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Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional

The goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to create a rich, full, and meaningful life while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. This is done by changing one’s relationship to their symptoms in order to live a more value-driven life. Further, the goal is to accept what is outsideof one’s control, and commit to taking action to enrich one’s life. It can be summed up in one basic premise: pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Oftentimes, trying to get rid of symptoms actually results in being more bothered by the symptoms. For example, try to not picture a pink elephant in your mind’s eye. What happened? You saw a pink elephant. This is just what happens when we try NOT to focus on any particular thing!

Being too focused on symptoms impacts our ability to life a value-driven life. We’re too busy and using all our energy on “symptom-reduction” rather than choosing to focus on what is meaningful in our lives, such as family, friends, relationships, advancing career, rest, self-care, and so forth. When we instead focus on our values, our symptoms can drift to the background, rather than take center stage.

ACT asserts that problems are essentially caused by two things: cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance. Cognitive fusion is when we become inseparable from our thoughts, and then our thoughts dominate our behavior. Experiential avoidance happens when we attempt to avoid, get rid of, suppress, or escape unwanted experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, etc.).

Trying too hard to control how we feel simply gets in the way of a rich, full life. We can’t do important, value-driven things if we are always trying to get rid of symptoms. Control is the problem, not the solution.

What can we do about this? Practice defusion to get stuck from our thoughts and gain distance from them. Defusion is taking a step back and seeing our thoughts for what they are: nothing more or less than words and pictures. As I like to say, look AT your thoughts, rather than FROM your thoughts.
Thought Defusion PICTURE for blog post - Copy

Here are some ways you can attempt to defuse from your thoughts:

  • Say “I’m having the thought that…”
  • Use a silly voice to say the thought
  • Sing the thought like a song
  • Repeat the thought nonstop for 30 seconds until it sounds like gibberish

Another way to defuse from unhelpful thoughts is to practice mindfulness. What is mindfulnessMindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness, and curiosity. It allows you to be aware of your experience in the moment as opposed to being “caught up” in your thoughts. Mindfulness involves an attitude of openness; being curious about your experience rather than fighting with it. This is helpful because often times the more we try to fight the way we feel, the more we end up feeling it.
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The goal of ACT is referred to as psychological flexibility, which entails being present, opening up, and doing what matters. An important facet of psychological flexibility is acceptanceallowing thoughts and feelings to be present, regardless of whether they are pleasant or painful.

The fun part of ACT (in my humble opinion) is valued living: doing what we want to be doing with our lives. What’s important to us? What do we want to stand for? How do we want to behave and act on a daily basis? Our values are our compass; they guide our decisions and behavior. A good way to figure out what your values are is to imagine your retirement party or funeral — Who would you want to speak about your life and what would you want to hear them say?

Once you have figured out what your values are, then final step is to take committed action (effective action motivated by your values). One helpful way to do this are to make a public commitment; tell someone about it. This will create some level of accountability for you. Another thing you can do is create an action plan worksheet. Last, but not least, simply take the first, tiniest step. The first step is often the hardest, but if you can manage to get started, the rest will follow.

For more on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, click here and here!

A Look at Test Anxiety

Interview with Kansas City Blogger Local

High school and college students are no strangers to the effects of anxiety and depression.  This segment of the population however, faces a unique type of anxiety and depression that the general population rarely comes in contact with.  Test anxiety is a major issue for students the Kansas City metro area.  We met up with one local counselor to discuss test anxiety and how to deal with it.

Ben: Hello there.  This is Ben Hartman from Blogger Local Kansas City.  We’re out in Leawood with Molly Pierce, a Kansas licensed professional counselor  and owner of True Self Counseling.  We’re meeting with her today to discuss some of the upcoming anxiety that is related to the school season being in full swing.  There are a lot of tests coming up.  We met with Linden at Get Smarter Prep the other day, and she was actually talking about the ACTs coming up on September 21st.  Molly, if you can just tell us a little bit about yourself and True Self Counseling, that would be awesome.

Molly: Aright.  I started True Self Counseling in 2010.  I really have a passion to help people deal with common everyday problems, such as anxiety, depression, and communication/relationship problems.

Ben: Okay, so you deal with individuals, and then you deal with people in relationships, and then some group counseling as well?

