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, March 18, 2008

Your Path Out of Anxious Suffering and Into A More Vital Life

The other day I heard from someone who started using The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. Her story was deeply moving and got me thinking about life and what we are here for. You can see part of her story by clicking here. Her experience speaks to the trials and tribulations of living a full and dignified life and how hard it is for all of us to be human -- to be just as we are.

I'd like to do something different here. Instead of posting my thoughts, I'd like to hear from you. I've set up the comments section so that you can post and share your thoughts about your experience with anxiety and fear. And, please feel free to ask questions too, or suggest ideas for things you'd like me to talk about on this blog. If you've started using The Mindfulnes & Acceptance Workbook, it would be neat to hear how it's going and how it is impacting your life, even in small ways, and even if your mind tells you that it's tough (watch your mind here). That's ok too.

With a Kind Heart,

John P. Forsyth


Anonymous said...

Hi John,

First of all I'd like to complement you on your great blog. My experience with anxiety and fear is that it has some tricky symptoms. Not only the standard ones like a racing heart and a panicky feeling. But also the ones that tend to make you think there is something different going on than anxiety. Things like dizziness, depersonalisation, strange scary thoughts, feeling like going mad, and the emotional spend feeling can be overwhelming. Working with mindfulness and acceptance is something I want to do for a long time now, but because it feels so counter intuitive anxiety wins and you wound up recieving the same thing you always got. And this cycle just goes on. When talking about negative thought patterns, i can say from experience that most of the time you don't even notice your thoughts or their impact. It just has full control over you, dragging you deeper into anxiety and depression. I think this is something many anxiety sufferers deal with. When you try to stop looking for a solution a giant empty hole shows up and you start beating yourself up because you wasted so much time on this. But because you don't feel like identifying your values, you just start all over again looking for a solution. This circle complete with all the symptoms I described can realy bog you down. I wonder if you experienced positive outcomes with these kinds of anxiety symptoms/problems by applying acceptance and mindfulness. Self pity and hoplesness are tricky traps that keeps one from moving on.
N, Holland

John P. Forsyth said...

Hi N Holland --

Sorry for the delay in writing back. I had replied via email and then realized that I had to come here to respond.

The pull and spin you talk about is very common in all of us, and really tends to show up when we are faced with raging discomfort. It is at those times where we can feel like we've faced another wall. And, when we face that, most of us tend not to want to touch it, look into it, with curiosity, with gentleness, and with kindness.

ACT can be helpful during those times when our natural tendency is to withdraw and to dig. As you say, the hole we find ourselves in tends to feel bigger and more scary when we dig. The alternative is to look in when our natural tendency is to pull out and grab the shovel.

To develop the skills to disarm your mind, you'll need to turn up your willingness dial. That is, you'll have to muster a bit of courage to perhaps look into that which seems so dangerous, frightening, gripping. This is something that you do have control over -- that is, what you do with the thoughts and uncomfortable feelings going on inside you.

You are right that mindful acceptance does feel counterintuitive. I think that's exactly why it can be vital and can give us space to do something other than struggle, wallow, and dig. It takes time and commitment to cultivate.

You may want to see if you can practice some of the mindfulness exercises each day. Perhaps do that in the morning. And then follow the practice with the intention to look into the old negative news -- thoughts, sensations, thoughts about the sensations -- that tend to pull you out of your life. You might then end your practice with an intention focused on what it is you wish to do this day.

Remember too that you are not alone in this. I've experienced the pain you speak of and so have countless other human beings since the dawn of time. It's ok to be who you are. Letting go and doing something that is less engaged, less caught up in winning the fight, may bring you a sense of peace to explore what it is you want to do in your life, in the small moments that add up to each day.

ACT has been shown to be helpful for the kinds of things you experience -- several studies show that.

