Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Mindfulness via ACT

Welcome to this first post from Perspective. I’ll be exploring themes that I hope will be of interest to you, whether you're thinking of having counselling or not. Future subjects will include parenting, communication and conflict in relationships, and how our childhoods impact on our adult lives. You can find me on Twitter at @ngcounselling, where I highlight useful articles and blogs that offer insight into all kinds of mental health issues, and there's more information about counselling at www.ngcounselling.co.uk.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines mindfulness as 'the state or quality of being mindful; attention; regard'. It is inherited from a Buddhist tradition and is now increasingly being used in Western psychology to alleviate a wide range of mental and physical conditions, with ancient Eastern practices being combined with the latest discoveries in neuroscience. 'Beditation', the practice of meditating lying down, is even being taught in schools, and appears to be popular with students.  

Mindfulness is an attentive awareness of the reality of things, of our bodily functions, our feelings, thoughts and consciousness. It involves paying attention to things as they are – on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. It has similarities to meditation, but it seems to me that meditation is about enlightenment, getting to a higher place, while mindfulness is simply about awareness of what is. In 2004 NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, recommended mindfulness as a treatment for depression, and there is increasing evidence that it can be beneficial in the treatment of a range of mental health issues.

Mindfulness is a huge subject, and I’m going to focus on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of a number of mindfulness-based therapies. Although it may not have the catchiest name, ACT seems to me to offer a practical combination of mindfulness skills and easy-to-follow ways of assessing your life, and making changes. In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris, a leading authority on stress management, focuses on undermining struggle, avoidance and loss of the moment, rather than teaching new techniques to pursue happiness. He explains that ACT has a firm basis in scientific research and has been proven to help people for whom other kinds of therapy have failed.

Along the way the book offers personal anecdotes, engaging examples of how in his everyday life Harris often still fails to practise what he preaches, and encouragement to give it a go: ‘Don’t believe it because I say so – try the exercise for yourself’. Most of the mindfulness exercises are simple, brief and enjoyable, and he offers a variety, so that if you don’t get on with one, you can just try another.

What is happiness?
Harris queries the idea of happiness – what does it mean? Is it a realistic goal? He feels it’s essential that we accept that life involves pain, and that what will be helpful to us is to work out how we can handle pain better, make room for it, reduce its impact and create a life worth living despite it. As Nathaniel Hawthorne puts it: 'Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.'

Who’s in charge?
Harris reminds us that our emotions don’t control our behaviour, especially if we consciously bring our awareness to how we’re feeling, observe how we’re behaving and choose whether that’s how we want to act.

Psychological flexibility – how can we achieve it?
Harris believes that psychological flexibility comes from following a combination of mindfulness, values and action, and demonstrates how in his view ACT is the framework for living this way. He explains how we can be in touch with the present, and be open to experiences rather than avoiding them. He shows us how not to fuse with our thoughts, but to see them simply as thoughts, rather than reality or fact. He suggests the idea of a sense of self that can think and feel without being defined by those thoughts and feelings – ‘I feel stupid at this moment’ rather than ‘I am stupid’.

Harris urges us to identify our values by asking ourselves who we want to be, what we want to stand for, and how we want to live in the world. He then offers a practical guide to action, setting achievable goals towards creating a life where we live by our values, actually doing the things that are important to us. We can redefine success as living by our values – and we don’t need the approval of others to know we’re doing that.

ACT is just one of many applications of mindfulness, but I believe that The Happiness Trap would resonate with many of the clients I’ve seen over the years, who struggle with a critical mind, who feel their lives can never be as they’d like them to be, who are plagued with anxiety or depression, who would like things to be different but don’t know where to start.

If you would like to practise seeing a thought as just a thought, click here. The exercise takes about 13 minutes.

And finally, I'll leave you with a little scene of mindfulness that you can find here.

Photos © Joe Gadsby http://www.flickr.com/photos/gadsbar/