I decided to start this blog as a way to share some of what I've learned about the nature of human suffering and its alleviation. I'm doing this mostly with an eye on anxious suffering, and my experience with a new approach to psychological health and wellness called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT, said as one word). I won't claim to have all the answers. My intent is to share.

Acceptance and mindfulness-based approaches are changing the landscape of psychology, mental health care, medicine, and society. They are based on a very old and radical idea, namely, that a good deal of human suffering is fed by efforts to struggle with and avoid our own psychological and emotional pain. New research from many sources now shows that this war tends to amplify our pain, takes enormous effort, doesn't work very well, and can keep us stuck and suffering.

So, what's the alternative? The alternative is this: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment, with a quality of kindness and compassion (self and other), and with both eyes on living out your values, right here, right now. These are skills that we all can learn and many studies show that people who learn them report more vitality, less illness, better quality of life, and greater freedom too.

Instead of more struggle, we learn to open up to our experience just as it is (not as our minds say it is), to hold our thoughts more lightly, to connect with our values (what we care about in this life), and to carry our minds, bodies, and personal history forward into a more vital and valued life. This set of very simple ideas goes against just about everything we've learned, at least in the West, since kindergarten. That's why they can be so powerful!

We are all in the same soup. Pain, in all its forms, is part of the human condition. Yet, that pain -- whether physical, emotional, psychological -- need not be fed and allowed to mushroom into the suffering that takes over and shrinks lives. There are ways to douse the flames that feed needless suffering -- the spin off that our mind and old history creates -- and to live well with the pains, joys, and sorrows that are part of life. This is where I think ACT can help.

Peace -john

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fear and Money Lost -- Creating a Life Worth Living

Nobody can escape the news about the world-wide financial crisis. It is creating a culture of panic and fear. I wonder about that.

I did an interview the other day on anxiety and money with Amanda Ripley, a senior writer for Time Magazine. Her blog and the Time interview are neat and worth checking out. The interview was much fun and a time to reflect for me.

Just the other day I heard a senior financial guru say that "panic is not a sound investment strategy." That pearl of wisdom resonates with me. I suppose his point is that we make poor decisions when emotions run high. I think the same is true as far as living well is concerned. If we let panic, fear, or anxiety run our lives, we will tend to make choices that are not in our best interest. We will pull out of activities that matter for a brief honeymoon of relief and calm. This is not a sound life investment strategy because it will keep you stuck.

Emotions and thoughts are fickle -- they come and go, change and morph, like the weather. We have limited control over them too, and that's why they are not a good guide for our actions. Heck, if you want to get a sense of that, try this simple exercise: you cannot use the bathroom until you feel really happy, content, and at peace with yourself. See what happens? You can expand this out to other things -- like planning a trip, seeing the kids play a sport, extending an act of kindness, taking care of your health, connecting with other people, going to work, enjoying nature, giving of your time. If you have to wait until you think and feel good before doing these and other activities, you'll be waiting a very long time. And, like the bathroom exercise, you'll probably feel a looming sense of dread and urgency as you wait and your life ticks by.

I know that I have lost a good deal of my retirement investments, and I haven't looked to find out just how much I have lost. The media and the news leave me assured that I have lost money, and likely significant monies. Knowing that this is mostly out of my control, I have made a choice to focus on what matters to me now and what I can do with my time and energies right now. Yes, there is anxiety, but there is also vitality. My future has yet to happen, that's why it is the future. I can do many vital things now that don't cost me a dime. You can too.

It is easy to think of retirement as one thing. And, if that one image is linked with having x amount of money, then the financial crisis happening now will naturally wreck havoc on your image of your retirement future. That future will appear to blow up in your face as your money disappears, and that can seem very scary. It may be helpful here to think of your retirement more flexibly -- after all, it hasn't happened yet, and simply thinking it just so won't make it so. We are dealing now with thoughts about a future, not the future as it may turn out to be.

It has helped me and others to think flexibly about the future, and to play with thoughts of retirement that are decoupled from money. I've heard people say that retirement is more than having money, and I think they are right. Though money is helpful in taking care of basic needs, it won't buy perpetual happiness or a rich life, now, tomorrow, or when we retire. You can have all the money in the world in your retirement years, and still be miserable.

The choices we make now help shape and mold our lives, and those choices add up to a life worth living. Anxiety and fear need not run the show. There is a way to get out of our anxieties and back into our lives. This is something we all can learn to do, and that kind of hope for a better life cannot be bought or sold.

With a Kind Heart,

John P. Forsyth
author, The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free From Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

If you are interested in participating in the Workbook Study, follow this link to the study website or go directly to www.ACTforAnxiety.com .

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook Study

I've been away for a bit, working on many things. One of those things is a website for a new study we are now ready to launch worldwide over the internet. That study aims to find look at The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety and to see whether and how it may be helpful for people who are struggling and suffering with anxiety-related difficulties.

I'm writing now to alert you and those you may know and love to the study website where you can find more information about it and how to sign up.

The study site is at www.ACTforAnxiety.Com.

The study is really for people who have not started using the workbook, and in fact, we offer folks who are willing and eligible to participate, a free copy of the workbook as part of the project.

Now, I'm asking that you help us spread the word around the internet and the world. We know that 1 in 4 adults in the United States alone suffer from anxiety disorders. These numbers are staggering. It doesn't have to be this way. There are effective treatments. We hope you will help us find out if the workbook is helpful, how it is helpful, and for whom it may help.

Thank you.

With a Kind Heart,

John P. Forsyth

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

We are all in the Same Soup

I just spent the last two weeks far away from home -- in Australia, running some training workshops for people interested in learning how to use ACT to help others. Going far away from my kids and wife (during the summer nonetheless) to work was a difficult choice, and yet it was a choice I made and I think without cashing out on my values regarding family. My wife supported me and so did my kids. Still, going so far away from family brings up all kinds of stuff -- mostly unpleasant stuff. In fact, last year I went to Australia to do ACT trainings and had to say goodbye to my wife at the airport. I was blubbering all the way to the security gate, with my mind feeding me all kinds of doom and gloom and "what ifs." What if something happened to me or my wife and kids, what then? Interestingly enough, I survived and so did they. This round, my wife offered to drive me to the airport, and I declined the offer for many reasons, but one was certainly the natural pain of having to say goodbye twice over. I think that was ok, and besides my wife didn't have to drive 10 miles on a Sunday evening with kids in tow to pick me up from the airport when I returned.

