Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life by Steven C. Hayes explains how concepts from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can get you unstuck from your thoughts.
The book takes a brief look at relational frame theory, on which ACT is based, but doesn’t get bogged down in theory. In a nutshell, a characteristic of human thinking is that it’s relational; that means we are able to mentally connect disparate things in arbitrary ways. However, instead of recognizing this arbitrariness, we view these connections as inevitable.
Hayes explains that mental pain is inevitable, and trying to get rid of it only increases our suffering. The language we use can lead to experiential avoidance, which is “the process of trying to avoid your own experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, bodily sensations, behavioral predispositions) even when doing so causes long-term behavioral difficulties.”
If I tell you not to think about a white bear, that’s exactly what you’ll think of, right? Hayes explains how trying to suppress thoughts just makes things worse. Instead, he suggests the rule of thumb, for both thoughts and emotions, that “if you aren’t willing to have it, you will.”
The book covers willingness to experience and accept whatever is going on for you in the present moment. One of the things I like about ACT is that willingness and acceptance are both active stances rather than passive. Acceptance doesn’t mean not changing, and willingness doesn’t mean wanting an experience.
Cognitive fusion is another major topic. It “involves treating our thoughts as if they are what they say they are.” By de-fusing from our thoughts, we’re less likely to get hooked by them. It’s a different approaching to thoughts compared to cognitive behavioural therapy, so for people who aren’t that keen on CBT, ACT could be more appealing.
The chapter on self-conceptualization talks about the idea of self-as-context, meaning that the self is the context in which thoughts and feelings occur rather than being defined by the content of those thoughts and feelings. There are also chapters devoted to mindfulness, identifying our values, and acting based on our values.
Various analogies are used to explain the concepts, such as:
- Instead of trying to stop a war, what if you tried leaving the war zone altogether?
- If you try to escape from quicksand you’ll get sucked in, but if you relax you’ll float on the surface.
- A chessboard represents self-as-context while the pieces that move across it are thoughts and feelings.
- A stream represents self-as-context and leaves floating down the stream represent thoughts coming and going.
While there’s a substantial amount of text, the book is designed as a workbook, and there are exercises to try and space to write out answers and observations. There are a variety of cognitive defusion and mindfulness exercises. The mindfulness exercises would still be relevant for people who aren’t keen on meditation. It’s not so much mindfulness for the sake of mindfulness; rather, to accept your present moment experience, you need to be aware of it.
The book is very comprehensive, but it’s written in accessible language and would be suitable for people with no familiarity with ACT. It would be useful for self-help, and it would also be useful to determine whether doing ACT with a therapist would be a good fit for you. Another excellent source of information on ACT is Dr. Russ Harris, who has written The Happiness Trap and several other books on ACT.
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life is available on Amazon.
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