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mindfulness

Intuitive Eating – another fad? Or something more…

Intuitive Eating – another fad? Or something more…

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You may have recently heard the words “Intuitive Eating” or “Mindful Eating” in the news, on social media, or in a post on your favourite blog. The Globe and Mail even wrote a lengthy article in early January stating that intuitive eating is the new “non-diet” of the year. But what exactly is intuitive eating, and can it really help you improve your relationship with food and your body?

Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that shifts away from rules, rigidity around eating, and dieting. It encourages listening to your internal cues for hunger and responding by eating food that you enjoy and that makes you feel good both physically and emotionally. We have now seen that intuitive eating has been shown to improve both our physical and psychological health over the long-term (Bacon, 2010; Van Dyke & Drinkwater, 2014). If intuitive eating doesn’t sound all that fancy, it’s because it isn’t. Intuitive eating is essentially a much-needed back to basics approach, where we are encouraged to focus on our individual needs and preferences as a guide to developing a balanced relationship with food. You won’t find any “good” or “bad” foods in this approach, nor will you be encouraged to cut certain items out of your routine. The idea here is to stop looking outwards for a diet guide on how to take care of your body, and to begin looking inwards to better figure out what YOU need to feel good.

A good parallel here is when you think of an infant’s relationship with food. Infants cry when they’re hungry, and typically slow down their feeding when they’re full. Then they cry again when they’re hungry, and the cycle continues. Infants don’t ask themselves “how many calories are in my milk?” or “I can’t be hungry yet, I just ate!” or even “the other babies aren’t eating this much, why am I?!” – they simply listen to their bodies, feed when they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full. Pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, between infancy and adulthood, we’re inundated with messages about what we should or should not eat, how we should or should not look, and how anything less than the “thin ideal” or a “clean diet” is ground for shaming ourselves and others. As a result, we’ve naturally lost our inner compass, our inner guide that helps tell us what we need and want to feel satisfied.

Essentially, you and only you can tell yourself what your body needs, and it’s time to start listening.

So, how do we go about transitioning from focusing on external cues for eating to focusing on our internal needs? The following is a brief guide that will help you begin your intuitive eating journey, alongside some helpful reading recommendations to dig deeper into this subject.

Step 1: Learn to accept our bodies as they are, let go of diet culture

  • This is a really difficult step, and yet it’s essential. Letting go of thin ideals and shaming our bodies allows us to not only feel more connected and comfortable in our skin, it also lets us stop trying to control our eating behaviours with the goal of shrinking our bodies. If we can accept our bodies as they are, food can become about meeting our needs and experiencing pleasure, as opposed to an attempt to control and punish our bodies under the guise of ‘health’. When we try to use food to control our body size, i.e. when we try to diet, we have to retain that level of restriction in order to keep pushing down our weight. There is no freedom to ask ourselves what do we like, what are we in the mood for, how much would we like to enjoy? Instead, we are focused on “what am I allowed to eat?” in order to maintain this control. This approach ultimately backfires for most people as well, resulting in binge eating in an attempt for our bodies to finally feel that their needs are met. For these reasons and more, letting go of diet culture and accepting our bodies is crucial.

Step 2: Start getting curious about your personal hunger cues

  • We spend so much of our time assuming we should or should not eat because of the time of the day, because of what others are doing, or because of what we have eaten previously. None of this is focusing on what our body is asking for, so start by simply being mindful of your bodily cues for hunger. Do you feel a growl in your stomach? Do you suddenly have fantasies about different meal options? Does your concentration decrease slightly?

Step 3: Ask yourself what it is you’d like to eat.

  • What are you in the mood for? What do you have available? There is no right or wrong answer here, only you know what you’d like to eat!

Step 4: Eating mindfully.

  • Try to slow down, taste the flavour, the texture, and the temperature of your food. Notice how your pleasure for certain flavours changes throughout the course of your meal. Check in with your fullness cues. Are you feeling full half way through your meal? Are you still hungry at the end of your meal? Use these cues to guide yourself in either slowing down and finishing your meal or adding an extra snack to ensure that you’re satisfied.

Step 5: Be compassionate, non-judgemental, and flexible with yourself

  • Each meal is a learning opportunity. Sometimes we don’t feel full during a meal but then feel stuffed 30 minutes later. This helps us learn for the next time that we might need a little bit less of this specific recipe, or that we want to eat more slowly in the future. There is no “bad” or “good” way of doing this, it is simply a curious and open learning experience each time.

