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

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

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books