Getting your ACT together
This blog post is meant to distil the content of the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. If there is any copyright infringement warranted, please reach out via my email in the About page.
Inevitably, much is lost in translation when trying to summarize a book. The nuances are lost. Please do try to read the book if you are really keen on getting serious help (without breaking the bank with a therapist – but seeing one is something you should consider as well).
The objective of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is to accept difficult feelings and thoughts that are inevitable in life, while committing to taking steps and actions toward a valued direction in life. It was developed by Steven C. Hayes in 1982 as an alternative to mainstream CBT, which simply put tries to challenge false thoughts and replace them instead (and often supressed thoughts tend to resurface with a vengeance). On the contrary, ACT advocates for noticing thoughts and feelings, acknowledging and accepting them rather than challenging them.
The book The Happiness Trap tries to put ACT into applicable and approachable steps.
According to ACT, many personal problems, including anxiety and depression, stem from FEAR:
- Fusion with your thoughts
- Expectations that are unrealistic
- Avoidance of discomfort
- Remoteness from values (disconnected from values)
Fusion with your thoughts
Thoughts like "I can't do this", "This is too hard", "I am stupid", "Nobody likes me" are unhelpful thoughts because they can only produce negative outcomes. Fusing and becoming one with these thoughts decapacitates us moving on in life toward better outcomes.
Having unrealistic and perfectionist expectations are a recipe of disappointment. Instead, break down expectations into small, attainable steps.
Avoidance of discomfort
We often use distraction as a means to avoid discomfort. For example, boredom causes us to game. Stress causes us to eat ice-cream. When done too much, it has very detrimental effects. This is actually what Russ means by "the happiness trap", i.e. our avoidance of discomfort by indulging in distraction leads us into a further spiral of negativity. Often, fusion with discomforting thoughts triggers this behavior.
Remoteness from values
Russ advocates for us to live by our values instead of being trapped by a want that doesn't materialize. For example, let's say we want to switch careers but it never happens because of lack of opportunities or timing. Instead, identify why you want it so badly, i.e. identify important values that you wish to personify and start doing it today in other controllable ways outside of work.
On the other hand, ACT advocates for the following:
- Accept your thoughts and emotions
- Choose a valued direction
- Take action
Accept your thoughts and emotions
First of all, accepting thoughts and emotions requires not being fused (and controlled) by it.
In the book Russ suggests a few practical methods for cognitive defusion:
- I'm having the thought that… – Instead of thinking "I am worthless", change it to "I'm having the thought that I am worthless".
- Thanking your mind – When the negative, sad, or distressing thought appears, say "Thanks, mind!" and move on with life.
- Silly voices – The thought that "I am stupid" quickly loses power when you say it out in a high-pitched Mickey Mouse voice.
- Name the story – Once you have processed thoughts well enough, you can name them. For example, name "I'm a loser" thoughts as the "loser story". If you have processed this "loser story" well enough, you don't have to go through the entire process again, just name it e.g. "Oh, it's the loser story".
Eventually over time, with practice, you may not need such tactics to defuse thoughts; your mind should automatically acknowledge them and move on.
The objective of defusion is not to remove symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or anything of the sort. It is meant to defuse the thoughts that may lead to the symptoms. As a bonus, the symptoms may disappear completely, or not.
It doesn't matter if the thoughts are true or false. As long as the thought isn't helpful, it should be defused. For example, while the thought "I am fat" may be true, it isn't helpful.
Once you are able to defuse, you can now demonstrate acceptance toward these thoughts, allowing them to come and go without struggling and being incapacitated by them. The way to further do this is via expansion, and here's the practical way to do this:
- Focus on the bodily sensation that is affecting you (e.g. anxiety attack in the chest, depression cloud in your head).
- Imagine the sensation and give it a shape and color, e.g. red hot ball around the chest area.
- Take deep breaths and breathe into the part of the body that is discomforting you, thus expanding the space around the area of discomforting, such that you are able to make room for the discomfort and thus accept it as part of you, instead of allowing the shape to fill up your entire metaphysical body and causing you to be totally one with it (fusion).
Another part of acceptance is by getting back in touch with reality, by doing deep breathing and connecting with the present (focus on what you can hear, feel, touch, smell, see), as opposed with being completely absorbed in negative thoughts and not living in the present.
Choose a valued direction, and Take action
There are many circumstances in life that are beyond our control. But we can control what we value. And we can choose to take actions that are aligned with those values.
In the book, Russ gives an example of a client who wishes to find a significant other, but suffered many setbacks while doing so. Instead of focusing on the desired outcome, Russ helped her to identify why she wanted a romantic relationship so badly. In the process, she identified that she values having highly personable and close relationships. In identifying this value, the client was able to take steps to live according to this value, e.g. connecting with family and friends and colleagues, while continuing to also try to date. She could live out what she wanted right now, despite the circumstances.
In summary, ACT calls for a life of living according to values, instead of according to stereotypical and superficial measurements of success, e.g. wealth, position, marital status.