  • There are often reasons that we eat that are independent of our fullness cues, such as when a meal is really delicious and we’re willing to feel extra full in order to keep enjoying it, or when we know we’re only going to have a small window to have a meal during our workday. All of these situations are part of the fabric of intuitive eating. The idea is not to do this “perfectly” – in fact, that’s the exact opposite of the idea. The goal is simply to start becoming more curious about what your body needs and why it’s asking for what it needs in any given moment.

  • Become curious about other reasons that we might be eating, such as to hold onto pleasure, push back boredom, or cope with difficult emotions. These different motivations for eating are not problematic, they’re simply worth noticing. If we’re eating for reasons that are unrelated to our hunger and energy needs, then we might wish to expand on other ways to have those needs equally met, so that we have options in the future.

Ultimately, intuitive eating is about finally allowing yourself to accept and celebrate your body, and beginning to re-acquaint yourself with your inner guide for how to strengthen your relationship with food.


Tobey Mandel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 17, 1757-1766.

Gagnon-Girouard, M. P., Bégin, C., Provencher, V., Tremblay, A., Mongeau, L., Boivin, S. Lemieux, S. (2010). Psychological Impact of a "Health-at-Every-Size" Intervention on Weight-Preoccupied Overweight/Obese Women. Journal of Obesity, pii: 928097. doi: 10.1155/2010/928097

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. Third Edition. St. Martin’s Press.

Bacon, L. (2010). Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight. Dallax, Texas: BenBella Books, Inc.

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Photo by  Jen Loong  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jen Loong on Unsplash

Whether it’s our to-do lists, a frustrating conversation we had earlier in the day, the constant nagging temptation to check our phones, the guilt over not exercising enough, worries about our loved ones, etc., our thoughts and feelings may be pulling us in various directions all day long. I find it’s easy to get lost among all this chatter, and when I say lost, I mean lose myself and lose sight of what is important to me. Instead of acting based on what I really want and what’s healthy for me, I feel like I have no solid centre and am stuck in reacting mode.

I try to counter this reactive, uncentred way of being by “getting grounded”. I hear the term “getting grounded” often, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing to everyone. I’m defining here what it means to me, and hopefully it’s helpful to you too. I think of getting grounded as getting out of the ruminating/worrying/spinning/not constructive thinking that is happening in my head, pausing, and paying attention to what is happening in my body, without judgment. By getting out of my head and dropping into my body, and noticing the sensations that are there, not only do I have more of sense of a centre, of being grounded, but I am more likely to be in touch with what is going on with me, the emotions I’m feeling, the motivations that are driving me, etc. By paying attention to myself in this way, I’m able to get unstuck from distractions and negative thought patterns and show up for myself in a mindful, and maybe even loving manner.

There are plenty of tips out there for “getting grounded” or what clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach might call “the sacred pause”. For example, you might meditate, go for a walk in the forest, or do some yoga. I’ve outlined a simple “getting grounded” technique here that you can do in your every day life, during your busy day.

Pause and Pay Attention

  1. Pause

  2. Drop into your body and notice what is happening there. Notice the sensations in your body (e.g., muscle tension, tingling, heaviness, pressure).

  3. If you have trouble getting in touch with your body, simply try noticing your breath as it travels in through your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs.

  4. Keep breathing and noticing, without judgment and with curiousity.

  5. Proceed

This is a pretty “bare-bones” technique, but I’ve kept it that way intentionally. The purpose of this technique is to simply get us to pause and notice, to check in with ourselves. It may take some practice, but from this place of groundedness and attentiveness, we will likely be better able to recognize what we need to move forward in a way that is healthy and nourishing for us and for those around us.


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (pp. 3–27). San Diego, CA: Elsevier

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Resources

3 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Coping with Difficult Experiences and Emotions in Day-to-Day Life by Dr. Natsumi Sawada

A Shout Out to Simply Noticing by Dr. Danit Nitka

Be Here Now… But How? 3 Steps Towards Experiencing Life More Fully by Dr. Maryann Joseph  

Stressing Out? S.T.O.P. by Dr. Elisha Goldstein

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

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Have you ever had the thought, “I never want to feel this way again.” Maybe you did something that you felt was embarrassing, maybe you experienced something traumatic, maybe you ended a significant relationship and felt broken-hearted. Maybe someone made fun of you and made you feel small. Maybe you had a panic attack and you felt like you were losing control. 

After experiences like these, we understandably want to protect ourselves from the difficult thoughts and feelings that come along with them. Why wouldn’t we? So we change our behaviours, a lot or a little, to get ourselves as far away from these painful thoughts and feeling as possible. Sometimes though in our efforts to avoid feeling this sort of pain again, we end up avoiding some of the good things life has to offer. After all, most of the awesome, magical, fulfilling things that happen in life often entail tolerating difficult thoughts and feelings – like running a marathon, writing a difficult entrance exam, or asking someone out on a date. Moreover, the things that we do to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings are sometimes unhealthy – like drinking too much, sleeping a lot, overeating or under-eating, obsessively reading the news, etc.