I titled this thread "we are all in the same soup" for a reason. My mind and body continually give me feedback about doing, or worse, not doing this or that. Sometimes that feedback can be helpful and we ought to listen to it, particularly when our experience tells us that we could really be harmed or hurt. Yet, there was none of that in the Australia trip and yet it did hurt in a way and also felt vital in a way too. When we move in the direction of what we care about, we risk feeling pain. In fact, I have come to see how my pain and hurts have something to teach me about what I care about.

Once I said that when you step in the direction of what you value, you risk hurting. Anxiety is a form of hurt, and what you are anxious about may have something to do with what you cherish and hold dear in this life. Social anxiety, for instance, is usually connected with the value of connection and open intimacy with others. It shows up in precisely these situations as it should, because it tells us that we care enough about others and value our connection with others. So here, our anxiety can be a friend or an enemy. I think it is a friend, if you are willing to "get with" what you are experiencing in those situations, just as it is -- a friend, not an enemy.

We all have painful memories too. I certainly have plenty of them, enough to book a plane to hollywood to chat about a movie deal. Sometimes those memories come up, as if playing out as old re-runs on a movie screen that has been there my entire life. Here, I've found it helpful to see myself as the screen upon which a lifetime of experiences are played out. What this means is that I am not those experiences, the movies. They play out on me, but are not me. This gives me space to look at them for what I can learn about myself -- no enemies in here. Pain, maybe. But no enemies, unless I flip the switch and treat my reminders of the past in the present as demons to be defeated. My experience tells me that when I get sucked into that, I am in for trouble and so is my life, as far as my deepest desires are concerned.

On the way back from Australia to the states, the plane tossed about (somewhat violently) in choppy air. Though I am not one to be a frequent flyer -- that is, enjoying just riding around in a plane -- I did find that a bit unnerving, and I should. Still, that experience left me again with a choice as to how I related to my discomfort. The plane and pilot did there thing and I did mine -- I noticed my discomfort, acknowledged that there was nothing I could do about the choppy air, and decided to surf the movie selections even while the plane was tossing about. That worked -- I saw a wonderful movie with the turmoil called "Bucket List." That movie speaks volumes about living your life and choosing to do that, regardless of what may come along the way. Without giving away too many details, both main characters are terminally ill and decide to live their dreams even with their fate squaurely in their sights.

Now, I am home. My journey showed me in many ways that we are all human, all likely to get snared by the traps that our minds, old histories, and emotions create. The wisest thing we can do, and something we teach in "The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety" is to keep our eyes on the prize. Our pain can be our greatest teacher or our enemy -- it is all in how we choose to relate with it. That alone was a profound moment for me. I, the doer and creator of my life, can always choose this or that, regardless of what my mind might be feeding me and what my body might be screaming at me.

With a Kind Heart,
John P. Forsyth

p.s. -- Apologies if there are typos here. I felt compelled to write something, and have to run onto other important activities. The editing can wait. The message out is more important to me at the moment. I wish you a vital day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

ACTs of Kindness With Anxiety

I've been away from my blog teaching and training and learning from others. Since the last time I posted, I traveled to London Ontario, CA, Chicago, IL, and Hamilton Ontario, CA. In that time, I've been thinking quite a bit about kindness and just how far it can go.

What is kindness? What does it mean in your life?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for anxiety and many forms of human suffering is, at the core, about self and other kindness. Why do I say that. Let me try to explain.

When people speak of kindness and compassion (a word that literally means "to suffer with"), they often think of the religious, and maybe people who lack resolve or are weak, lacking in strength. My sense is that none of this is true about kindness and compassion. In fact, when we and others are hurting, the most difficult thing to do is to look in, instead of the natural inclination to pull away. Think about it. When you see suffering in others do you truly try to see that person's life and experience through their eyes and heart, or do we tend to turn away, or attempt to avoid the pain of that kind of connection in some way.

I say this because being kind and compassionate is a hard path, but also enormously vital. Many much wiser than I have noted that kindness and compassion begins with us. That is, we have to be kind and compassionate to ourselves before we can truly extend it to others. I think I know why that is.

To be kind to ourselves, means treating ourselves with gentleness, and the greatest of care. And, part of that means that we are willing to touch our pain, without turning away, avoiding, or trying to run based on old habits. We touch it as we might a hurting young child, or someone in need of care. To do that, means going into our hurts and not fighting them. Struggle with our thoughts and feelings is warfare, and this is unkindness with ourselves. Learning to just notice, acknowledge, and let go of our judgmental mind and emotional pain is kindness. No more struggle. No more fighting ourselves. We acknowledge we hurt and we take care of that hurt as we might hold a tiny infant.

If we can do that, then we are positioned to connect with other human beings who are suffering too. There is so much about our world that creates the illusion of separation. We differ in how we look, how we dress, height, weight, eye color, whether we can walk or are wheelchair bound, are young or old, rich or poor, live in a big house or small one, drive an expensive car or a beater, have a job, are homeless, have an education or struggle to live on a dollar a day. Yet, behind all of that is something basic we all share. We are all trying to make the most of this one precious life -- we hurt, we care, we have dreams, we struggle, and on and on.

If you can connect with that, then you will be faced with the sobering truth that you and not so different from me, and from others. Inside, we are more alike than it may appear. When others hurt, it is a call to compassion, but unless we can "suffer with" -- meaning are willing to touch and experience our pain with kindness, it will be really hard to touch and connect with others that are hurting. Their pain will be just as hard to touch as our own. Our natural inclination in that situation is to withdraw, or perhaps share a superficial kindness motivated by avoidance -- "ACTs of charity that remove from view the source of despair and hurt that we contact."

