ACT for Beginners, Part II

Note: This is part two of a two-part post. View part one here.

Welcome back! Let’s summarize what we learned in part one: ACT speculates that the two primary drivers of suffering are cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance. To overcome these tendencies, there are six core processes in which we can engage to live more mindfully and integrate our values into our ongoing actions. The overall goal of ACT is to help us create a rich, full, and meaningful life, while accepting the pain that life inevitably brings. This is accomplished by:

Mindfulness: Teaching us psychological skills to handle painful thoughts and feelings effectively, in such a way that they have much less impact and influence.

Values clarification: Helping us to understand what’s truly important and meaningful to us so we can set goals and take action that enriches our life.

We all can benefit from learning to be more present; more in touch with our values; more able to make room for the inevitable difficulties of life.


Who Can Benefit From ACT?

In short, everyone! We all can benefit from learning to be more present; more in touch with our values; more able to make room for the inevitable difficulties of life; more able to distance ourselves from unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, and memories; and more able to take effective action in the face of emotional discomfort. Psychological flexibility brings all of these advantages, and more.

Specifically, ACT has been scientifically studied and shown to be effective with a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Workplace stress
  • Chronic pain
  • Psychological adjustment to cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Weight control
  • Smoking cessation
  • Self-management of diabetes

Now let’s explore some practical exercises you can use to begin implementing ACT strategies into your own life.

Exercises

Defusion

I’m having the thought that…

Put your negative self-judgment into a short sentence – in the form “I am X.” For example, “I’m not lovable,” or “I’m not smart enough.” Now fuse with this thought for ten seconds. In other words, get caught up in it and believe it as much as you can. Now silently replay the thought with this phrase in front of it: “I’m having the thought that…” For example, “I’m having the thought that I’m not lovable.” Now replay it one more time, but this time add the phrase, “I notice I’m having the thought that…” For example, “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m not lovable.” What happened? Did you experience a sense of separation or distance from the thought? If not, try the exercise again with a different thought

Have you ever felt like you can’t shut off your mind, or that instead of controlling your thoughts, they control you? Cognitive fusion refers to getting entangled in our thoughts or holding on to them too tightly. When we fuse with our thoughts, they dominate our behavior. We become so caught up with our mind’s stories, we’re not even aware that we’re thinking.

Letting go metaphors

The next time you experience difficult thoughts, use one of these metaphors to allow them to come and go like:

  • Passing cars, driving by outside your house
  • Clouds drifting across the sky
  • People walking by on the other side of the street
  • Suitcases on a conveyor belt
  • Bubbles rising to the surface of a pond
  • Spokes turning on a ferris wheel
  • Waves washing gently onto the beach
  • Birds flying across the sky
  • Trains pulling in and out of the station
  • Leaves blowing gently in the wind or floating down a stream

The next time you experience difficult thoughts, allow them to come and go like clouds drifting across the sky.


Acceptance

The struggle switch

Remember that acceptance means allowing our thoughts and feelings to be as they are, regardless of whether they are pleasant or painful; opening up and making room for them; dropping the struggle with them; and letting them come and go as they naturally do.

The next time you find yourself struggling with a difficult thought or feeling, imagine that at the back of your mind is a “struggle switch.” When it’s turned on, it means you’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes your way. When the switch is turned off, it means whatever feeling shows up, no matter how unpleasant, you don’t struggle with it. Instead you put your energy into doing something that’s meaningful and life enhancing.

Ask yourself if your struggle switch is on, off, or at the halfway point of “tolerating.” If the switch was like a dial with a scale of 0 to 10, and 10 is full struggle and 0 is no struggle at all, then right now, what level are you? Practice observing your difficult feeling and noticing where it is in your body. Where is it most intense? Breathe into the feeling and see if you can just open up around it a little – give it some space. See if you can let it sit there for a moment. You don’t have to like it – just allow it to be present. Continue in this way until you are able to bring your struggle switch down a few notches. 

Contacting the present moment

Notice five things

Here’s a simple exercise to center yourself and engage with your environment. Practice it throughout the day, especially when you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings:

Look around and notice five things you can see. Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear. Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body. (For example, the air on your face, your back against the chair, your feet on the floor.) Finally, do all of the above simultaneously.

The observing self

The sky and the weather metaphor

Your observing self is like the sky. Thoughts and feelings are like the weather. The weather changes continually, but no matter how extreme it gets, it cannot harm the sky. The mightiest thunderstorm, the most turbulent hurricane, the most severe winter blizzard – these events cannot harm the sky. No matter how bad the weather, the sky always has room for it, and eventually the weather changes.

Sometimes we forget the sky is there or we can’t see it because it’s obscured by clouds – but it’s still there. If we rise high enough above these clouds, no matter how thick or dark they may be, we’ll reach clear sky, stretching in all directions, boundless and pure. With practice, you can learn to access this part of you: a safe space inside you from which to notice and make room for difficult thoughts and feelings.

Values

Imagine your eightieth birthday

Imagine it’s your eightieth birthday (or twenty-first, fiftieth, or retirement party.) Three people who matter to you make speeches about what you stand for, what you mean to them, and the role you played in their life. In an IDEAL world, where you have lived your life as the person you want to be, what would you hear them saying? Reflect on what this tells you about what matters to you, what you want to stand for, and what sort of person you want to be. What feelings showed up for you? Did you make room for them or struggle against them?

Imagine it’s your eightieth birthday (or twenty-first, fiftieth, or retirement party.) Three people who matter to you make speeches about what you stand for, what you mean to them, and the role you played in their life.


Exploring your pain

Consider your painful thoughts, feelings, and experiences from the following perspectives:

  • Pain as your ally: What does this pain tell you about what really matters, what you truly care about?
  • Pain as your teacher: How can this pain help you to grow, learn, or develop new skills and strengths? How can you use it to help you better relate to others?
  • From worrying to caring: What do your fears, worries, and anxieties show you that you care about? What do they remind you is very important?

Committed action

Setting values-based goals

When it comes to setting goals, make sure you set a SMART goal:

Specific: Specify the actions you will take. Consider when and where you will do so, and who or what is involved.

Meaningful: Is your goal driven by following a rigid rule, trying to please others, or trying to avoid pain or discomfort? If it lacks a sense of meaning and purpose, check in to see if it’s really guided by your values.

Adaptive: Does your goal help lead you in a direction that is likely to improve, enrich, or enhance your quality of life?

Realistic: Your goal should be realistically achievable. Consider your health, competing demands on your time, financial status, and skills required to achieve it.

Time-framed: To increase the specificity of your goal, set a day, date, and time for it, or as accurate a time frame as you possibly can.

So there you have it! That’s ACT, in a nutshell. What most resonates with you about this approach? How do you see it fitting into your journey? Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, or are simply looking to gain clarity around your direction and values, I encourage you to try out some of the strategies discussed above and adapt them to fit your own needs and lifestyle. I hope this introduction gives you a glimpse of how ACT can help you pursue a rich and meaningful life no matter the challenges that may come your way.

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