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

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Anxiety Management and Control

Over the past few weeks I haven't written much on this blog. The honest truth is that I've had too much going on for my own good. I think we all know what that's like -- life calls us to take care of this or that, and somethings just have to get done. The mountain of tasks can pile up, and it is at those times that it is easy to lose peace of mind and focus. We become reactive and not proactive -- feeling as though we are being pulled and pushed here and there because of external pressures, or fires that spring up and must be put out. Anxiety and fear can seem like that too.

The last poll I put up on this page hints that this pull and push with anxiety management and control. I asked folks to think about how anxiety management works in the short-term and long -term. The results tell an interesting story. About 84% said that trying to manage and control anxiety buys them some relief in the short-term, yet 100% said that it doesn't work as a lasting solution. The anxiety keeps coming back, demanding that you attend to it, and not to your life.

To break this cycle, we need to pay attention to the things we do in the short-term. The honeymoons from anxiety and fear we get with anxiety management and avoidance keep the cycle going, but never solve the problem long-term. To break the cycle, we need to learn to be pay attention in the short-term and be proactive, not reactive.

Our workbook teaches you some important skills to keep you from being sucked into the same old struggles that don't work and that pull you out of your life. Instead of pulling out, you learn to lean in, purposefully, with compassion, kindness, and intention. This buys you wiggle room to have what you are having anyway, just as it is, and to put your energies into something else that you'd rather be doing.

There is an old Chinese saying that goes something like this: what is soft is strong. You know that if you've ever watched water pass over rocks on a stream bed. Water will wear away rock -- something very hard. The same is true of the softer response packed in the skills of mindful acceptance, compassion, and kindness. When you meet the hardness of your pain with these softer responses, you might just find that you regain freedom to move and do the things that matter to you in this life and with whatever your mind and body might be doing.

Remember: Anxiety is not a choice. What you do with your anxiety is a choice. Meeting anxiety with struggle is like rock against rock -- and, you likely know what you get. Hardness begets hardness. Another choice is to meet anxiety with a softer, kinder, and more gentle posture. For instance, if your anxiety were a young infant, how would you respond to it? How would you hold it? Think about that. This softer response is a choice. It is strong. And, it can help you regain focus to be more proactive with your life and less reactive when your pain threatens to pull you out of your life.

With a Kind Heart
John P. Forsyth

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books