one you’re experiencing right now), you can actually begin to feel that emotion. 

The deep breathing we practice in expansion is associated with calmness and joy. Thus, the feeling of release from emotional discomfort may be our body’s physiological response to deep breathing, rather than a mental and emotional response to the imaginative labor of “building an eggshell” around the sensation. 

Additionally, slow, deep breathing slows your heart rate and stimulates the vagus nerve, which is associated with your body’s recuperative processes, such as sleep and digestion. If you’re locked in a fight-or-flight response—as we often are when we experience negative emotions—deep breathing can engage your vagus nerve and redirect your body’s energies from an anxious or aggressive response to return to a calm and collected state. 

“Urge Surfing”: Expansion for Urges

When we defined emotions earlier in this chapter, we noted that emotions frequently have two components: physical sensations and action tendencies (also called urges). Harris explains that when we have urges associated with negative emotions, they’re often tied to the control strategies that keep us in the happiness trap.

While expansion in its ordinary form deals primarily with the first component, sensations, a slight adaptation of the technique—called urge surfing—addresses the second component, urges. Just as expansion helps you accept an uncomfortable sensation, urge surfing helps you accept difficult urges. (Shortform note: Psychologists G. Alan Marlatt and Judith R. Gordon coined urge surfing as a coping strategy for people struggling with addiction. Interestingly, Harris specifically notes that urges related to addiction—as well as those related to survival—are not directly connected to emotion.)

Harris details the five steps of urge surfing:

  1. Use your observing self to connect with the urge in your body.
  2. Use your thinking self to recognize and name the urge. For example, you might say: “I’m experiencing the urge to—”
  3. Use deep breathing to explore the urge and make room in your body for it. (Shortform note: You’ll notice that this step combines steps 2 and 3 of expansion, so you could argue that we should consider urge surfing a six-step process.) Avoid the temptation to try to eliminate this negative feeling. 
  4. Tolerate the urge and observe it as it changes. If your thinking self intercedes, practice defusion techniques. You can also repeat step 2 of the urge surfing process (recognize and name the urge) intermittently. 
  5. Decide an appropriate course of action. Consider your values and try to act in a way that is consistent with them.
ACT Therapy Techniques: Expansion

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  • Why trying to be happy is making you unhappy
  • How to practice ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, to become happier
  • How to develop “psychological flexibility” toward negative feelings instead of eliminating them

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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