Expansion not subtraction
Part of the answer lies in where Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has its philosophical and scientific origins. These origins lie in a field of psychology called behavior analysis. Dr. Steven C. Hayes stood on the shoulders of behaviorist B.F. Skinner as he developed a theory about language, symbols and cognition called Relational Frame Theory (RFT).
RFT outlines how humans have the unique ability to think symbolically and relate anything to anything else in unlimited ways to create larger networks. Human beings are creatures of expansion, not subtraction. Therefore, it is impossible to make negative thoughts go away. You cannot erase thoughts, memories or sensations permanently, you can only add to the network they are stored in.
A bear or a blackberry bush
For example, psychology professor Kelly Wilson, Ph.D., has a story in his book Things May Go Terribly Horribly Wrong about two early hominids out on the Savannah. One of them is naturally more anxious, worried and fearful, the other is pretty low key. One day, both of them see an ambiguous blob out on the horizon. One ancestor says (relating a blob to a black bear), “Oh no, I think that might be a black bear!” The other says, “You worry too much, it’s obviously a blackberry bush!” The low-stress ancestor may be right a few times, but eventually, he is wrong and becomes the black bear’s lunch. The anxious, fearful ancestor survives primarily because he can relate a blob to a black bear (and vice versa). He can connect the term ‘black bear’ to a variety of things that relate to it, such as the time of day or season one is most likely to encounter a black bear.
This ability is the primary reason human beings are the planet’s dominant species. For example, RFT describes how we have an ability to develop clusters of behaviors that have enabled us to created complex technology and machines, like the device you are reading this blog post on. Undoubtedly, this ability has been essential to human growth and development.
When you feel anxious, what shows up?
In the same way, when we learn to slow down our relating process of anxiety, we can see how it is often connected to an urge to avoid or decrease distressing stimuli. We begin to recognize that low anxiety is in relation to, or opposite of, high anxiety. Feeling calm is in relation to, and opposite of, fear. Experiencing a sense of relaxation is in relation to, and the opposite of panic. Don’t have sweaty armpits is in relation to, or the opposite of, do have sweaty armpits.
We can interrupt the usual avoidance pattern that follows anxious thoughts and feelings and create a new pattern instead. A new way of relating to anxiety that is paradoxical.
The more we try to have more or less of something that is connected to its opposite, we will then automatically experience more or less of the thought or behavior we don’t want!
For example, when anxiety shows up for me today, I still have an initial urge to make it go away and just further entangle myself in an anxiety network. But as I have learned to accept anxiety through the practice of emotional openness, focused attention, mindfulness and acceptance skills, I can now observe my urge to make anxiety go away a little more often. I can notice my thoughts about how much I hate anxiety. I can practice directing my attention, like a curious scientist, to exactly how anxiety shows up in my body.
I become curious about what thoughts and memories are triggered, and I observe these thoughts, images, memories and bodily sensations while grounding myself in the present moment using my five senses.
So, whether you have an intermittent or chronic struggle with anxiety, the solution is the same. Try it for yourself the next time anxiety shows up.
First, direct your attention to the bodily sensations that arrive. Initially, you may notice sweating, trembling, shaking, changes in breathing and muscle tension. Shift your attention from one sensation to the next and notice how these sensations change or intensify over time. Much like you might notice different sounds come and go, so do bodily sensations. Start with as little as 10 seconds, and work your way up to five, 10, or even 20 minutes.
See if you can expand your awareness in and around these painful bodily sensations, not as a way to make them go away, but as a practice to grow your attention.
Drop an anchor
Just like a secure anchor is dropped in the midst of a heavy storm, you can drop an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm. This useful technique was created by Dr. Russ Harris.
While you are aware of these difficult bodily sensations, press your feet firmly into the ground, straighten your posture, place your hands together in front of you and press them firmly together as you breathe. Notice if you can feel the cooler temperature as it enters your nose and mouth. Pause for a moment, and notice if you can feel the warmer temperature as you exhale.
If your mind wanders or judges the exercise, simply and gently acknowledge this, and return to your breath.
After practicing this exercise, notice if you are more or less present in your environment. Are you struggling more or less with your anxious thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations? If the answer is you are more present in your environment and struggling less with your emotional pain, congratulations! You have just practiced a foundational skill in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
If the answer is you are less present and still struggling, maybe even more so with your anxiety, it’s okay. This is a brand-new skill and it can take different settings, skills, mentors, apps, books or therapy to enhance and build this skill. It is possible to become more skillful and change your life no matter how long you have been struggling or how little hope you have that your battle with anxiety can improve.
For more solutions to step out of the struggle with anxiety, schedule an appointment at Kaizen Center for Mental Health today.