I say all this, in part, to share some thoughts about how to break free from emotional pain and suffering. Practicing acceptance, mindful noticing, and defusion with your anxious thoughts and feelings (or any other form of sticky thought or feeling of discomfort) is one of the kindest things you can do. As you do that, it will give you space to live out your values, your dreams. And, it will position you to connect with other human beings just like you that are trying to do the best that they can with what they have, and do suffer just like you.

Kindness and compassion are strong, cut out the fuel of suffering, and can enrich your life. They go against the habit machine of pulling away and struggle/warfare. In short, when we stop resisting genuine aspects of our mental and emotional experience, that is a step toward kindness. When we act to live in accordance with our values and that which we hold dear, that is kindness too. The path is not easy. Yet, it just might offer you something different in your life. I know it has changed the way I see my pain and that of others.

With a Kind Heart

John P. Forsyth
Author of the Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety (for a general audience), ACT on Life, Not on Anger (for a general audience), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner's Guide (professional/therapist book)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Peace of Mind

We all want it. Few of us get it, and when we do it tends to be fleeting. I think the reason has something to do with how we think of "peace of mind." It is not something we can have and hold, but it is certainly something that we can learn to cultivate and allow to grow.

How do we do that? Here are a few steps.

1. Allow yourself time to just sit, without distractions, without something to do, or a place to go. No multitasking.

2. Use that time for you and get curious about your mind and experience just as it is. Look into your experience and just watch the goings on between your ears and in your heart. There is nothing to do, no state to achieve. Just practice being exactly where you are just as you are.

3. Notice the urge to change the experience or to pull out. These are the red flags that your old history is showing up, with all the old habits that compelling you to change your mind and body. These habits are the fuel for struggle, and if you practice just noticing them as thoughts and urges, reminders of the past --"ah, there's my old history, or there's a thought that..." -- you interrupt the old programming and disarm it.

4. If it helps, you can breathe into each moment of leaning in with curiosity with a kind intention to just watch and be at peace. As you do that, you can watch and let go with each in breath and out breath.

Continue this practice for as long as you wish and end with the intention to be present with your mind and body just as it is just where you are, without fighting it, struggling with it, and on and on. When you do that, you are practicing peace and kindness for yourself. This is a skill that will become more automatic over time and something you can do where ever you find yourself.

Remember peace of mind is not something we have, it is a choice to lay down our arms and stopping fighting our own experiences. This will help give you the presence and clarity to consider what you would like to do, what you would like to become, what you would like to be about in this life.

Practice peace of mind and see what happens over time. Make it a choice.

With a Kind Heart
John P. Forsyth
Author of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, ACT on Life, Not on Anger, and a professional book called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner's Guide.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Eliminating Anxiety, Chasing Happiness

The first thing that often comes to mind when the anxiety monster rears its ugly head is to get rid of it. Our culture supports this too. And, many books and gurus claim that they hold the secret to anxiety, and some go so far as to say "I have the cure." You pay for what you get, and unfortunately what you will often get with these false claims is disappointment. Anxiety is not an emotion that is curable. It need not be cured either. And, it cannot be eliminated so long as you are living. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. The science is clear on this point.

The language of elimination is everywhere in our disposable culture. And, that talk is a great set up when it comes to the pain we experience in our heads and in our hearts. Think of it this way. If I wanted to get rid of my old clothes, garbage in the kitchen, or the chair I am sitting on now, I could do that. That would involve getting up and tossing out what I want to remove. Once I decide on that and follow through, it's gone. That's how elimination works in the world around us.

Elimination doesn't work the same way when applied to our inner world, whether that be our unpleasant thoughts, feelings, disturbing images, memories of a painful past, and on and on. Try to eliminate a thought you don't like very much, and chances are the thought will stick around for quite a while. In fact, just making the effort to do that implies that it must be done. Try the same with a painful memory, urge, or emotion, and you'll get the same -- perhaps a brief honeymoon from the pain, but then it comes back again, perhaps stronger the next time.

Everything we know from science and human experience points to one conclusion here: our nervous systems and brains are additive, not subtractive. Thoughts and feelings cannot be tossed out, eliminated, and the like. It just doesn't work that way. Nobody has an anxiety dumpster.

The other sticky piece with the language of elimination is that it sets us up for struggle, and that struggle is with ourselves, and aspects of our genuine experience that we may not like very much. You probably know what that feels like. It just plain hurts to fight and struggle with real aspects of your experience. Many people say as much. This ought to make sense to you. That struggle is linked with you. To see how this works, consider this one: Anxiety is "bad." "I am anxious." So, I must also be bad. Naturally, nobody wants to think of themselves as "bad" but that's exactly where all of this can lead. So, when you fight your anxieties you are fighting yourself. And, in a way, resting who you are. That resistance of your sense of self hurts too.

Remember that most people do not like to experience emotional hurt or intense anxiety, but still find a way to live well and with their pain. There is nothing magical about what they do. At a basic level, they've learned to let go of the agenda of elimination -- no more fixing, struggling with, disavowing, identifying with, their emotional discomfort.

Rather than disavowing pain, you can learn to just acknowledge it, let it be as it is (not as what your mind says it is, like bad, terrible, dangerous, this can't be happening), and bring kindness and a nonjudgmental quality to that experience. When you do that, there is nothing to fight against, nothing to eliminate. There's nothing to be fixed. Nothing to resolve. No need to be anything other than what you are experiencing. This stance is powerful, and cuts the suffering right out of anxiety and fear.

