How Psychological Flexibility is Cultivated Through Mindfulness

By Benjamin Schoendorff, Contextual Psychology Institute

I was first introduced to formal meditation practice in a Zen dojo in 1994. At the time, my life was chaotic and it would remain so for another 10 years. On several occasions over these ten years, I tried to build a regular meditation practice. Although I never managed more than meditating intermittently, I have no doubt that what little practice I did manage helped me. It helped me by giving me a direct experience of distancing from my thoughts. I had previously experienced what I thought as being a part of my essence, as what was defining me, and thus of the utmost importance.

Through meditation I experienced that my thoughts came and went. They were more like clouds in the sky of my consciousness than what defined that sky. The second thing I experienced was closely related. It was a sense that I was more than my thoughts and emotions, more than my experiences. That there was a part of me that was not affected by my experiences, that remained an observer no matter how painful the feelings of the moment or hooky the thoughts.

When I started getting my life in order and, after a brief course of psychotherapy, decided to make myself useful by becoming a therapist, I made a commitment to being guided by science and to somehow integrate my meditation experience into my work. I naturally gravitated toward behavioural therapies, due to the strong empirical support they enjoyed and their commitment to a scientific approach to the alleviation of human suffering. I just as naturally became interested in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which, was then gathering its first research data supporting its possible effectiveness for depressive relapse. However, try as I might I simply could not build a daily mindfulness practice. I felt uneasy recommending it to my clients. I suspected many would, like me, not be able to engage in daily mindfulness practice.

In February 2007, I came across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an emerging mindfulness and acceptance-based approach that seeks to help people develop their psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability, in contact with everything that shows up in the moment, to choose and do actions to move toward one’s values, who and what matters most.

In dozens of studies, psychological flexibility has been linked both to positive life functioning and life satisfaction and to a reduction in suffering associated with depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties and a host of other disorders. The way ACT seeks to train psychological flexibility is by cultivating mindfulness, distancing from unhelpful thought patterns, acceptance of unwanted feelings, identification of one’s values and moving toward them through deliberate actions. You could say it uses mindfulness skills to get folks to behave like the person they want to be.

And here was the catch for me. The person I want to be builds a regular mindfulness practice, but couldn’t. That fed my interest in ACT which seeks to train mindfulness skills even absent a formal mindfulness practice. ACT sees mindfulness as composed of four main elements: the ability to distance from thoughts (a.k.a cognitive defusion), the willingness to experience whatever is present (a.k.a. acceptance), the ability to be present to whatever arises in the moment (a.k.a. contact with the present moment) and, finally, the ability to contact an experience of self as an observer of all experience and transient thoughts, emotions and behavior (a.k.a. self-as context). In ACT these can be trained as discrete processes that together promote the ability to move toward one’s values. One of the most effective ways to do this is through using the ACT Matrix, a simple diagram with two intersecting lines that create four quadrants. The upper left-hand side represents actions to move away from unwanted inner experience (bottom left) and the right-hand side actions (top right) to move toward whom or what is important (values, bottom left). Sorting our behaviours and experiences in these four quadrants gradually helps build our psychological flexibility.

In my case, it has helped me gradually build a daily mindfulness practice that I have been able to keep up for over four months now. I was greatly helped by joining the Numinus team in the Mindful in May challenges for the past two years. Central to the ACT model and standing as a testament to its flexibility is the fact that ACT processes are based in mindfulness, while ACT can also, as was the case for me, help with engaging in more regular mindfulness practice. This is why I believe that mindfulness-based approaches should continue to dialogue and seek integration.

A Framework for Mental Wellness

Start building your own mental wellness plan with the ACT MATRIX.

From an evolutionary perspective, the primary role of the human brain is to keep us safe. Our brain evolved in times where physical or social threats often had life-or-death consequences. When scanning the past or anticipating the future, we developed an 80% negative bias to best avoid harm and support survival, but not necessarily to thrive and become the best version of ourselves. Despite thousands of years of evolution, our brain still reacts to threats in the same way, even if perceived threats are much less destructive than they were in the past. From tigers and hunger, our modern-day threats now include colleagues ignoring our comments in a meeting, being late to daycare, losing benefits at work, not being able to see family and the like.

Our primitive or mammalian brain, called the limbic system, is highly efficient to protect us from perceived threats. It has learnt to either fight, flight or freeze depending on the context and your conditioned responses.

When we feel threatened, the mammalian brain kicks in, often with inappropriate, self-preservation reactions that we later regret as they alleviate the short term discomfort or generate an immediate reward, but do not necessarily take into consideration what is most important to us in time or align to our deepest values. Rather, the brain is wired with these learnt behaviours from the past and will often repeat them again and again, just because they feel most natural to us, even if they no longer serve us.

