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, December 14, 2010

Living a Life on Purpose

As we approach the end of the year and the start of a new one, many people pause to reflect on their lives and resolve to make changes. It's interesting that we make this a priority once a year.

Thinking about the new year also got me thinking about why we don't resolve to manifest our intentions in our actions every single moment of each day. I think there are many reasons why we put off doing what matters more regularly, much of it having to do with fear, listening to our mind feeding us epithets that really are unhelpful and limiting, and the tendency to think that we'll always have tomorrow to live out our dreams.

The truth though is that tomorrow may never come. I've always known that, but nothing can wake us up to the reality that life is short than knowing someone who has died. My wife and I lost a good friend and former neighbor last week. She died unexpectedly from cancer at the age of 46. She was just hitting her stride, had three lovely children and a husband. And, she was a person who would be there to lend a hand, help with school, and was actively involved with her kids and her community. That's just the kind of person she was.

But now she's gone. Nobody saw it coming. And that's the danger here. None of us know when it will all end. We just don't know. All we really know for certain is what we have right now, just were we are. And, life asks us whether we are willing to use the "now time" we have for good purpose, and in a way that upholds what really matters to us, or not.

I'm not saying that any of this is easy either. Life routinely provides us with obstacles, problems, and pain, and often these potential barriers show up in places that really matter to us. We can learn to meet these barriers in a new and different way, or we can succumb to their mantra shouting "don't do it, you can't do it, it'll be too much, too risky, too hard .. too _____ [you fill in the blank]." In short, when we listen to the pain and buy into what our minds make of the pain and challenges that life offers, we'll often end up doing nothing. And that's not good for me or for you as far as living a life is concerned.

There is a way to go forward though. And, quite honestly, I know of no magic solution that can prevent the pain and difficulty that life offers. The trick, the way forward, is to find a way to navigate and move with the pain of life -- physical, emotional, psychological, and historical -- and not be stopped by it. This is the main aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy -- to cultivate a new relationship with pain and difficulty (and our old histories) in the service of moving forward in directions that matter.

In case anyone may be interested, we just put out a general ACT-infused book about life and making the most of it while we can. The book is called "Your Life on Purpose." I'm not asking that you buy it, but if you are curious you can find it on Amazon and most bookstores. It's a quick read and includes a number of exercises to help folks clarify what really matters, understand what gets in the way of living a mattering life, and then skills to cultivate a new relationship with the barriers in the service of living life on purpose and with a purpose.

At some point, we all will pause and reflect on how we are living our lives. For many, it is a sobering process, like wading through a junk yard full of missed opportunities and regrets. But it doesn't have to be that way. It can also be a wake up call, a nudge to make the most of the time we've been given. I sincerely hope that it doesn't take a major illness or tragedy to move each of us enough to take the reigns and a bold step forward into a life that matters while we can.

Said with a kind heart and warm wishes for peace now and into the new year,

John P. Forsyth, Ph.D.

Author of the "Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety," "Your Life on Purpose," and "ACT on Life, Not on Anger."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Using Exposure-Based Strategies in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: A One-Day Professional Workshop

ACT involves cultivating a new relationship with painful and difficult aspects of our own histories in the service of moving forward into a more vital life -- living well. This can be challenging for all of us, and that includes therapists.

So, we've put together a little 1 day training to walk mental health professionals through the process of helping their clients (and perhaps themselves) open up to pain and difficulty so that they can do what matters to them. Many folks call this exposure, but within ACT, it is really much more nuanced than that. And, exposure within ACT has a look and feel to it that it unlike more traditional exposure.

I thought to word about this workshop announcement here in the event that you or someone you know might be interested in coming. You can also find the link to the announcement at New Harbinger by clicking here. We are limiting the number of seats.

With a Kind Heart

John P. Forsyth

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sneak Peak at Results of The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook Studies

As some of you know, we've been evaluating the Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety (MAWA) in two large clinical trials. We wanted to find out if the workbook is helpful when used by people who are struggling with anxiety. And, we wanted to see if the workbook is helpful when people use it more or less on their own.

The first study -- comparing the MAWA to a waitlist control condition -- is done and we are writing up the results. The second study comparing the MAWA to the Cognitive and Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety is near completed too. I hope to share the full results of both studies here too, once we write up the findings and submit them for publication.

In the meantime, I have been presenting the findings at scientific meetings, and most recently at the World Congress of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science in Reno NV. A colleague, Dr. Brian Thompson, attended the presentations and wrote a blog post about what he learned. I thought to share his blog post here in case you might be interested. You can check out his blog at Scientific Mindfulness.

With a Kind Heart

John P. Forsyth, Ph.D.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

Last week I attended the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) World Conference in Reno, NV. During the lunch hour for a pre-conference weekend training with Dr. John Forsyth from the University at Albany, SUNY , we had the option of sitting in on a presentation of some unpublished research John and his lab had collected about his recent self-help book, The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, which he co-authored with Dr. Georg Eifert. I have an interest in the effectiveness of self-help books, so I was eager to see what he found.

John presented data from two studies. In the first study, he gave out free copies of his book through a website to participants who agreed to be randomly assigned to either receive his book immediately, or to receive it after being part of a 12-week waitlist condition. Participants were assessed before receiving the book, after 12-weeks, and at 3 and 6-month follow-ups. At the end of 12-weeks, compared to the waitlist, participants who used the book showed dramatic improvements in anxiety, depression, worry, social anxiety, and even PTSD. What's especially interesting about this is that anxiety decreased even though the book's emphasis is on improving one's life through cultivation of mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion rather than on getting rid of anxiety (and depression is not really addressed to my recollection). Readers of the book had significant increases in mindfulness, self-compassion, and quality of life that were maintained over the 3 and 6-month follow-ups. The same pattern happened for people who used the book after getting off the waitlist. Another remarkable thing about this study is that about half the participants were currently in psychotherapy and/or taking meds, suggesting that the book contributed to improvements above and beyond individual treatment. Nearly everyone (91%) had been in therapy before.

In a second study that is still underway, John used a similar design to compare his book to The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety, a respected workbook by William J. Knaus. John's lab is still collecting follow-up data, but results are showing that, although both books appear effective, people using the Mindfulness workbook are showing greater outcomes on virtually all measures.

I think these studies are great for several reasons. For one, the market is filled with self-help books but rarely are they evaluated to determine if people actually find them helpful
. Two, this is the most naturalistic study I've seen, as participants have no additional interaction with John's lab except to complete the online outcome assessments. Some other studies I've seen involve occasional interaction with someone from the lab to help people with a book, but in these studies, people are largely left to their own devices. Lastly, this study is very brave in that John risked finding: 1.) that his book was not helpful after all; 2.) that his book was helpful, but not as helpful as the Cognitive Behavioral workbook. Instead, his commitment to science has paid off for him in a big way. This book is a great illustration of how cultivation of mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion can really improve our lives.

Here's the website: www.actforanxiety.com

Here's the book:

Forsyth, J. P., Eifert, G. H. (2008). The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free of Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Books