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

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

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books