This is critical to understand. Fear will keep you trapped so long as you are unwilling to have it, touch it, and let it be. Life is about pain once in a while. And, when we step in the direction of something we care about, we often risk experiencing something that we'd rather not experience -- hurt, regret, sadness, loss, anger, abandonment, anxiety, fear, remorse. If we operate from the perspective that our pain is something that mustn't be had, the trap is sprung. Pain transforms in that instant and becomes a problem to be solved just like other problems that must be solved. Yet, we cannot problem solve ourselves out of our own pain. All that effort to get a foothold on our anxiety can pull us out of our lives in a flash.

If you have any doubts about this, try it -- try to run from you. When people are truly successful doing that, it is often by engaging in avoidance and sometimes self-destructive behaviors, like drugs and alcohol. None of this really works as a long term solution. What it does do is buy us a brief honeymoon from the pain and its source -- that's why we keep doing it. Yet, the pain comes back, and we again feed it, dignify it, struggle with it, in part, because that is what we have learned to do in our culture of feelgoodism. You know that message and so do I -- think and feel better and then you will be happy and successful. I think this is an illusion.

Happiness is not a thing. And, it is an experience that we have little control over. Some important and vital things we do in life do not involve "happy." Yet, we do them because we care, because we care to make a difference in this world, even if in a small way. Heck, if I waited to be happy before reading a bedtime story to my little girl, she would be waiting a very long time and so would I -- a dad missing a moment of closeness, sharing, and connection with my little girl. I am unwilling to put my life on hold in the service of happy or feeling less anxious. Feelings are fickle, and that's why they are not a good yardstick to judge vital actions. I have learned that I can be a dad even with my anxiety.

Anyway, this is some of what I have learned and borrowed from my experience and that of others much wiser than me. I'm sorry if this sounds like a person on a soapbox. That is not my intention. What I am speaking to is another path, one that does not require you or I to push aside the very real painful aspects of our experience.

Instead, it can be touched and acknowledged just as it is, just as it is happening anyway. This skill set -- being mindful, more compassionate, kinder with myself and my emotional life -- has taken me 10+ years of my natural life to develop. And, I still must work consciously to water it so that it will grow. I am not done. And, I am not immune to the pains of life. Yet, I suffer much less now than ever before.

The skills wrapped in mindful acceptance and ACT have given me perspective when my old history shows up and screams out "shut down, close up, withdrawn, struggle, narrow, harden...". It has helped me be lighter with myself, my mind, my body, my world. Not perfect. Ever evolving. Patient and kind (not just in thought, but in action -- the real key). This is the message and skill set we describe in The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. There is a way to end the suffering linked with your anxieties and reclaim your life. Anxiety need not be managed or eliminated first for that to happen. You can start right now.

The message of elimination sets us up for struggle. It says our pain isn't acceptable and must be dealt with in order to be happy. And, it sets us up for frustration and failure because nobody lives their lives without significant pain now and then. The antidote is mindful acceptance and learning to let go and meet the urge to struggle with a softer response. When you can sit with your discomfort openly and honestly and see it and touch it just as it is, there is no struggle. Nothing to fix. Nothing to resist. It just is. And, you -- the doer of your life -- can focus on what you want to be about.

This kinder space emerges when we chose to let go of trying to be something other than we are. You do that by chosing to stop struggling and by letting go of trying to chase happiness. This will give you freedom to be just as you are, and with that you can then focus on what you really want to do, right where you are -- one moment after the next, one day at a time.

I apologize for this long post. It was not my intention when I signed on. Yet, I let the experience be and I followed my heart. I wish that for you too. You can gain freedom from the suffering linked with anxiety and find happiness and vitality in your life. And, you can do that without having to disavow your emotional life, your mind, or your heart and body.

With a Kind Heart,
John P. Forsyth

[some of these ideas are based on "The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free From Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy"]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose

Some of you may have picked up Eckhart Tolle's new book -- A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose. Honestly, I am a bit curious about it too because of everything that I've heard and read about Tolle's message and teachings. So, I bought the book and am starting to read. I've also lurked a bit on Oprah's message boards, with two eyes on the difference the book was making in people's lives.

Some claim to be awakened and transformed by this book. Tolle's central message is a good one -- that our Ego (or what ACT and others refer to as language or thinking), can serve us well or for ill. And, there's a great deal of value in learning to still our minds and bodies with mindfulness. It helps us fully experience life and to gain something from experience.

In short, we learn to be just as we are, and let go of the hooks and snares that our mind and old history creates. This is challenging to do. Showing up to life just as it is and just as we are cuts against much of our cultural programming. Yet, if we perist, I think we can learn to just notice our experience (pleasant, unpleasant, hard, soft, rough, pulsating, whatever) just as it is, without judgment, and without the need to be something other than we are, other than that which we are given, right in the moment. These ideas are very old; the science behind it is new.

What I wonder about, and many on Oprah's message boards seem to be struggling with, is this: how to live out "A New Earth" or the awakening that Tolle speaks to. That is, once you achieve presence and are less pulled out of experience by your thoughts, what next? This is where I think Tolle's book falls short and where ACT can be helpful.

ACT links mindful acceptance with actions that matter, and then shows us how to live out those actions to make a difference in our lives. Those actions are how we create a vital life and a New Earth too. This is what others see about us and what we'd see about ourselves if we watched what we spent our time doing or not doing.

As we become less engaged with the goings on between our ears and in our hearts and bodies we have the freedom to focus and engage our lives with our hands, feet, and mouth. Each of us, in our own way, one small step at a time. The bad news is that there is no evidence that conscious awakening will lead to a more vital life, unless we are clear about what it is we wish to spend our time doing; what it is we wish to do or move toward. ACT shows how to link presence and peace of mind with vital action, and has a growing line of research showing that it is helpful for many forms of human suffering.

As you learn mindful acceptance, or practice meditation, self kindness, or other skills to be lighter and more gentle with your emotional life, keep your eyes on what you want to do, right where you are.
  • Ask, what is important to me, right now?
  • What do I want to be about right now?
  • What do I want to do, right here, right now (however small or large)?
  • Are my actions consistent with my values -- the areas of life I cherish?
Then, make a commitment to doing that, and kindly bring your mind and body along for the ride. After that, take stock of the whole experience and see if you can connect with the vitality of doing something you care about and the vitality of doing it because it matters to you, even with your discomfort or what may show up along the way. This is how we all create a life.

