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

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

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