RAIN: A Mindful Framework for Addressing Anxious Thoughts

RAIN: A Mindful Framework for Addressing Anxious Thoughts

by Melissa Lewis-Duarte, Ph.D.

Mindfulness is the act of being present in the moment without judgement. Originating from Buddhist traditions, mindfulness practices have become more mainstream in recent years. While attractive to those of us burned out by the distracted, reactive nature of modern life, mindfulness can seem vague and difficult to implement. One solution to this challenge is to practice a technique called RAIN. I’ve used it many times to work through my own anxious thoughts. This concise framework makes it easier to teach and practice mindfulness. 

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of mind marked by calm, non-judgmental awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn is internationally known for the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs he started over 40 years ago. As he explains it, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”  

According to this definition, there are three components to mindfulness.  

  1. Purposeful: We focus and are intentional with our attention, which requires practice.
  2. Present moment: We maintain awareness of the current moment (where we are, what we are doing/thinking/feeling) rather than getting lost in past regrets or future worries.
  3. Nonjudgmental: Moving away from classifications of “good” or “bad,” we acknowledge the nature of our reality by accepting thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they are.

How can we practice mindfulness?

Although mindfulness is an innate ability in all of us, it requires practice to cultivate. Some turn to therapists, since mindfulness-based therapy can be effective in treating anxiety and depression.  In addition, meditation, yoga, and gratitude are all commonly touted mindfulness practices. Mindfulness meditation, specifically, has even been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.  It’s relatively straightforward to learn these mindfulness techniques, particularly with the abundance of apps and free guided instruction. 

While these practices provide options for learning to act mindfully, learning to think mindfully can be more challenging. RAIN offers one answer to this problem. Developed several decades ago by Michele McDonald, RAIN is a tool for practicing mindfulness when we feel overwhelmed by our thoughts and emotions.  As someone who both lives with anxiety and practices mindfulness, I found this framework practical and implementable. Here is a breakdown of the four-step process and examples of how I use it when feeling anxious:

  1. Recognize: We pause to acknowledge what is happening and label our thoughts and emotions. Labeling is a way to open up to our experience without forming judgements. 
    1. Example: “I feel anxious. It’s making me uncomfortable and antsy. The sense of impending doom is distracting me and making me irritable.”
  2. Allow: Instead of trying to change our thoughts and feelings, we practice just letting them be present. We refrain from labeling them “good” or “bad.” This is when we learn it’s normal to experience negative emotions. It’s better to experience them than to resist. Otherwise, they may present later in more destructive ways. We don’t have to like all our feelings, nor do we have to react to them. 
    1. Example: “It’s ok that I feel anxious right now. I’ve felt this before and I know it’s just a passing sensation. I’m not going to resist or distract myself because that makes me feel worse. Instead, I will pause and give it my attention.”
  3. Investigate: This step is a deeper dive into our thoughts and feelings through curiosity. We are playing the role of a scientist, collecting data without judgements. A real-time assessment of how our emotions present themselves can be helpful in this step. In other words, we answer the question, “Where in my body am I feeling this emotion?” This helps to get us out of our heads and down into our bodies. In addition, we can investigate why we might feel this way. What might have triggered us? What do we need right now? 
    1. Example: “My chest feels tight, and my breathing is shallow. It feels like my heart is beating faster. I have the desire to run away, and my stomach feels acidic. Two reasons I might be feeling this way are my lack of sleep last night and the extra cup of coffee I had this morning. What I really desire right now is to feel safe.” 
  4. Non-Identification:  In this step, we observe our thoughts and feelings without becoming overwhelmed or controlled by them. We gain awareness that we are not our thoughts, and we don’t have to take them personally. When we experience negative emotions, we can soothe ourselves with self-compassion, providing reassurance and comfort. Sometimes this is described as “natural awareness” because we are learning to allow life to unfold as thoughts come and go. It’s helpful to remember the transitory nature of thoughts is simply a part of the human condition.
    1. Example: “It’s normal to feel this way from time to time (putting hand to chest). I don’t have to get wrapped up in this feeling; it will pass soon and doesn’t define who I am. Even though it’s uncomfortable, I can be still and watch it happen until it passes. I will be ok.”  

As an easy to remember acronym, RAIN’s four steps offer a framework to work through difficult thoughts and emotions. This process can be followed virtually anytime, anywhere and in a relatively short amount of time. It’s a concrete way to be mindful of our thoughts and emotions, an otherwise vague concept to grasp. For those living with anxiety, RAIN is a mindfulness practice that can bring focus back to the present moment and ease discomfort. 

For more information…

See Using RAIN to work through anxious thoughts for a more detailed, personal application from the author. Melissa describes an episode in which she used RAIN to alleviate anxiety and help her live in the moment.

For further practice, consider trying Tara Brach’s guided RAIN meditation or listening to Diana Winston’s guided RAINN meditation, presented through the UCLA Mindful Awareness Podcasts. 

About the author

Melissa Lewis-Duarte, Ph.D. writes about living with anxiety and practicing mindfulness in real life. Prior to founding Working On Calm, she worked as a business consultant, college instructor, and corporate trainer. Melissa earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. Currently, she lives with her husband in Scottsdale, AZ, managing their chaotic life, three young boys, and a barking dog. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

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