Make the many small moments of this day part of what you considering a vital day.

With A Kind Heart
John P. Forsyth

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Your Path Out of Anxious Suffering and Into A More Vital Life

The other day I heard from someone who started using The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. Her story was deeply moving and got me thinking about life and what we are here for. You can see part of her story by clicking here. Her experience speaks to the trials and tribulations of living a full and dignified life and how hard it is for all of us to be human -- to be just as we are.

I'd like to do something different here. Instead of posting my thoughts, I'd like to hear from you. I've set up the comments section so that you can post and share your thoughts about your experience with anxiety and fear. And, please feel free to ask questions too, or suggest ideas for things you'd like me to talk about on this blog. If you've started using The Mindfulnes & Acceptance Workbook, it would be neat to hear how it's going and how it is impacting your life, even in small ways, and even if your mind tells you that it's tough (watch your mind here). That's ok too.

With a Kind Heart,

John P. Forsyth

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Anxiety Management and Control

Over the past few weeks I haven't written much on this blog. The honest truth is that I've had too much going on for my own good. I think we all know what that's like -- life calls us to take care of this or that, and somethings just have to get done. The mountain of tasks can pile up, and it is at those times that it is easy to lose peace of mind and focus. We become reactive and not proactive -- feeling as though we are being pulled and pushed here and there because of external pressures, or fires that spring up and must be put out. Anxiety and fear can seem like that too.

The last poll I put up on this page hints that this pull and push with anxiety management and control. I asked folks to think about how anxiety management works in the short-term and long -term. The results tell an interesting story. About 84% said that trying to manage and control anxiety buys them some relief in the short-term, yet 100% said that it doesn't work as a lasting solution. The anxiety keeps coming back, demanding that you attend to it, and not to your life.

To break this cycle, we need to pay attention to the things we do in the short-term. The honeymoons from anxiety and fear we get with anxiety management and avoidance keep the cycle going, but never solve the problem long-term. To break the cycle, we need to learn to be pay attention in the short-term and be proactive, not reactive.

Our workbook teaches you some important skills to keep you from being sucked into the same old struggles that don't work and that pull you out of your life. Instead of pulling out, you learn to lean in, purposefully, with compassion, kindness, and intention. This buys you wiggle room to have what you are having anyway, just as it is, and to put your energies into something else that you'd rather be doing.

There is an old Chinese saying that goes something like this: what is soft is strong. You know that if you've ever watched water pass over rocks on a stream bed. Water will wear away rock -- something very hard. The same is true of the softer response packed in the skills of mindful acceptance, compassion, and kindness. When you meet the hardness of your pain with these softer responses, you might just find that you regain freedom to move and do the things that matter to you in this life and with whatever your mind and body might be doing.

Remember: Anxiety is not a choice. What you do with your anxiety is a choice. Meeting anxiety with struggle is like rock against rock -- and, you likely know what you get. Hardness begets hardness. Another choice is to meet anxiety with a softer, kinder, and more gentle posture. For instance, if your anxiety were a young infant, how would you respond to it? How would you hold it? Think about that. This softer response is a choice. It is strong. And, it can help you regain focus to be more proactive with your life and less reactive when your pain threatens to pull you out of your life.

With a Kind Heart
John P. Forsyth

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Hope, Not Hype

I want to write about so many things. Some of what I have to say now is coming from the heart. I tend to find it easier to write that way.

I've spent 40+ years of my life learning a thing or two about human suffering and living well by direct experience. That's my life -- a mix of the vital, less vital, and sometimes ugly. I don't claim to have all the answers. As I said before, my intent is to share.

The last 20 years of my life have been about learning how to be helpful in a way that went beyond my intentions to help and beyond hype and common sense know how. In that time, I learned that good intentions aren't enough. I needed to learn know how to help, and with that I turned to a science of helping. That led me to cognitive-behavior therapy and ultimately to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT, said as one word).

ACT is based on a solid research base, where claims are subject to peer review, scrutiny by others, and replication. You can check that out for yourself by going to www.contextualpsychology.org. This is an organization that is non hierarchal (no gurus), has values-based dues (meaning what you pay to access the material is up to you. You can join for as little as $1), and is open to the public and professionals.

The outcomes of this work have been impressive. ACT has been show in research to be helpful not just for anxiety, but also for depression, addictions, chronic pain, epilepsy, diabetes, eating disorders, work stress, burnout, and for some of the more serious problems that we know of, namely schizophrenia. Science has a funny way of reigning in hype and revealing hope.

Hype is false hope. It is the stuff built on testimonials, charisma, and tide commercials about change. Our workbook makes no such claims. It is not about hype, but sobered hope. We believe in the capacity of human beings to change their lives for the better. If we didn't
think that, then there would be no reason for a self-help book, and certainly no reason to spend the time and money to see a therapist.

And, we base the entire workbook on what our best available evidence shows. That evidence shows that there is hope for a better life, even with anxiety and fear. The truth is that change requires no book, no video, no emotional transformation. What it does require is a human being who has had enough and is willing to do something new, to get something new in their lives. Do you need a psychotherapist for that? You may. Ultimately though, it comes down to you - it is you, not a therapist or medication, that must take the reigns and take a stand regarding what you want to be about in this life. No book, video, or person can do that for you.

I am very skeptical of claims. You probably know that there are many in the self-help arena. Tap your way to a better life, change your diet, reprogram your brain. To date, there is no good evidence for any of this. It is what I call hype resting on false hope.

I won't claim that ACT is the answer for you either. You will have to decide that for yourself. You can be confident in knowing that the research base to date shows that ACT can be enormously helpful as a means to alleviate human suffering and restore lives in a way that is whole, dignified, and in a way that does not disavow the pains of life that we all experience now and then as we step in directions that matter to us -- work, family, spirituality, community/nature, recreation, relationships, and on and on. You and your emotional life are not the enemy. You, the person and doer of your life, can learn to live better with what your mind and body does from time to time.

