Source: Embracing Your Demons: An Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Mindfulness is consciously bringing your awareness into your here-and-now experience with openness, interest, and receptiveness.
This is based on the view that the ongoing attempt to get rid of ‘symptoms’ actually creates a clinical disorder in the first place. As soon as a private experience is labeled a ‘symptom,” it immediately sets up a struggle with it because a ‘symptom’ is by definition something ‘pathological,’ something we should try to get rid of. The aim is to transform our relationship with our difficult thoughts and feelings, so that we no longer perceive them as ‘symptoms.’ Instead, we learn to perceive them as harmless, even if uncomfortable, transient psychological events. Ironically, it is through this process that we actually achieve symptom reduction—but as a byproduct and not the goal.
Unfortunately, all too often when we try to avoid or get rid of unwanted private experiences, we simply create extra suffering for ourselves. For example, virtually every addiction known to mankind begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression and so on. The addictive behavior then becomes self sustaining, because it provides a quick and easy way to get rid of cravings or withdrawal symptoms.
The more time and energy we spend trying to avoid or get rid of unwanted private experiences the more we are likely to suffer psychologically in the long term. Anxiety disorders provide a good example. At the core of any anxiety disorder lies a major preoccupation with trying to avoid or get rid of anxiety. Sadly, the more importance we place on avoiding anxiety, the more we develop anxiety about our anxiety—thereby exacerbating it. It’s a vicious cycle, found at the center of any anxiety disorder.
Through mindfulness one stops attempting to control feelings and private experiences and instead opens up to them through acceptance. A metaphor which relates to this is being in
quicksand, and the more he struggles, the faster it sucks him under. In quicksand, struggling is the worst thing you can possibly do. The way to survive is to lie back, spread out your arms, and float on the surface. It’s tricky, because every instinct tells you to struggle; but if you do so, you’ll drown. The same principle applies to difficult feelings: the more we try to fight them, the more they overwhelm us.
Imagine that at the back of our mind is a ‘struggle switch.’ When it’s switched on, it means we’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes our way; whatever discomfort experienced, we’ll try our best to get rid of it or avoid it.
Suppose the emotion that shows up is anxiety. If our struggle switch is ON, then that feeling is completely unacceptable. This means we could end up with anger about our anxiety: ‘How dare they make me feel like this?’ Or sadness about our anxiety: ‘Not again. Why do I always feel like this?’ Or anxiety about our anxiety: ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s this doing to
my body?’ Or a mixture of all these feelings. These secondary emotions are useless, unpleasant, and unhelpful, and a drain upon our vitality. In response we get angry, anxious or guilty. Spot the vicious cycle? But what if our struggle switch is OFF? Whatever emotion shows up, no matter how unpleasant, we don’t struggle with it. So if anxiety shows up, it’s not a problem. Sure, it’s unpleasant. We don’t like it, or want it, but at the same time, it’s nothing terrible. With the struggle switch OFF, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. Far more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it.
Without struggle, we get a natural level of physical and emotional discomfort, depending on who we are and the situation we’re in. In ACT, we call this ‘clean discomfort.’ There’s no avoiding ‘clean discomfort.’ Life serves it up to all of us in one way or another. However, once we start struggling with it, our discomfort levels increase rapidly. This additional suffering, we call ‘dirty discomfort.’ Our struggle switch is like an emotional amplifier— switch it on, and we can have anger about our anxiety, anxiety about our anger, depression about our depression, or guilt about our guilt.
Thoughts and emotions are experiences we have as opposed to being what we are. Disidentification from thoughts and emotions and identification with the witness then allows more freedom of choice in relation to internal experiences. Taking a disidentified stance and accepting attitude towards negative thoughts and emotions also paradoxically weakens them.
Skills to enhance mindfulness:
§ Cognitive diffusion: disidentification from thoughts, feelings other private experiences. A thought is not what I am but something I have or that happens to me. Thoughts are just thoughts, not reality.
§ Acceptance: Allow private experiences to come and go without trying to influence them.
§ Contact with the present moment: a “here and now” focus of awareness accompanied with openness to and interest in whatever is happening
§ Observing the self: utilizing and identifying with a transcendent, unchanging, continuous consciousness that witnesses one’s experiences.
§ Values: opening to what are one’s own deepest values.
§ Committed action: making goals and plans in accord with those values then acting to actualize them.