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

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