Molly: Yes, absolutely.

Ben: You have a test anxiety clinic going on over at Get Smarter Prep.  Tell us about it.

Molly: It’s a one hour clinic in the evening to help students prepare to manage their anxiety, to get the best score that they can on their ACT or SAT.  With the ACT test coming up, we actually just did a test anxiety clinic last week.

Ben: Is it open to only people that go to Get Smarter Prep already or is it open to the general public?

Molly: This was the first one we did, and it was just Get Smarter Prep students, but I’m sure that outside people would be welcome to come.  There’s just a $25 fee.

Ben: Okay, so this is something that you guys are developing and working on, and it seemed successful this time?  There was a good turnout?

Molly: It did seem successful.  It seemed like the students really benefited from it.

Ben: There’s kind of two sides to being anxious about tests, the side where it’s impending and you’re stressed and you’re trying to learn as much you can before it comes.  Then for some people, afterwards there’s the anxiety of not having gotten the goal they strived for and being let down by or disappointed by their performance.  Can you maybe talk a little bit about the difference in the problems face on either side of the test?

Molly: Sure.  A lot of the students are getting the help they need in learning how to solve the problems on the exams and they feel confident in that aspect, but they really get freaked out about being timed and running out of time, and then there’s just this train of negative thoughts of like, what if I run out of time?  What if I fail?  Then I’m not going to get into the school I want to get into, and into my preferred profession.

Ben: It’s a compounding cycle?

Molly: Yes, it can go down this compounding hole of anxiety.  Same thing for after the test if they don’t get the score they were hoping for.  It’s almost like this sense of impending doom that now they can’t pursue the career that they want.

Ben: Yes, that their life is over.

Molly: Their life is over, even though they can really just go retake the test and go on with life.

Ben: Yes.  For some people, they feel like it speaks about them and tells people outwardly something they don’t want to convey.

Molly: That is absolutely true.  A lot of people equate their self-worth with how well they perform whether it’s on the test, or in sports, or relationships, or jobs, or whatever, so not getting a good score can actually make people feel pretty bad about themselves.

Ben: Yes.  There’s that misconception that the test score you get is a reflection of your worth, and those things are really completely exclusive.

Molly: Exactly, and that type of thinking really leads into depression and just feeling bad about yourself.

Ben: For some people that didn’t come to the clinic what could you recommend?  What are some tips that people can follow to get in their habitual nature that will help them avoid getting test anxiety or help them in reducing test anxiety?

Molly:  Anxiety is really a twofold issue.  There are the physical symptoms of anxiety, so when you feel like your breathing is getting short and shallow, and you might feel tingly.  You might feel butterflies in your stomach.  One thing you can do is deep abdominal breathing, which really calms your body and soothes the physical symptoms of anxiety. 

The other aspect of anxiety is the mental part of it.  It’s the thoughts, so if you’re thinking, oh my gosh, I’m so nervous.  I’m going to do horrible. I’m going to fail. That thinking is not going to be helpful, so you need to identify that negative thinking and change it into more positive and accurate thinking, such as I’ve prepared for this test.  I know what I’m doing.  It’s going to work out, and so forth.

Ben: Okay.  Do you have any recommended reading for people that need some encouragement, that need to help to and reinforce a better positive mental frame of mind before a test?  

Molly: Sure.  There’s lots of good reading out there on anxiety and changing negative thinking.  One book is the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook  by Edmund J. Bourne. Another good one is When Panic Attacks, which is written by David Burns, and he really does a lot in the treatment of anxiety and depression.  He’s pretty big in that world.

Ben: Okay, so that would be some good recommended reading?

Molly: Absolutely.

Ben: We will check back in with you soon so we can learn about some of the group work you’ve been doing over at the  Leawood Church of The Resurrection on the topics of depression and anxiety.  Thanks for your time, and we encourage our readers to check out your test anxiety clinic over at Get Smarter Prep as well as many of the services you offer.

Molly: Absolutely, and really, anyone struggling with anxiety, depression, marital issues can feel free to check out True Self Counseling to see if we might have services that are helpful for them.

Ben: Definitely. Thanks for your time, Molly.

Molly: Thank you.