ACT and uncertain times

ACT is an apt acronym for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which broadly sits under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT).

Someone remarked to me recently that they were surprised by how many
different kinds of Anxiety had passed through their lives recently. They are
clearly not alone in that – to catalogue all the things that we could be anxious about here in November 2020 could take longer than counting the grains of sand on a beach, or stars in the sky. Traditional CBT seeks to create a dialogue between oneself and the Worries that may stop by, settle in or have taken up permanent residence. It asks us to consider each thought in the light of helpful or unhelpful thinking patterns, find ways to separate and identify them – are they (to name just a few) ‘castrophizing’, ‘black and white thinking’, ‘making mountains out of molehills’ are they ‘predicting the worst’??? Or are they one of the other many ways that we have identified that our mind works to understand and make a narrative of its experiences (past and present)?

ACT however, is less concerned with disputing, refuting, looking for evidence for or against the thoughts, it does not want to debate or generally struggle against thoughts. ACT holds that Anxiety is both useful, necessary and an inbuilt survival necessity. Worry and anxieties may in fact be helpful, if we can be curious about thoughts, it might be that even the most painful thoughts can have something useful to say. Dr. Russ Harris (The Happiness Trap) has outlined some ideas for questions to ask ourselves when Anxiety shows up in order to pay attention with openness and curiosity.

“Is/are this/these thought/s …
• alerting me to something important, I need to address?
• reminding me of something that requires preparation, planning, or action?
• reminding me of important values and goals?
• reminding me to be compassionate to myself or others?
• reminding me about my behavior or attitude?
• alerting me to potential threats and risks I need to prepare for?
• guiding me towards the life I want?
• reminding me how I want to treat myself or others?
• reminding me what I want to stand for (or stand against) in the world?
• alerting me to things I need to do differently?

If there is something useful in the thought/s showing up, let’s take that on board, and let it hold into values-guided action. But if there’s nothing useful, let’s simply acknowledge these thoughts are here, and allow them to come and stay and go in their own good time, while we give our energy and attention to what’s important.”

Often in struggling against, trying to distract from, alleviate the pain or distress humans find themselves engaging in behavior that takes them further from the values and the things that are important to them. This may make itself know through alcohol or other addictions, compulsive behaviours, suicidal ideations, self harm or many other ways of coping. Rather that attempting to avoid, minimize or distract from painful thoughts – ACT attempts to help people hold an anchor, if needed and at other times to live alongside and make room for the distressing feelings and allow the thoughts to come and go; knowing that like the weather it will come and it will go – and it will change without us needing to struggle against it.

ACT is a practical and experiential therapy, the above ideas about unhooking from painful, distressing or anxious thoughts are just part of the model that is utilized by many therapists today and has been identified as one of the gold standard talking therapy treatments for Anxiety and Depression in clinical research.

Dr Russ Harris

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin
SACAC Counselling

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