I don't intend to get political here, but the audacity of hope ought to be based on something more than claims and empty promises. Hype is built on promises and testimonials, hope is built on hard work -- showing that something that is thought to be helpful is actually helpful. What's cool is that ACT has done this via basic and applied research and continues to do this in a way that is open, recursive, and subject to the careful scrutiny of others -- not just scientists but the end users like you. That doesn't sound like empty promises to me, but real hope for something different.

This is what ACT offers -- the real, hard won hope for change. That change ultimately rests in your hands, feet, and mouth. Taking a bold step by doing something new is risky, but the science shows that you are not shooting in the dark here. Living out your dreams is risky business, but the greatest risk of all is to not have lived, to remain a prisoner of your mind, body, and old history replaying the same old messages that keep you stuck.

There is hope based on the thousands of people what have benefited from this work. You are not going this alone -- many have gone before you and have found a way to move with their hurts and do what matters to them. That's what the data shows. No hype, just evidence. And, please don't believe me, you can find out for yourself and decide for yourself. It is a risk for sure, but it may be a risk worth taking if your experience is calling you to take a bold step out of the same old -- the stuff that is crimping your life.

Hype is like a wave -- motivated by money, prestige, glory, fame, you name it. It comes and it goes. Hope is solid, radical, transforming, dignified, purposeful, and builds on collective and hard won know how. That kind of hope is what you can get, but you have to take a stand and make a commitment to get a different outcome in our life. We do not promise that your anxiety will go away if you work with our workbook. What we do promise is this: if you really give this a shot, you are likely to find that you life will grow in ways that before now seemed impossible. Living well requires that kind of work. Just take it one small step at a time.

With a Kind Heart,
John P. Forsyth

Friday, February 15, 2008

How Have You Struggled With Anxiety

For the past weeks or so, I ran a little poll asking folks to share how they've struggled to control anxiety, fear, and stress. In a way, what I was asking folks to consider was the tactics they've use to beat the anxiety monster. I launched that poll shortly after this blog started. About 21 people responded.

The sample is a bit small, but I think it reflects some common strategies used by many people who are stuck and suffering with anxiety. I've listed the results below from the most common strategy to the least. As you look the list over, be mindful that most people selected more than 1 strategy.

Here are the results listed from most common to least common tactic with the percentages of people who endorsed each:

1. Distract myself from unpleasant thoughts and feelings 80%
2. Avoid activities or situations that may bring on anxiety/fear 76%
3. Try to suppress or push away unwanted thoughts/feelings 76%
4. Talk or vent with a friend 76%
5. Try to change how I think (thinking good thoughts) 71%
6. Try to talk myself out of my anxiety and fear 71%
7. Educate myself about anxiety and its disorders 66%
8. Sought out psychotherapy 66%
9. Turned to self-help books 61%
10. Take mediations 57%
11. Change diet or use herbal supplements and vitamins 47%
12. Stay close to safe people or situations 42%
13. Turned to alcohol and/or other drugs 42%
14. Run away from scary or frightening situations 38%
15. Join an online support group 23%
16. Carry objects or perform rituals 19%

All of these (and more) are reasonable and sensible strategies. If you are suffering from an anxiety problem, then chances are that you too have tried some of them. You shouldn't beat yourself up for that either.

The real question to ask is this: how have these well-intentioned anxiety management strategies worked for you? Think short and long-term here. Look to your experience and see if you can take stock.

Have they worked in the sense of defeating your anxiety monsters for good? Or, do they tend to buy you a brief honeymoon from your discomfort, with the anxiety monsters eventually coming back again and again to bite you and limit your life? Are you doing more with your life? Or, are you stuck and frustrated, with a nagging sense that the anxiety monsters will show up again and again, and then what?

If you're really willing to look at this and your life, you may find yourself reflecting on what you've given up in the service of managing and controlling your anxiety? Think here about want you'd spend your time doing if it wasn't focused on anxiety. These are the things that you probably care deeply about and that make your life whole and complete. And, these very same things are probably not happening as much as you would like because the anxiety monster seems to be ruling the roost.

I'm not putting these questions out there to make this blog post a real bummer for you. These questions are there for a simple reason. Unless we really take stock and look at the things that are not working in our lives, then we are likely to keep on repeating them. And, if we allow that to go on unchecked, then there's a great possibility that we'll continue to get what we've always got. I'm not sure what that may be for you, but chances are it may be more suffering in anxiety and a sense that you continue to feel stuck while your life is passing you by.

The good news about all of this is that things can be different if we are willing to risk doing something new. Instead of more struggle and resistance with yourself and your emotional life, you can instead opt for a kinder and gentler response. That softer response is what mindful acceptance can offer and what we describe in our new workbook.

And, people I know that have taken the time to nurture those skills tell me that they've gained a new found sense of freedom. They no longer feed the anxiety monster with more struggle. Nope! What they do instead is let it be just as it is and refocus their precious attention, time, and energy doing the things that they care deeply about in this life. Funny, I've never met anyone that put "He finally defeated his anxiety monster" on the top of the list of things they want to be known for in this life.

I've probably said enough for now. See if you are willing to spend some time with these questions. We all probably should do that while we still have the time to change. Watch your mind here too. Watch for "I'm beating myself up" kind of thoughts and judgments about this or that. When that happens to me, I smile, and thank my mind for those thoughts, those old hooks and rusty snares that tend to keep me stuck. And then, when I'm ready, I refocus again on what I want to do, right where I am and with my mind doing its thing.

With a Kind Heart
Dr. John P. Forsyth

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mindful Acceptance for Anxiety: Some Thoughts

I have a number of thoughts that I plan to share on this blog in the coming weeks. Much of that will speak to the ways that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT) might be helpful to get out anxiety and back into a more vital life.

