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

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Eliminating Anxiety, Chasing Happiness

The first thing that often comes to mind when the anxiety monster rears its ugly head is to get rid of it. Our culture supports this too. And, many books and gurus claim that they hold the secret to anxiety, and some go so far as to say "I have the cure." You pay for what you get, and unfortunately what you will often get with these false claims is disappointment. Anxiety is not an emotion that is curable. It need not be cured either. And, it cannot be eliminated so long as you are living. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. The science is clear on this point.

The language of elimination is everywhere in our disposable culture. And, that talk is a great set up when it comes to the pain we experience in our heads and in our hearts. Think of it this way. If I wanted to get rid of my old clothes, garbage in the kitchen, or the chair I am sitting on now, I could do that. That would involve getting up and tossing out what I want to remove. Once I decide on that and follow through, it's gone. That's how elimination works in the world around us.

Elimination doesn't work the same way when applied to our inner world, whether that be our unpleasant thoughts, feelings, disturbing images, memories of a painful past, and on and on. Try to eliminate a thought you don't like very much, and chances are the thought will stick around for quite a while. In fact, just making the effort to do that implies that it must be done. Try the same with a painful memory, urge, or emotion, and you'll get the same -- perhaps a brief honeymoon from the pain, but then it comes back again, perhaps stronger the next time.

Everything we know from science and human experience points to one conclusion here: our nervous systems and brains are additive, not subtractive. Thoughts and feelings cannot be tossed out, eliminated, and the like. It just doesn't work that way. Nobody has an anxiety dumpster.

The other sticky piece with the language of elimination is that it sets us up for struggle, and that struggle is with ourselves, and aspects of our genuine experience that we may not like very much. You probably know what that feels like. It just plain hurts to fight and struggle with real aspects of your experience. Many people say as much. This ought to make sense to you. That struggle is linked with you. To see how this works, consider this one: Anxiety is "bad." "I am anxious." So, I must also be bad. Naturally, nobody wants to think of themselves as "bad" but that's exactly where all of this can lead. So, when you fight your anxieties you are fighting yourself. And, in a way, resting who you are. That resistance of your sense of self hurts too.

Remember that most people do not like to experience emotional hurt or intense anxiety, but still find a way to live well and with their pain. There is nothing magical about what they do. At a basic level, they've learned to let go of the agenda of elimination -- no more fixing, struggling with, disavowing, identifying with, their emotional discomfort.

Rather than disavowing pain, you can learn to just acknowledge it, let it be as it is (not as what your mind says it is, like bad, terrible, dangerous, this can't be happening), and bring kindness and a nonjudgmental quality to that experience. When you do that, there is nothing to fight against, nothing to eliminate. There's nothing to be fixed. Nothing to resolve. No need to be anything other than what you are experiencing. This stance is powerful, and cuts the suffering right out of anxiety and fear.

This is critical to understand. Fear will keep you trapped so long as you are unwilling to have it, touch it, and let it be. Life is about pain once in a while. And, when we step in the direction of something we care about, we often risk experiencing something that we'd rather not experience -- hurt, regret, sadness, loss, anger, abandonment, anxiety, fear, remorse. If we operate from the perspective that our pain is something that mustn't be had, the trap is sprung. Pain transforms in that instant and becomes a problem to be solved just like other problems that must be solved. Yet, we cannot problem solve ourselves out of our own pain. All that effort to get a foothold on our anxiety can pull us out of our lives in a flash.

If you have any doubts about this, try it -- try to run from you. When people are truly successful doing that, it is often by engaging in avoidance and sometimes self-destructive behaviors, like drugs and alcohol. None of this really works as a long term solution. What it does do is buy us a brief honeymoon from the pain and its source -- that's why we keep doing it. Yet, the pain comes back, and we again feed it, dignify it, struggle with it, in part, because that is what we have learned to do in our culture of feelgoodism. You know that message and so do I -- think and feel better and then you will be happy and successful. I think this is an illusion.

Happiness is not a thing. And, it is an experience that we have little control over. Some important and vital things we do in life do not involve "happy." Yet, we do them because we care, because we care to make a difference in this world, even if in a small way. Heck, if I waited to be happy before reading a bedtime story to my little girl, she would be waiting a very long time and so would I -- a dad missing a moment of closeness, sharing, and connection with my little girl. I am unwilling to put my life on hold in the service of happy or feeling less anxious. Feelings are fickle, and that's why they are not a good yardstick to judge vital actions. I have learned that I can be a dad even with my anxiety.

Anyway, this is some of what I have learned and borrowed from my experience and that of others much wiser than me. I'm sorry if this sounds like a person on a soapbox. That is not my intention. What I am speaking to is another path, one that does not require you or I to push aside the very real painful aspects of our experience.

Instead, it can be touched and acknowledged just as it is, just as it is happening anyway. This skill set -- being mindful, more compassionate, kinder with myself and my emotional life -- has taken me 10+ years of my natural life to develop. And, I still must work consciously to water it so that it will grow. I am not done. And, I am not immune to the pains of life. Yet, I suffer much less now than ever before.

The skills wrapped in mindful acceptance and ACT have given me perspective when my old history shows up and screams out "shut down, close up, withdrawn, struggle, narrow, harden...". It has helped me be lighter with myself, my mind, my body, my world. Not perfect. Ever evolving. Patient and kind (not just in thought, but in action -- the real key). This is the message and skill set we describe in The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. There is a way to end the suffering linked with your anxieties and reclaim your life. Anxiety need not be managed or eliminated first for that to happen. You can start right now.

The message of elimination sets us up for struggle. It says our pain isn't acceptable and must be dealt with in order to be happy. And, it sets us up for frustration and failure because nobody lives their lives without significant pain now and then. The antidote is mindful acceptance and learning to let go and meet the urge to struggle with a softer response. When you can sit with your discomfort openly and honestly and see it and touch it just as it is, there is no struggle. Nothing to fix. Nothing to resist. It just is. And, you -- the doer of your life -- can focus on what you want to be about.

This kinder space emerges when we chose to let go of trying to be something other than we are. You do that by chosing to stop struggling and by letting go of trying to chase happiness. This will give you freedom to be just as you are, and with that you can then focus on what you really want to do, right where you are -- one moment after the next, one day at a time.

I apologize for this long post. It was not my intention when I signed on. Yet, I let the experience be and I followed my heart. I wish that for you too. You can gain freedom from the suffering linked with anxiety and find happiness and vitality in your life. And, you can do that without having to disavow your emotional life, your mind, or your heart and body.

With a Kind Heart,
John P. Forsyth

[some of these ideas are based on "The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free From Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy"]

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books