TIL about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (pronounced as one word ‘ACT’). It comprises of six sequential behaviors that can better help you address your psychological discomforts. I am not in the state of judging it’s efficacy because I haven’t tried it in full, but there seems to be some redundancy in suggested behaviors and half of them are directly acquired from Buddhist teachings. In any case, I will split this TIL into two parts. Following are the first three “core principles”:
Defusion: This one comes right from the playbook of mindfulness, in that it asks the patient to disassociate herself with the discomforting thoughts. For example, actively bring some negative self judgement to your consciounsess, preferably something that has bothered you before. “I am such a loser in life”. Try to consider it as absolutely true and then notice how that “reality” makes you feel.
After a few seconds, instead of thinking “I am such a loser in life”, think “I am having a thought that… ‘I am such a loser in life’”. Do you notice any distance from the original thought? No? Okay, then try to understand the structure of that thought. Is it something you can see or is it something you can hear? Consider yourself as a scientist whose mission is to study this thought? Where is it located? In order to study it, maybe try saying it out loud again and again until it becomes pure sound without any meaning to it.
So the idea here is to actively play around with distressing thoughts in different ways and not allow them to only make you feel a particular emotion. Our usual way of dealing with them is to escape them which makes matter worse. Which brings us to the second behavior..
Expansion/Acceptance: Imagine a situation that makes you anxious. Could be going to a social event, speaking in front of a large crowd or talking to a relative you haven’t talked to in years. Point is that the imagination has to give rise to some negative feeling. Now like before, start observing the feeling like a scientist. No matter how silly it seems, try to find out the “weight”, “temperature”, “location” or “outline” of this negative emotion. Let your imagination run wild and anthromorphize that feeling if you can. Russ Harris describes it as switching off your “struggle switch”. When the switch is ON, we try to counter the negative feeling by escaping it or getting angry at it.
This means we could end up with anger about our anxiety: ‘How dare they make me feel like this?’ Or sadness about our anxiety: ‘Not again. Why do I always feel like this?’ Or anxiety about our anxiety: ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s this doing to my body?’ Or a mixture of all these feelings. These secondary emotions are useless, unpleasant, and unhelpful, and a drain upon our vitality. In response we get angry, anxious or guilty. Spot the vicious cycle?
But by switching it off using some silly but effective techniques, we are becoming comfortable with the feeling anxiety. It’s easier said than done of course but by being a little playful with them, one can drastically decrease the psychological damage that they usually cause. So next time you feel anxious, ask yourself “Is the struggle switch on or off?”
Contact with the present moment: Again, nothing different here from the ancient mindfulness techniques. Eating dinner? Shut out all simulations and focus only on your food. Look at it deeply (colors, shapes), notice the smells and feel all the flavors in your mouth while chewing. If you notice your brain thinking random thoughts while eating, slowly come back to doing these actions. It’s just like Vipassana but instead of inhaling and exhaling, you are trying to be fully present with a mundane task that you do everyday. Similar strategy can be performed with washing dishes or brushing teeth. It just has to be mundane enough that usually your brain goes into an unconscious state of random or non-random thinking while doing that task.
In the next TIL, I will summarize other three principles that power ACT: The Observing Self, Values and Committed Action.