For now, I just wanted to share a recent interview that I did on the Kathryn Zox show. You can access the podcast by clicking here. The interview is mostly focused on my new book -- The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy."

As I replayed the interview, I had many thoughts about this or that. You'll see that Kathryn Zox (a very smart woman) was trying to wrap her head around some of what ACT and the workbook has to offer. I could sense the struggle for understanding a bit, and I think I know why it is there.

Most of us think of anxiety as a problem to be done away with, not as an experience that can be had while we live out our dreams. So, she naturally asked about the book in terms of ways to control and manage anxiety. I tried my best to reframe that talk, in part, because in my experience it is more of the same message that hasn't worked for me or many other people -- old wine, new label. You can listen for yourself to see how I did on that front. Right now, I know my mind is feeding me all kinds of stuff about the interview and most of it not good (thanks for the thoughts mind!).

You could certainly use mindfulness and acceptance strategies to defeat the anxiety monsters in your life. In fact, some people promote mindfulness to do just that -- use it as another shovel to dig yourself out of your pain. Yet, you can also use many other strategies too. I know I have. The poll on this page lists just a few of those tactics too.

At some point, and I'm not sure when, I asked myself whether this was just more of the same old -- mindfulness to relax away anxiety is like using relaxation to relax away anxiety. Then, I asked, has that really worked as I had hoped -- I mean worked long-term as a solution? Did the anxiety monster ever go away and for good?

I then asked the same about other sensible looking tactics that I and others have tried: distraction, challenging my thoughts, medications, staying in safe places, avoiding this or that, more medications, alcohol, becoming the expert about anxiety or another human emotion, or countless other tactics -- all about winning the war with my pain -- not just the anxiety, but the other stuff that I and most people don't like very much. My experience told me that these strategies were great at making the anxiety hole bigger, deeper, and more scary. That makes sense because shovels are for digging, not for getting out of holes. All of this is a natural product of struggle -- we are stuck in a nasty pit, watching, waiting, hoping and praying to get out. Yet, anxiety continues to get bigger and our lives continue to shrink. That is, so long as we continue to dig.

Our book is really about doing something radically new -- it challenges the struggle, control, management agenda itself without disavowing human pain. And, it shows a way into a more vital life without struggling to manage your thoughts and emotional experience. Remember from a previous post how I talked about thoughts and emotions being fickle. You can also think of them like ocean waves. Like the waves on the sea of existence, they come and they go without much effort on our part. Yet, they will certainly stick around the more we struggle against them. That is something I and many people with whom I have worked have noticed firsthand and from their experience.

The ideas in the workbook also cut against the grain of the culture of feelgoodism that most of us have grown up with. So, it is understandable why Kathryn was working hard to wrap her ahead about the ideas inside the workbook. The ideas are new, sometimes seeming a bit backwards at first, even upside down. I think that is a good thing. ACT is new, and it goes against the old programming, and that's also why it's also potentially vital as a way out of suffering and back into a whole, dignified, and complete life. I'll have lots more to say about ACT and anxiety later on.

With a Kind Heart
Dr. John P. Forsyth

Thursday, January 31, 2008

What Makes Anxiety a Problem?

I've been thinking quite a bit about what flips anxiety and fear on its head and turns it into a life shattering problem. If you read and tune into the media and Westernized notions of health and wellness, the answer is clear: too much anxiety is a problem, and that anxiety is seen as a major obstacle to a vital life. I know it is hard to define "too much," but the idea is so entrenched that it makes sense. I wonder about that message.

Intense anxiety and other forms of human pain and discomfort are talked about as good reasons for this or that, and particularly for not doing this or that. You can look at this for yourself. Have you ever said something like "I can't go or do _______ [insert something that is important to you or that you would like to do] because I might get/feel/think _______ [insert a thought or feeling that you don't like to think or feel]. As soon as we do that, we are doing two things that are really set ups for struggle.

The first is our tendency to tell stories about our experience in the form of reasons. Often, when we do this, our stories place our emotional discomfort between us and doing what is important and vital. This can take many forms. For instance, "I can't fly in a plane because I might panic," or "I don't want to go to the party because I might get nervous and embarrass myself." Or, "I don't express my love for someone I care deeply about because I'm steaming mad," or "Don't go out to a movie or a dinner with friends because I am feeling depressed, empty, or unlikable."

Once this happens, it is natural to buy our stories and what they mean. And, if you look closely at them, you'll see that in order to do what you want to do, you'll need to take care of the discomfort that seems to stand between you and that doing. This can lead you to doing many things to make the discomfort go away. The list here is legion, really.

And, if you follow this unchecked, it can lead you to places you'd rather not be. So, when you're feeling mad, you'll need to get that under wraps to show love, caring, and appreciation to those you care about. That means you'll be spending time struggling to get a handle on your feelings of anger while opportunities to show love (even with the anger feelings) slip away. If you're anxious, you'll need to get calm in order to do certain things. The same is true of panic, or worry, or upsetting thoughts, and the like. These and more are examples of stories we've all learned to tell about ourselves, our lives, and our experiences. Many of them link thinking and feeling well with living well, and thinking and feeling discomfort with not doing or inaction. This is a trap.

Feelings and thoughts are fickle. They tend to come and go more or less on their own. Heck, I know that if I waited to feel "good" before reading a story to my 6 year old daughter, then she and I would be waiting a very long time (and she, in turn, wouldn't get story time). And worse, I would be spending a heck of a lot of time getting a handle on my thoughts and feelings, and that is just tiresome. I also know first hand that time and energy spent trying to feel and think better is time and energy away from living better.

And, nobody asks for the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that our minds and bodies dish out every once in a while. Anxiety happens. It's not a choice. Where we do have choice is in how we respond to the stuff showing up between our ears and in our bodies. This point is critical.

