Tuesday, 1 April 2014

How do I know when I'm Mindfully Overcoming Thinking Traps?

“No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear...the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away.”  ~ Pema Chödrön

Thought defusion isn’t working for me.  I’m not feeling better.  This is a common barrier that arises when people start to practice and apply thought defusion on a regular basis.  At first, people are simply curious to see what will happen.  They have no expectations.  Overtime though if we become used to having a particular distancing and calming effect of defusion- we can start to expect this.  And we’re none too happy when this doesn’t happen.

I would be lying to you if I said that I didn’t enjoy when I feel some sense of relief when I apply defusion after a period of being extremely hooked by some unhelpful thoughts.  I often have to remind myself, and others, that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is all about living better rather than feeling better.  This can be such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around.  We are in a “feel good” society as the opening quote by Pema Chödrön illustrates so beautifully. 

We have years and years of conditioning that tells us that fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration, guilt and anger are “bad”.  Conversely happiness, surprise and excitement are “good”.  If we look at the nine basic emotions, as Dr. Russ Harris does in his best-selling book The Happiness Trap, we will soon realize that we are hoping to feel one third of our emotions 100% of the time.  A very clear recipe for disaster.  

I would like to share a very common barrier that arises for my clients, group and workshop attendees.  And the best way to overcome this barrier is for me to ask you a question.  If you would like the more entertaining version, which involves me singing unhelpful thoughts to the tune of Happy Birthday, then you can click here.

Here’s the scenario. 
Both Ann and Mary have social anxiety.  They both get hooked by the thought “I might have a panic attack” before they go to any event.  They are both learning to do thought defusion as a way of overcoming their common thinking traps.  They both value relationships and would really like to reconnect with old friends who they have lost contact with as they have been buying into their anxious thoughts and moving further and further away from who and where they want to be.

Ann decides to do defusion by saying the thought “I’ll have a panic attack” into the Talking Tom App and finds it really funny hearing it back.  She starts laughing and immediately feels better.  She decides to stay in and enjoy the feeling of not being anxious.

Mary decides to do defusion by singing her thought “I’ll have a panic attack” along to the tune of Happy Birthday.  Afterwards, she feels really bad.  If anything, she feels worse than she did before she did the defusion.  However, taking the time to do the exercise gave her a chance to reconnect to her values of relationships and connection so she decides to go out to meet her friend even though she still has the thought and continues to feel anxious.

Which person do you think did thought defusion from an ACT perspective?  Which one moved closer towards her values?  This is often easier to see for others than it is for us to see for ourselves. 

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