We may often react automatically in a way that we later regret, if we were not able to manage our emotions to better utilize our more mature, wiser brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

To access our more mature, wiser brain (the PFC), we need to take note of our limiting beliefs, fears and related mental models that are keeping us stuck in a place that no longer serves us, and redirect our responses towards what is most important to us. This is what ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training) allows us to do: by noticing the unconscious patterns, we can make a conscious choice about our preferred responses, which will move us towards more expansive and constructive habits and behaviours. ACT uses evidence-based interventions grounded in mindfulness to increase mental and emotional skills for handling the difficulties that inevitably arise from life. Mindfulness is at the very root of this foundation as it is one of the catalysts for well-being. We explain more about our approach to the development of a healthier mind and the role of mindfulness in our article “Supporting healthy performance: Four pillars of well-being.”

With that in mind, we use a matrix adapted from ACT:

 

 

All day long, we’re either doing what we call “towards moves” or “away moves.”

TOWARDS MOVES refer to responding according to our values and behaviours, which will lead us towards what really matters to us, expanding our potential for having a rich and meaningful life.

AWAY MOVES refer to reacting with often unconscious and conditioned beliefs, thoughts, emotions that lead to behavioural choices that keep us at bay from whom we really want to be.

The less aware we are of what is driving our choices, the easier it is to lose sight of what really matters — and the more we get stuck and move away from what we really want and need for a thriving life.

A more meaningful and fulfilling life begins with clarifying what is important to us, learning how to mindfully disengage from habitual thoughts and behaviours that take us away from what’s important and choosing moves that lead us in a healthy direction.

Now, you can draw a blank ACT Matrix on a piece of paper and fill it up to start building your own mental wellness plan.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 6 Skills to Living a Richer and More Meaningful Life

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT (pronounced in one word), was developed by Dr. Steven Hayes and his research team and has, in the last decade or so, become one of the leading mindfulness-based interventions. One of its biggest strengths is that it is an evidence-based psychotherapy, with literally dozens of peer-reviewed research articles being published every month investigating its effectiveness in a wide range of contexts.

Although based on a cognitive-behavioural framework, it is heavily influenced by mindfulness concepts. Like other mindfulness-based interventions, ACT is not focused on changing unpleasant events or reducing symptoms, but rather to learn how we can make room for them and live a good life in spite of them. However, unlike other mindfulness-based therapies that involve long hours of formal meditation, ACT targets specific skills that can help cope with distressing events through brief exercises. This is especially helpful for those who are having difficulty meditating for long periods of time. These skills are based on the premise that distressing experiences are inevitable so learning how to cope with them is important, and that doing so allows us to live richer and more meaningful lives. The therapy consists in learning 6 skills, some of which focus on how to cope with unpleasant events, and others on how to live a meaningful life by making wise decisions.

1. Defusion

The first skill targets the destructive potential of thoughts. Being fused with thoughts means buying into them, or taking them literally. Conversely, being ‘de-fused’ from them means perceiving thoughts as simply thoughts, no more, no less. Defusing ourselves from thoughts that we have allows us to create some distance between our troubling thoughts and ourselves. This doesn’t mean getting rid of them but helps remove the emotional impact that they have on us. There are plenty of defusion exercises, for instance, a distressing thought such as “I’m a loser” can be repeated very rapidly until it loses its meaning, or can be tagged on after the stem “I am having the thought that…”, which also helps realize that it is just a thought passing through awareness and is not necessarily an accurate representation of reality.

2. The Observing Self

After some practice defusing oneself from unhelpful thoughts, we begin to notice that there are thoughts and there is an awareness of these thoughts, and that they are not the same thing. It soon becomes experientially apparent that while experiences continuously come and go, the awareness of these transient experiences itself is consistent and unchanging. Redefining oneself as the observer of experiences rather than as the experiences themselves, allows us to feel less directed by thoughts and thus freer to act volitionally. To facilitate understanding of this unusual concept, certain metaphors are used, such as comparing the self as a chessboard and thoughts as the pieces on the chessboard.

3. Acceptance

Having a range of experiences, even bad ones, is normal and part of being human. What creates distress is resisting these experiences and trying to avoid them. Another skill that is taught in ACT is being willing to allow all experiences, even unpleasant ones, to co-exist with us in every moment. Accepting unpleasant events is easier said than done but becomes easier the more it is practiced.

4. Contact with the Present Moment

Ultimately, life is always unfolding right now. So to live a rich and full life we have to be here now for it. By practicing accepting one’s experiences as they are, it becomes easier to remain for extended periods of time in the present moment. By doing so, not only are we enriching our life experience, we are also no longer avoiding troubling situations but learning to live with them.

5. Values

In order to live a meaningful life, it is essential to identify our deepest values and subsequently behave according to them. Identifying values requires taking the time to ask ourselves what is truly important to us.

6. Committed Action

Knowing what is important to us is not enough to live a meaningful life. The important last step is to commit to acting in accordance to these values despite the many obstacles that life regularly throws our way.

In essence, ACT is a means to become more aware or what we are experiencing from moment to moment, and more aware of what we truly care about. By no longer getting caught up in automatic (and often unhelpful) thoughts and actions, we develop the ability to become more flexible in the decisions we make and ultimately the way we chose to live our life. Our actions are made more consciously and are guided by what is deeply important to us.

Want to learn more about ACT? Many of our psychologists have trained in ACT for individual therapy, and we also offer group therapy programs based on ACT, as well.

 

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 19, 2015