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, 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

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books