I’ve just had a very intensive week at uni which involved (among other things) a 3 full-day workshop of mindfulness and CBT training.
I’m sure the majority of you are familiar with these concepts, but in case you’re not:
Mindfulness meditation takes it roots in Buddhist meditation techniques. The key take-home messages are: be present in the moment, thoughts are not facts. It’s a nice, general way of slowing down, taking stock, and appreciating life. Want to know more? Try this or this.
CBT stands for “cognitive behaviour therapy” – essentially it’s a fancy way of saying “your thought patterns are maladaptive, let’s take a look at them and see if we can change the way you process them”. (Here’s a good general book: CBT, and here are a couple of good (chronic illness specific) books to get you started: Living with the Enemy, CBT for Chronic Illness)
But I’m not here to talk about Mindfulness or CBT. I’m here to talk about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT for short – even the acronym is delightful).
During our three-day course, my supervisor Prof Mark Cropley described ACT as “CBT with bells on”. I think it’s so much more than that, but that’s a nice, succinct way of describing it.
So if it’s got bells on, why do you rarely hear anything about it? Why is it that the layman has usually heard of at least one or both of Mindfulness or CBT, but ACT is not so widely known? Personally, I see the merits in both Mindfulness and CBT, but I would choose ACT over either of them, in most scenarios.
Maybe I should explain…
Over a year ago now I attended a conference for work. It was an all-day thing, and the speakers were a bit hit-and-miss, meaning some bits were fascinating, but a lot of it was dull dull dull. Luckily for me, the Frank Curtis library were pimping their wares, so I grabbed a book I thought looked interesting, and used it to stop myself falling asleep in public.
That book was Russ Harris’ “The Happiness Trap”. I haven’t read a book so fast in a LONG time. None of the airy-fairy hippie other-worldlyness of Mindfulness (seriously, I mean what the hey?), and none of the saccharine endless positivity that comes with traditional CBT. ACT is refreshingly realist, with an attitude of “actually, being happy all of the time is not normal, bad stuff happens” (in fact, Harris has another book called “The Reality Slap“, which is on my wishlist…).
Please do not take this to mean that ACT teaches that life is rubbish and we might as well just accept that. More that it does all of the things that CBT does (i.e. aims to transform the way you process automatic thought processes) but without the underlying, unspoken belief that the goal is perfect, continuous happiness. ACT WILL NOT STOP BAD THINGS FROM HAPPENING. In fact, beware any therapeutic intervention that promises you this. It is a lie. Prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old. Facts can’t change, but the way you deal with them can. And that brings us full circle back to Mindfulness… Thoughts are not facts. Sometimes the oldest philosophies are the best. But it doesn’t hurt to reinterpret them in a way that’s accessible in the 21st century West.