When I was 22 I decided to go overseas. It was late 1995, I was due to finish an apprenticeship, and I wanted to travel around Europe for as long as I could. I bought the guidebooks I needed and began my research to form an itinerary. This developed into an interest and whenever I had a spare moment I would be reading, making notes about destinations and budgeting for every day. It was fun and interesting but something else was happening. I was becoming obsessive. Everything had to be right. The trip had to be perfect and it had to be within budget. Within a few months of making the decision, and implementing those decisions by obtaining Visa’s, passports and train tickets, I started to notice that my fears about the unknown, normally transient feelings easily dismissed, were hanging around for a lot longer. Confused I started to get a little concerned but I continued to research the places I planned to visit. Then something totally foreign and frightening to me happened . I had a panic attack, and it was the first of many more to come.
Fast forward to 2014 I haven’t suffered anxiety for for quite sometime now, at least 7 years. Not in the sense of paralyzing or life restricting chronic fear. Sure I feel fear, when its generally warranted and just like everyone else does over the course of a so-called normal life. And, I actually cant remember the last time I had a panic attack. ‘What changed?’, you may ask. The answer…I did, but it took a while.
First thing I did back then was get help. My mum, who was very concerned, made an appointment with a psychologist specializing in hypnotherapy. After one session, and a few listens to the tape he recorded, I was cured, or so I thought. Hypnotherapy is incredibly effective, but in my experience it didn’t last. Eventually its power over the brain is lost and fears will creep back in. Its almost like your mind wise’s up to the relaxing awesomeness its being spun. Over the course of the next eleven years I tried all sorts of ‘therapies’. Most were some version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or positive thinking, or a mixture of both. But some were slightly different such as Schema Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (need wiki hyperlinks here). I also saw about ten different psychologists and two psychiatrists during this time. One of which put me on anti-psychotic medication which although made me extremely tired, worked quite effectively. Sessions with psychologists gave me instant relief however these feelings didn’t last once I was out the door. Further, in-between intermittent visits, the versions of problem solving and CBT I was implementing were starting to become toxic. That’s the thing I found with traditional CBT. Like hypnotherapy CBT feels like the natural panacea the mind needs. I wanted to be rational so standing up to illogical fears seemed the right thing to do. Eventually though the mind starts to disbelieve your conscious intrusions. Affirmations such as ‘everything is fine’ and ‘the likelihood of that happening is zero’ become no more believable than ‘I can fly’. Even though you know these rational statements reflect the reality, you still don’t believe them. And that’s the thing about CBT…attempting to calm yourself through refuting fearful thoughts does very little to address the way you feel, or the thoughts themselves. Eventually I felt like I was fighting myself and after a while realized this way of addressing my metal health was making me seriously worse.
Up until 2006 I’d read many, many self help books. I often visited the New Harbinger publications website to see if any new ideas were available for anxiety in books. By this time I was in my worst state. I was unemployed, on anti-psychotics and had just dropped out of my Diploma course due to chronic fear and insomnia. I had a child, a wife and a new baby on the way. Suicide was an option that I thought of often. I’d browse bookshops for the latest titles on mental health hoping for some new way of dealing with this crippling affliction. Even at this time there were so many self help books for depression and anxiety bookshops had entire bookshelves dedicated to them. Thing was they preached more or less the same stuff and I’d almost given up. I love the cartoon by Leunig with the man falling from a ladder in an attempt to reach a book on a giant shelf exclusively for self help books. The shelf tipping about to follow him down. I’d flick through the pages of my own accumulation of books more desperate than ever for relief.
The title ‘Get out of your mind and into your life’ sounds like typical self help fare. However when I browsed the content I knew it was different. This was the first self help title to come from the theory of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) the brainchild of Steven Hayes PhD. Not only are the underlying principles different but so are the techniques of dealing with mental suffering. The before mentioned title was what really moved me forward in improving my mental health. These days there are quite a few more ACT titles on the market. If you want a more detailed description of the therapy I suggest you check them out. Without taking to much from the above publication, below are some points that reveal how ACT worked for me. I’ve added some other stuff in there that also worked.
Embrace all thoughts by being mindful of them
Being afraid of thoughts and taking them literally, is in my opinion, the crux of the matter. Your in control of your own behavior so let the thoughts come naturally. You don’t have to believe them or take them literally but you do have to at least ‘accept’ them. Let them in. I must stress here that if you have schizophrenia or some other serious mental disorder this may be a bad idea. But for people who know their sane but suffering from uncontrollable anxiety or depression it is important to accept any and all thoughts and feelings that you have. This my be counter-intuitive at first but for me it was a relief. Thoughts may come in a number of ways: judgments, memories, plans, imaginings about past events, possible future events etc. Some thoughts contradict other thoughts, that’s normal. Analyzing possibilities are thoughts. Judgments relating to possibilities or past events are thoughts. They’re all thoughts. One thought leads to another thought, leads to a judgement, leads to a memory, leads to an imagined alternative leads to a judgement etc etc. You don’t have to believe them. Some will have more merit than others (yes that’s a judgment hehe). Eventually you’ll use them, or dismiss them, as they form the basis of your creativity. In the early stages of learning this technique however it’s important that you simply embrace them. You can make this easier by separating ‘you’ from your minds thoughts. For example, “my mind is imagining x“…or “my mind is having the thought of doubt”. You can also do this with feelings.
Embrace all feelings
‘Feel’ your feelings wholly and fully. The best way to do this is to lie down and breath slowly. Literally feel where your feelings are in your body. Mostly it’ll be in your stomach or chest. Let them come and wash over you. If you judge them as bad that’s a thought, let the thought come. If you judge your judgement, that’s a a thought let it be. Embrace your thoughts and feelings in unison.
Commit to doing what you want or what you think is right
You may be terrified of the things you want to do. You may be terrified (or even pissed off) about the things you have to do. But by being mindful of your thoughts and feelings you can draw the will power to do what you think really needs to be done. Here’s a quote from a lonely planet book I read once, “Don’t worry whether your trip will work out or not, just go”.
Moving forward after ACT
After implementing the techniques you really will start taking control of your life. Thoughts will become friends and a real source of inspiration in your life. You’ll start to trust yourself more and make decisions that help rather than hinder you. Remember anything and everything can be imagined. But choosing which thoughts and feelings to implement (or not to implement) will be under your control. Sure you’ll have doubts but they’re only thoughts. They might be legitimate thoughts and it may be wise to heed them. However, ‘you’ get to make that decision.
After a few months of implementing ACT, I came to realize that all my mind was doing was trying to help me. It was trying to keep me safe, whether from harm or embarrassment or whatever. Eventually, my own ideas about life and the things I was interested in came flooding in. They were always there I just stopped fighting them. I didn’t always heed them but I did listen to them knowing that it was mind trying to help me. Using the thoughts to make whatever decision I made depended on the context of the situation.
I hoped this helped somewhat.
Hayes S. C, “Get out of your mind and into your life“, New harbinger publications, USA 2005
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