Monthly Archives: March 2019

Acceptance And Commitment Therapy: Why Can’t We Just Be Happy?

Acceptance and commitment therapy why cant we just be happy

The aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, said as the word 'act') is for people to have full, rich, and meaningful lives whilst accepting the pain that inevitably comes.

For example, if you love someone deeply then it goes without saying that there'll be all sorts of emotions come up when that person is no longer around. However, as painful as some of those emotions might be, how unfufilled would life be if we'd never had that person in our lives in the first place?

Because of this, the use of the ACT approach is never ever about getting rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. It's not about trying to block out the pain we experience throughout our lives. It's about learning to live meaningful lives in spite of the pain.

The three happiness myths

In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris takes us through the principles of ACT and how we can use the tools and techniques to help us lead more meaningful lives. We highly recommend you buy the book if this approach appeals to you.

Early on in the book, Russ talks about the 'myths' we've been taught about happiness:

1. Happiness is the natural state for humans

The truth is that our 'state' is ever-fluctuating and different emotions flow through us continuously. Being 'happy' might be one, but there is no 'default' state.

2. Happiness means feeling good

There is no such thing as happiness which lasts forever. Emotions are always in flux, a bit like the seasons and the ebb and flow of natural life (e.g., plants dying back in Winter and reappearing in Spring). It's much more useful to aim for living a rich and meaningful life, whilst experiencing the full range of emotions.

3. If you're not happy you're defective

It's interesting how a lot of people's normal emotions now seem to given labels or are said to be some kind of disorder. Life is challenging and is never going to be easy all the time. To have changing emotions is normal!

The 'evolved' human mind

If you're thinking it sounds hard to make room for difficult emotions then you're right! It takes a lot of practice because what we're effectively doing is fighting against what our brains have evolved to do for many years - look out for and respond to threats.

Back in caveman times our main aims were to find food, shelter, avoid big beasts, and to rear mini cavemen/women. In order to be successful at this, we had to be aware of our environment and any dangers lurking around the corner. As a result, our modern brains are hard-wired to scan for threats and respond by using the fight, flight, or freeze response just as our caveman ancestors would have done.

Unfortunately, our brains haven't quite figured out that sabre-toothed tigers no longer exist and the constant need to scan our surroundings is no longer needed. Therefore our brains can cause us to react to perceived threats in ways which no longer serve us.

This is important to remember, because some of the things we do/ways we react might actually keep our problems going without us necessarily realising it. For example, we might have a presentation to do as part of a departmental meeting at work which is really important to us. However, we're feeling anxious about speaking in front of people.

So, one thing we might do is keep delaying the actual meeting. This only leads to us feeling even more panicky about the prospect of speaking in front of our colleagues, who are probably going to start wondering what's wrong with us!

What the ACT approach can do is give us the tools to manage these difficult thoughts/feelings so that we can do the presentation in spite of all the unpleasant emotions we might be feeling.

Context is important

How we think, feel and behave all occur within a certain context; the context is what influences the thoughts/feelings/behaviours in question (e.g., feeling anxious about a presentation and therefore avoiding it).

So, the context could be the environment, a person, a social/interpersonal event etc. A bit like some other therapeutic approaches ACT is also concerned with the triggers (e.g., what was happening right before we snapped at our partner, or right before we started feeling anxious).

The good thing is that once we identify what our triggers are to thoughts/feelings/behaviours, then we can begin to explore how to manage them and continue to live by what's important to us in life.

What if it's all too much?

Some people often have difficulty in starting to explore how to manage the difficult thoughts and feelings because they're just too overwhelming. Therefore, it's firstly important to address the level of overwhelm so that you can be 'freed up' to start trying out the tools and techniques for managing the difficult thoughts and feelings.

We'll take a look at that in the next post πŸ™‚

An Introduction To Acceptance And Commitment Therapy

An introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy

There are many different types of therapy out there, so we appreciate it can get pretty confusing for clients to know which is which. Truth be told, we can get pretty confused ourselves as therapists!

We've recently come across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which was founded by a man called Professor Steven Hayes. It's commonly shortened to ACT and pronounced as the word 'act'. We really like it as an approach. So much so, we thought it might be useful to do a series of posts outlining the approach.

So, whether you're a client or therapist this series will hopefully help you decide whether the approach is something you'd like to know more about πŸ™‚

What's ACT all about?

Well, let's backtrack for a second because it's probably easier to explain ACT by way of comparing it to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

A common aspect of CBT is helping clients to identify negative thought patterns and negative core beliefs. Therapists will then generally try to help clients dispute these negative beliefs by looking at the evidence for and against them.

In comparison, ACT does not dispute the negative thoughts/beliefs that people have. In fact, it goes as far to say that it's not really helpful to label thoughts as 'positive' or 'negative'. We've put these labels on thoughts according to how desirable we feel them to be.

So if we're not disputing negative beliefs in ACT, then what ARE we doing??

Instead of disputing thoughts/beliefs, the ACT approach encourages clients to 'make room' for such beliefs, letting them come and go as they please. The tools and techniques taught in ACT never have the aim of getting rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Rather, the aim is to be able to sit with unwanted thoughts and feelings, whilst continuing to live a meaningful life according to the things that are important to us; termed in ACT as our 'Values'.

But who wants to have to put up with unwanted thoughts/feelings??

Of course, nobody wants to have unwanted thoughts and feelings. They make us feeling awful and can stop us doing the things we want to do, if we get hooked into them.

However, what you've tried to do to get rid of all these unpleasant thoughts and feelings over the years? You might have tried distraction techniques; over-compensated for negative thoughts by, for example, working even harder if you're feeling inadequate at work; or even used drugs and/or alcohol.

While these things might have worked in the short term, more often than not they don't work in the long term and the difficult thoughts and feelings return with a vengeance.

Time for something a little different?

Taking this into account, would you be willing to try something different from what you've tried before?

We'll be drawing upon the brilliant Russ Harris and his book The Happiness Trap. We highly recommend giving it a read; it's really a accessible guide to ACT and the tools and techniques you'll need.

If, however, you want a whistle stop tour of ACT before you buy the book, keep an eye out for further posts in this series πŸ™‚