Here are some examples:

Beatrice played and loved sports ever since her early days of elementary school. During her first year of high school, her swimming coach commented that if she could just lose her “baby fat”, she’d really have a competitive edge. Although you would not have been able to tell by the look on her face, in that moment, Beatrice felt deep shame. She started dieting as a way to lose weight and feel in control, and in an effort to avoid ever feeling bad about her weight again. Eventually Beatrice developed an eating disorder, and much of her time was spent thinking about food, counting calories, and exercising. She would avoid social events that involved food, as she preferred to have full control of what and when she ate. Also, because she was underweight, she felt more tired and had difficulty concentrating, so school became more difficult and her grades were negatively affected.

Rahim had a panic attack in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor concert. It was the most awful feeling he’d ever had. He felt trapped and like he was going to die. The next time his friends asked if he wanted to go to a concert, he made up an excuse about why he couldn’t go. Similarly, he started to avoid going anywhere where there might be big crowds, like sports games. When he was in a crowded environment, like a house party, he would use alcohol to ease his anxiety. Eventually, he avoided going anywhere far from home in case he had a panic attack, meaning he stopped travelling, which was something he loved to do.

Daniella had been in a long-term relationship for 3 years. She had never opened up to a person and been as vulnerable as she had been in that relationship, which ended a year ago when she found out her then boyfriend had been cheating on her. Daniella understandably never wanted to feel those feelings of hurt and betrayal again. She tried going on dates to meet someone new, but had trouble opening up and connecting with people. Eventually, she decided that dating was pointless and spent most of her free time working.

Beatrice, Rahim, and Daniella all changed their behaviours to avoid feeling emotional pain. In doing so, however, other important aspects of their lives were neglected. Their relationships suffered (or in Daniella’s case, the potential for a romantic relationship), as well as opportunities for growth and positive experiences. Beatrice wasn’t able to fully engage in school, and Rahim was no longer doing something that once brought him joy, travelling.

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Additionally, some of the methods they used to avoid were harmful. In Beatrice’s case, she restricted her food intake so much that she became significantly underweight and her health was negatively affected. To ease the worry about having a panic attack, Rahim became dependent on alcohol to feel okay in these situations. For Daniella, it is less clear. Being devoted to work and working hard is something most of us see as a good thing. In some cases though, positive or healthy behaviours or activities, such as sleeping, exercising, or seeing friends, could also be ways of avoiding. We may procrastinate reading that difficult email by reading the news, or working on that paper by cleaning our apartments. We may also avoid our feelings by getting caught up in our thoughts. For example, instead of accepting that a relationship is over and processing the feelings of loss and sadness, we might obsess over what went wrong and what we could’ve done differently.

So what should we do if we think we’re avoiding painful thoughts and emotions at the expense of other important things?

1. Take some time to get to know your negative thoughts and emotions. The more familiar you are with the negative thoughts and emotions that tend to come up for you, the better you'll be at managing them before they lead to avoidance. To get started on identifying your thoughts and feelings, check out these helpful worksheets.

2. Make it a point in your day-to-day life to notice what you might be doing to avoid. Ask yourself if there are behaviours or activities that are hard for you to give up, and why. For example, is it hard to give up a night of seeing friends because you would miss their company, or because being alone with your thoughts causes anxiety? Is it difficult to give up exercise because you would miss the mood-enhancing benefits, or would missing a day of your work-out make you feel like a bad person and cause significant distress?

3. Once you’ve become familiar with the thoughts and emotions you might be avoiding, and the potentially problematic behaviour you might be engaging in to avoid, take some time to identify your values. What are the things that are important to you? Is it growth, relationships, hard work, or fitness, for example? When we are clear on what our values are, we are better able to move toward them even when it’s hard. 

No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
- Gord Downie -

4. Practice moving towards your values even when you’re experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. To help in this process, break down your “moving toward” behaviour into small, manageable steps, and use strategies to self-soothe and manage difficult emotions, such as mindfulness and deep breathing (or “power” breathing!). For example, if Rahim wanted to start going to places with more crowds because he values new experiences, he could break down this goal into small steps, and maybe start by going to a crowded restaurant, close to home, with a friend. To help him reduce his anxiety in this process, he could use the techniques outlined here, such as the 3-minute breathing space.

