Acceptance and Commitment Therapy reminds me of the tense time I spent learning how to drive a car. Venturing onto a two-lane highway, I fixed my mind on the big worry – how to get where I wanted to go without crashing into anything along the way. The most important thing was to stay in my lane, and I had trouble with that.
I divided my attention between the stripe down the middle of the road and the oncoming cars. After terrorizing my teacher and glimpsing panic in the eyes of other drivers, I realized this strategy was getting dangerous.
The problem then and now is that I tend to steer toward whatever I’m looking at, in this case the very thing I most needed to avoid. Later, I realized that if I looked far down the road, to get the big picture of where I was going, then I had no trouble staying in the lane. Even though I hardly noticed, my hands made the dozens of little adjustments needed to keep me on track.
This may sound like a trivial example, something you look back on with amusement many years later. But at the time, fear was driving both me and the car.
Looking Beyond Depression
ACT is a method to keep powerful feelings and thoughts of depression from driving your life. Instead of staring into the worst fears and trying to avoid them, you work at shifting focus toward living the way you want to live and the values that can guide you. Mindfulness and acceptance are two of the skills you learn to keep your attention on this larger field of vision.
Almost every day, I try to do this and learn again how hard it is to change. An all too common problem is the way I act with my wife when I get irritable. What I want more than anything is to have a responsive, loving relationship with her. But that central value often loses out to a burst of anger.
Anything can set me off when I’m in a depressive state. A small event or detail hits me like a knife stab. I try to get a little distance from the sudden upsurge of feeling because I know my wife hasn’t done anything to hurt me. If I let myself act out the anger, we get into a fight and both of us feel terrible. If I can keep the value of the relationship in mind, then I have a chance to stop for a moment, calm myself and take a look at what’s going on.
Focusing on what I really value isn’t always enough to stop following the anger, but it can give me a touchstone. The problem is finding the space between impulse and action. If I can settle down long enough to pause, I have other ways of handling whatever it was that brought on the intense reaction.
Changing what you do can also help change what you feel. If I stay away from a gathering of friends because of anxiety about being with people, I’ll feel a short term relief but also shame that I have acted out of fear. If I can go to see them despite the anxiety, I usually feel better. The action and the good feeling come to reinforce each other and help me change the habit of letting the painful feeling drive what I do.
I once described the importance of tracking or mapping the ways you “do” depression through the actions you take to support it. ACT adds several dimensions to the tracking method. I’ll summarize a couple of them here and describe how I’m working with them in later posts.
First, you carefully think through what your values are so you can keep them explicitly in mind. The list of values can be extensive since you’re trying to cover all aspects of the way you want to live: relationships, work, community, your health in all its facets – physical, emotional, spiritual.
Once you’re clear about the values that matter to you, then you can track the daily choices and actions that either support or go against them. You capture both sides of the way you live – the one that feels fulfilling and the one that feels debilitating. You have a positive standard but not one you use to beat yourself with. The skills of mindfulness help you look at how you’re living in a non-judgmental way.
It’s easy to believe that your life is bounded by depression. That’s what I and most depressive lifers know best. We’ve spent too little time living as we’d like to live so it’s hard to shift thinking and the balance of action in the other direction. It’s not a problem limited to people with depression.
For every 1000 whose imaginations are captured by the vivid dramas of Dante’s Hell, maybe one or two follow the story to Paradise. Heaven may be a distant ideal and Hell much closer to where we live. But as the saying has it, if you’re going through Hell, keep going.
The best way I’ve learned to do that is to keep reminding myself of the life I really want and the deepest beliefs and values that can guide me there. Trying to make the choices that support those values rather than depression is an endless process of moving ahead, then back, over and over again. ACT refers to this as committing to action, and it’s an ongoing struggle for me. I’ll have a lot more to say about this as I keep working with ACT.