Hello and welcome to PREKURE’s weekly snippet of science, where on a weekly basis we share emergent research related to extending the human healthspan.
Three ways you can incorporate Acceptance and Commitment Therapy tools in your life today to enhance your mental health.
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Explained:
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is a third wave behavioural therapy rooted in the notion that accepting, rather than reframing, fighting, or trying to ignore our thoughts, emotions and internal experiences is the true path to a life well lived .
The four basic premises of ACT are as follows:
- Humans are hardwired to experience negative thoughts and feelings, even in the face of a small threat. Our caveman brain predisposes us to something called negativity bias. This means we are always looking for what might go wrong in any given situation. This survival technique has kept us (as a species) alive for millennia.
- It is human nature that people tend to avoid negative inner experiences.We don’t like feeling sad, or angry, or ashamed and as a result we try to avoid these feelings thinking they might magically go away.
- Clarity of personal values and commitment are keys to sustained behaviour change. You have probably heard some version of this before, but connecting to your ‘why’ is a powerful tool for taking action. Your ‘why’ becomes your compass, a guiding tool to take you towards the person you want to be.
- Rather than fighting the feeling attached to a behaviour, a person can observe having the feeling but still act in a way not directly influenced by the feeling. This is all about the power of meditation which, despite what many people think, is not about quieting the mind but rather ‘dropping’ the metaphorical struggle with all our thoughts and feelings.
Russ Harris popularised this approach to mental wellbeing with his book The Happiness Trap. Essentially there are SIX key components in ACT that are often positioned and viewed as a hexagon, this is known as the Hexaflex.
The first component is acceptance, this is allowing thoughts, feelings and emotions to come and go as they please without getting stuck in a battle of tug and war. ACT suggests that it is this constant battle with our experiences that magnifies them and makes them harder to cope with. Imagine you are playing tug of war with a monster. Between you is a deep, dark pit filled with snakes and spiders. You don’t want to get pulled into the pit so you begin to tug on the rope with all your might. But the monster is strong, and pulls back. Neither of you move, but you become tired from tugging at the rope. Now, imagine what might happen if you simply put the rope down. The monster hasn’t gone anywhere, the pit is still there, but you are no longer struggling.
The second component is cognitive defusion. This is a fancy way of saying, ‘letting go of things’. Cognitive defusion is about creating distance between yourself and the thought or idea you are having. Being fused to a thought, feeling or idea can be likened to a toddler holding onto their favourite comfort toy or blanket for dear life. Let’s say you are scrolling through social media and you notice someone has posted a picture of their happy smiling family on a beach vacation. You look around your midweek messy home, your kids are running around and there is a pile of laundry with your name on. You start to think about how your life isn’t perfect like the person in the picture. The thought, ‘my life sucks’ pops into your head. You can use defusion to create distance between yourself and this thought by saying, ‘I am noticing that I am having the thought that my life sucks’. Creating time for pause and distance between yourself and the thought allows you to recognise that it’s just a thought, not reality and it doesn’t define you or your life.
“In ACT we don’t describe thoughts and feelings to be positive or negative. It’s either helpful or unhelpful, workable or unworkable. The idea that suffering being inherent in the human experience certainly isn’t new and ACT really just normalises that as a part of being human.” – Sophia Dawson, Psychologist
This component of ACT is being present. This is all about getting back to the moment. As human beings, so often we live our lives dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. ACT encourages experiential exercises to help us bring our attention and focus back to the present moment. After all, you cannot act in the future or past, you are most useful in the present. The fourth component of ACT is self-as-context. This is about distancing ourselves from the narrative we have created about ourselves in our head and viewing our life from a birds-eye view. The fifth component is values. Connecting with our values is a crucial part of ACT, but to connect with our values we must first understand what they are. Below are three questions you can ask yourself to connect with your values. Committed action is the final component of ACT and is about taking positive action towards your values and essentially the life you want to live.
“Determining what you truly care about is only half the process of walking your why. Once you’ve identified your values, you then have to take them out for a spin. This requires a certain amount of courage, but you can’t aim to be fearless. Instead, you should aim to walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you. Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.” – Susan David, Author of Emotional Agility
3 Questions To Clarify Your Values
Ask yourself these questions and give yourself the time and space to answer them honestly. Bring curiosity to this internal dialogue, there is no right or wrong answer, these are your values and it’s all about finding out what matters to you.
- Deep in your heart, what matters most to you?
- What situations or activities make you feel alive?
- How do you want to show up in the relationships in your life (professional, romantic, family, friends)? Why do you want to act in this way?
3 Ways You Can Use ACT In Your Life Right Now
“The greatest possible benefit of meditation is the understanding that you are not your thoughts, you are an observer of your thoughts.” – Jimi Hunt, Mental health advocate and 2014 New Zealander of the year finalist
- Work on accepting difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences. PREKURE’s Chief Science Officer Prof Grant Schofield is a fan of using ACT when he takes his daily cold plunge in the winter. Instead of focusing on the sensations and thinking repeatedly about how cold you are you can take a few deep breaths and allow those thoughts to come and go. You will notice that doing this will help calm not only your mind but also your physical stress response.
- Clarify your values and take the time to understand whether you are living a life that reflects those values. You can use the three questions above to discover your values.
- Use your values to plan your goals. The beauty of values is that there is no end point. If you value integrity and honesty, you will never be able to check these off as being achieved. This approach helps us step out of the cycle of chasing more without stopping to check in and intuitively understand if our goals are based on outward perception or inward intuition.
Don’t wait to use ACT. It’s simple, playful, fun and most importantly recognises that emotions will come and go and while we don’t have the power (nor should we try) to control them, we do have the power to control how we act in the face of them.
Link here to watch Sophia’s podcast episode with Grant.