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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fear and Money Lost -- Creating a Life Worth Living

Nobody can escape the news about the world-wide financial crisis. It is creating a culture of panic and fear. I wonder about that.

I did an interview the other day on anxiety and money with Amanda Ripley, a senior writer for Time Magazine. Her blog and the Time interview are neat and worth checking out. The interview was much fun and a time to reflect for me.

Just the other day I heard a senior financial guru say that "panic is not a sound investment strategy." That pearl of wisdom resonates with me. I suppose his point is that we make poor decisions when emotions run high. I think the same is true as far as living well is concerned. If we let panic, fear, or anxiety run our lives, we will tend to make choices that are not in our best interest. We will pull out of activities that matter for a brief honeymoon of relief and calm. This is not a sound life investment strategy because it will keep you stuck.

Emotions and thoughts are fickle -- they come and go, change and morph, like the weather. We have limited control over them too, and that's why they are not a good guide for our actions. Heck, if you want to get a sense of that, try this simple exercise: you cannot use the bathroom until you feel really happy, content, and at peace with yourself. See what happens? You can expand this out to other things -- like planning a trip, seeing the kids play a sport, extending an act of kindness, taking care of your health, connecting with other people, going to work, enjoying nature, giving of your time. If you have to wait until you think and feel good before doing these and other activities, you'll be waiting a very long time. And, like the bathroom exercise, you'll probably feel a looming sense of dread and urgency as you wait and your life ticks by.

I know that I have lost a good deal of my retirement investments, and I haven't looked to find out just how much I have lost. The media and the news leave me assured that I have lost money, and likely significant monies. Knowing that this is mostly out of my control, I have made a choice to focus on what matters to me now and what I can do with my time and energies right now. Yes, there is anxiety, but there is also vitality. My future has yet to happen, that's why it is the future. I can do many vital things now that don't cost me a dime. You can too.

It is easy to think of retirement as one thing. And, if that one image is linked with having x amount of money, then the financial crisis happening now will naturally wreck havoc on your image of your retirement future. That future will appear to blow up in your face as your money disappears, and that can seem very scary. It may be helpful here to think of your retirement more flexibly -- after all, it hasn't happened yet, and simply thinking it just so won't make it so. We are dealing now with thoughts about a future, not the future as it may turn out to be.

It has helped me and others to think flexibly about the future, and to play with thoughts of retirement that are decoupled from money. I've heard people say that retirement is more than having money, and I think they are right. Though money is helpful in taking care of basic needs, it won't buy perpetual happiness or a rich life, now, tomorrow, or when we retire. You can have all the money in the world in your retirement years, and still be miserable.

The choices we make now help shape and mold our lives, and those choices add up to a life worth living. Anxiety and fear need not run the show. There is a way to get out of our anxieties and back into our lives. This is something we all can learn to do, and that kind of hope for a better life cannot be bought or sold.

With a Kind Heart,

John P. Forsyth
author, The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free From Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

If you are interested in participating in the Workbook Study, follow this link to the study website or go directly to www.ACTforAnxiety.com .

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books