There is enough research out there showing that intense anxiety and fear doesn't invariably lead to life shattering problems. You and I are wired with the capacity to experience emotions intensely -- the good, the bad, and at times the ugly. It is easy to think we are alone with our emotional pain. Yet, millions of people all over the world (since the dawn of time) have had and continue to experience significant pain and emotional discomfort daily. Yet, somehow many of these same people find a way to live well with their discomfort and with very painful aspects of their past. They do that without wallowing in it, without drowning in it, and without disavowing the pain of life. They are simply unwilling to let their discomfort and raucous mind and body stand between them and what they want to do.

I've wondered about what little secret these folks have that allows them to do that. I think their secret is this: they don't take the bait -- the hooks that our minds can create that say "fix your pain, struggle with it, manage it, control it, and then you'll be happy and live better." Instead, they've learned to hold their thoughts more lightly and to focus on moving with their unpleasant mind and body in directions that they care about (e.g,. "I can fly with my anxious mind and body" if I am willing and chose to do that). And, they notice that their minds will continue to do what minds do -- provide an endless stream of thoughts in the form of stories, evaluations, judgments, thoughts about thoughts, thoughts about feelings, thoughts linking pain with action or inaction, and on and on. That's it. They notice it without getting caught up in it.

A powerful way to interrupt the cultural programing and our old histories is to practice just noticing our emotional life just as it is, and not as our mind and old programming says it is -- bad, awful, terrible, unacceptable, dangerous. This is something we can all learn to do. I've have more to say about this later.

The important thing for now is to practice recognizing the old story lines, and ask "if I do what I've always done, will I continue to get what I've always got." If the answer is yes (look to your experience here, not your mind because you mind will tell you that just maybe this time it will be different, you'll finally beat this discomfort for good), then perhaps it is time to do something different than you've done before. Pausing for a moment and just noticing your thoughts and reactions to them will likely be new for you. That's a good start on your journey out of anxiety and into a more vital life.

With a Kind Heart,
John P. Forsyth

Monday, January 28, 2008

Places Where Our Minds Dwell

Have a look at the picture to the right. I like that picture because it shows three places where our minds often take us. Here they are:
1. A past that once was
2. A future that has yet to happen
3. The present.

This is what minds do all the time. Yours, mine, and just about everyone, except for infants and very young children. If you've ever really watched them you will see that they live almost entirely in the here and now. Yet, once they start learning language, their minds gain the capacity to live in the future or wallow in a past that is long gone. This is both a blessing and a curse. Here's why:

My life and yours is lived out, moment by moment, in the here and now. That is where we are, and where we can act to make a difference in our lives. This understanding is key. Our minds will often quickly escort us in the past and future. Think about where your head was while taking a shower this morning (assuming that you did), and you'll know what I mean.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing mind you. Being able to remember and to foreshadow is a wonderful gift. These capacities can help us avoid repeating past mistakes, relish in old memories, and plan for what's to come. Yet, there is also a dark side to this piece. If we fail to recognize where our minds are taking us vs. where we are, we can miss opportunities to do the things that make a difference in our lives right where we are -- here, in this moment, fully present and alive.

And worse, we can start substituting our memories and predictions for our present experience, and can end up feeling stuck in endless re-runs of past mistakes, missed opportunities, and the like. In short, we can live more in our heads than in the moment. There is a stuckness to this that may sound familiar. I've been there many times and know what that is like. This is where mindfulness skills can help.

So, the next time your mind pulls you out of the present and leaves you feeling miserable or wallowing, just pause for a moment. Thank your mind for that reminder and see if you can gently guide your attention back to the here and now just where you are. Then ask yourself "what do I want to do now?" What do I want to be about, right here, right now?"

Here's another mantra. I borrowed it from my kids when they first were learning to ride the school bus. It goes like this: "Stop, Look, and Listen, or You Won't See What You're Missing." A good mantra to help remind us that we can't afford to miss the present, for it is in the present that we create our lives one small step at a time.

With a Kind Heart,

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Problem Solving Run Amok

Here's a problem: 2 + 2 = ____. Go ahead and solve it.

Here's another: what is bigger a nickel or a dime? Answer, a dime of course.

Yet another problem: The paint is peeling in your living room. You've decided to do something about that. What would you do? Come up with some options. You can also consider these: balancing a checkbook, buying groceries to feed yourself, getting to work on time, taking out the garbage, and on and on.

Now, try out these problems. Think -- how have you tried to solve them?
1. I'm really anxious and I need to be calm.
2. I'm having disturbing thoughts and need to make them go away.
3. I'm in the middle of a panic attack and need to make it stop.
4. I'm reminded of painful memories and I need to turn them off.
5. I'm really angry and need to get that under control.
6. I'm sad and want to be happy.

You can even take problems like 1-6, and put them in this form:
If I [insert something you'd like to do or a place you'd like to go], then I may experience [insert something coming from your mind and body that you don't like very much]. Go ahead and solve this one with an eye on avoiding the "stuff" you don't like very much.

Here's the point. Problem solving works really well in the world around us. So, it makes perfect sense to apply problem solving to the stuff going
inside of us, particularly the stuff we don't like very much.

The rub though is that we can't solve ourselves out of our own pain. Anxiety cannot be swapped out and replaced like the paint color on our living room wall. Upsetting thoughts, sadness, even anger cannot be thrown out like the garbage either.

Yet, we persist in trying to find solutions to our pain, in part, because that's what we've learned to do. And, we do it because that's what our culture has taught us to do -- when you think and feel well, then you will live well. Yet, a good deal of research confirms what you probably know already -- the solutions to the anxiety problem don't work long term, and in fact tend to expand and amplify the pain, and keep you stuck and miserable.

So, what are we to do? My suggestion, and it is only that, is to look at whether the anxiety problem needs to be solved for you to get your life back. Has it worked as you hoped? If not, then just maybe there is a way to let it be "just as it is" while doing what you care about in this life. This is something you can do. And, it may help reduce the suffering you experience with anxiety, or other forms of discomfort. You may then be freed up to get on with living your life as you wish without the shackles of anxiety holding you back. This is the point of ACT and the focus of our new workbook for people suffering with anxiety problems.

With a Kind Heart,

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books