Your values can get clouded over by this struggle. Yet, they are probably there, waiting for you to have a look. Watch your mind here telling you that you have to feel like looking at your values. If you wait for the right feeling, you may be waiting a very long time. The reason is that feelings tend to be fickle, they strut on the stage of existence more or less on their own, and then recede into the background to be replaced by something else. On and on it goes, an endless stream to experience. We can certainly keep them around longer depending on how we approach them. Perhaps when you don't feel like looking at your values is the time to look. This would be new, or it seems that way to me. Even a small moment with what you care about when you don't feel like caring is different.

I hope some of this might be helpful to you. You can get out of the hole, and that may simply require a choice to be with it and to stop digging, particularly if digging isn't work and is only making the hole bigger. Perhaps allow yourself a few moments in a quite space to consider this: If I weren't spending my time trying to dig out of this, then I would like to do what? Am I willing to touch and look at that which frightens me? Am I bigger that that which frightens me?

Remember too that our old habits don't develop over night. Yet, new habits that are more patient, less engaged, more flexible, kinder and gentler can be developed too. These may give you freedom to move into other areas of your life that are more vital. Just a thought.

One more thing ... It is common for people to feel worse doing ACT and meditation before sensing relief and freedom. Part of the reason has to do with the process of opening up. When you open up without struggle, you will more honestly experience what is there. And, if you look, you will find lots of things in there, no one of them you. Yet, with practice, you'll be able to be with your emotional life in all its richness without needing to fix any of it. This can bring peace of mind.

Peace -john

p.s. -- If you are using our workbook, allow yourself time with the material.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your great reply, it helps a lot and makes much sense. I am looking forward to work with the new workbook. It's not yet translated to dutch, so i'll wait for that.

Anonymous said...

Hi John, I wanted to leave another comment on my experience with anxiety. I read out of your reply and last post that you suffered from anxiety yourself.
I know reassurance is not the best thing for anxiety :) But I am walking around with this question for so many years now I just need to know. Is depersonalisation/derealisation, a detached feeling from suroundings and diziness, nausea, etc related to anxiety. I suffered from anxiety in the past and still do, but nowaydays it seems that it turned more into these symptoms. I can not apply acceptance without some sort of understanding of these symptoms. The feeling of going mad, and the thought: "will this ever end?" just haunt me. I know ACT can help me, but all these strange somatic complaints hold me back. Does anxiety and stress cause these complaints? thank you for your great blog.

Greetings, N

John P. Forsyth said...

Hi N -- First, thanks for the comment. It's nice to hear from folks that visit this blog.

To be honest, I have had my fair share of anxieties in my life, and still do. Heck, I've spent a goodly part of my life avoiding displeasing others. I call it "people pleaser syndrome," but in truth it's really just an illusion that my mind creates. It took my most of my natural life to this point to face the stark reality that I cannot please anyone. What I need to do is do what I value. Follow my gut if you will. And, I've found that when I do that, I tend to experience a sense of vitality, even when things don't always go according to my "mind's plan."

About derealization...all I'd like to say at this point is that it's ok. What you experience is common -- students read and get to the end of a page and don't remember anything they read. All they know is that they are at the end of the page. Or, driving on the highway and not being aware of what you passed for the last 10 miles.

Dissociation is disconnection. The solution is mindful presence, something that ACT teaches. You develop that skill to be fully present, lean right into your experience just as it is. Notice it just as it is, just where you are. This takes courage and commitment, but you know what,you have everything that you need. It is the most basic and simple of skills. Our dogs and cats do it all the time. It is hard for us because our mind and language creeps in and creates a reality that is not so -- it is a verbal construction.

I'll write again if you wish. I don't mean to minimize your pain. I know it is real. What I am trying to do is suggest that it is not as damn nasty as you mind says it is.

Be patient.

Practice the mindfulness skills -- this will help you ground in your experience with the world happening right where you are.

Then, embrace that moment, for all moments have something to teach us. We grow through them.

With a Kind Heart,

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books