5. Be nice to yourself! We are hard-wired to avoid things that make us feel bad. Most of us have those days when we want to hide under the covers instead of facing the world. Instead of judging yourself for avoiding, try approaching these difficulties with curiosity and kindness. This compassionate mindset will be more helpful in moving toward your values when the going gets tough :)


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


A shout out to Simply Noticing

A shout out to Simply Noticing

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When we feel like something’s not working for us, we want change. Whether you take this on alone or in the context of therapy, the process of change can feel daunting! Creating a space to look inside ourselves and our lives paves the way for reflection on our patterns. For example, you might tend to agree to doing things you really don’t want to do, or overcommit and regret (see Tobey’s latest blog post). Perhaps there are situations in which you consistently react in a way that makes things worse. You might go over what you have done after the fact thinking “I wish I hadn’t done that”. You want to change your reaction but it all seems to happen so fast—you feel like you are not in charge.

In Monthly Picks I posted about Shenpa, which is a Tibetan concept that refers to “getting hooked”—being caught up in something and scratching the itch. In the moment, we rarely notice that this is happening. Often if we’re not noticing, we react and feel powerless to change. When our mind wanders from the present, we allow important choices to be determined by external forces and receive consequences passively.  While mind-wandering can be beneficial in some contexts, it can also interfere with our ability to process information from the environment (Schooler et al., 2011). Wandering away from the moment without noticing can lead down a slippery slope. The risk is that life becomes a series of events we feel helpless over, leading to sadness, anger, anxiety or other uncomfortable sensations that communicate to us that something is not working.

So what’s the first step to taking charge? How do we become more of the driver and less of the passenger in our lives? This endeavour is especially difficult because sticky situations often seem to happen so fast. Taking back your power to participate actively in your life isn’t always easy but starts with simply noticing. Simply noticing is a key element of mindfulness-based meditations (Hölzel et al., 2011). Meditation and other practices based in awareness and noticing (vs. doing) have been associated with improvements in anxiety, depression, perceived stress, emotional well-being and overall mental health (Carmody & Baer, 2008). Simply noticing allows us to live our experiences as they are, rather than through the filters of our biases (Price et al., 2002). The idea is to step back and create space before we choose a response to a situation rather than reacting as we otherwise would (Baer & Krietemeyer 2006).

So how does one simply notice?

1-  Choose your target.

Pick one behaviour that you engage in that doesn’t seem work for you in the long term.  Do you often say “yes” when you mean “no”? Do you often feel compelled to assert yourself but stay quiet instead? Do you beat yourself up for making mistakes at work (or elsewhere)? Perhaps you react angrily when frustrated and say things you later regret? Choose one thing to simply notice.  

2-  Use your emotions as a guide.

When we do something that doesn’t work for us in the long term, it’s often in response to feeling an uncomfortable emotion in the moment. It may be avoiding something that we know is right for us because we’re afraid (e.g., job interview), it may be having one drink too many when we’re feeling sad or anxious. Tune in to those emotions. Ask yourself—is there a pattern here? Is there an emotion that I consistently react to in this way? In what situations do I tend to do this?

3-  Slow the tape down.

Imagine the situation as a scene in a movie. Then imagine playing the scene in slow motion. Although it feels quick in life, slow it down so you can take the time to look at each part of it. Even though time seems to be moving so much faster in these instances, you can slow down your experience and perception of the situation by paying attention.

4-  Simply notice.

Now take special notice of all the elements in the situation—and do this with purpose. Notice your Shenpa (that hook you might feel the urge to bite). Notice your urge to do something. Be present and observe the situation as though you were an outside observer.  Simply take note of what is happening, resisting any urge to do. You may choose to do afterwards, but in the first few moments, catch yourself not noticing, and instead, notice.

You might ask, “I noticed. Now what?”

Noticing is only a first step. However, it’s a powerful one: simply noticing is associated with changes in attentional functions and cognitive flexibility, which are linked to mental balance and well-being (Moore & Malinowski, 2009).  It is a step to ensuring your freedom and becoming aware enough to refrain from biting that hook. Over time, the practice of noticing will empower you to choose your life path through individual choices—ones that may have not been apparent before you slowed the tape down.


Danit Nitka is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carmody, J., & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31(1), 23–33.

Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science, 6(6), 537-559.

Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and cognition, 18(1), 176-186.

Price, D. D., Barrell, J. J., & Rainville, P. (2002). Integrating experiential–phenomenological methods and neuroscience to study neural mechanisms of pain and consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 11(4), 593-608.

Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (pp. 3–27). San Diego, CA: Elsevier

Schooler, J. W., Smallwood, J., Christoff, K., Handy, T. C., Reichle, E. D., & Sayette, M. A. (2011). Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(7), 319-326.

 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.