Friday, 12 May 2017

The problem solving mind is not always the best guide

I got some new craft materials for my toddler the other day. When she was finished this is what my floor looked like.

Instantly my mind came up with a solution - “just vacuum it all up”. This is a great example of the problem solving mind in action - giving suggestions for the easiest solution to the problem in front of me. Indeed I could have vacuumed up all the mess but that would have been going against my value of not being wasteful. I value not throwing useful things away and I value our finances which can't afford me vacuuming up perfectly useable craft materials.

This shows how important knowing our values is. If we always follow the instructions from our problem solving mind then we could end up living a life that is against our values - always doing the easiest thing rather than what is right for us.

With my values as guidance, I chose to painstakingly pick up every one of those beads and sequins. It certainly took a lot longer​ than the vacuum would have but I felt satisfied that I had followed my values and now my toddler has craft stuff at the ready for the next time she desires to spread sequins all over the floor. Though next time I won't be giving her the entire packet, maybe just a handful.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Improvements in psychological flexibility

When I was a small child I had a favourite cuddly toy called Fantasia. He was a small dalmatian puppy from the Disney movie and he would often go everywhere with me and I would cuddle him every night as I slept. My daughter has recently taken a great interest in the 101 Dalmatians movie so I decided to root around in the attic and find Fantasia for her. Unfortunately I wasn't the first to find him.

Mice had gotten into the bag and had eaten large pieces from his paws and face. Needless to say I was devastated - he had such special significance to me and I felt responsible for having stored him in the attic rather than elsewhere in the house.

What really surprised me though was how quickly I was able to come around to accepting the situation. In the past, something like this would have sent me into a spiral for days if not weeks or even months. It would have started with huge amounts of self blame - why didn't I keep him out of the attic? Why didn't I put him in something mouse proof? I would have been vicious to myself, telling myself how much I hate myself, how useless I am, I can never do anything right, I am an idiot, etc. I would have also tried to deny that it had happened or at least desperately try and will it not to have happened. I wish I had done this or that this hadn't happened etc.

This time however was surprisingly different. I was first hit by a huge wave of sorrow and regret but I didn't cling onto any of it like I used to. Within about half an hour I had accepted what had happened and decided that I would wash Fantasia and the other cuddly toys from the bag and do my best to repair them as best I could so my daughter could enjoy them. I still felt sad about what had happened but I didn't keep blaming myself and beating myself up like I used to.

This really demonstrates how much more psychologically flexible I am than ever before. I think that prolonged use of ACT has actually changed the way my mind works. I am fascinated to see whether this sense of psychological flexibility can be maintained and increased with further practice.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Depression, again.

I haven't written anything in a while now because I have been hit with a large wave of depression. It's hard to write about this stuff while you're in it and so easy to forget the details when you're out of it again. I'm​ going to try my best to write about it though.

It came on very gradually, almost insipidly, possibly triggered by several small events and disappointments in my life which I failed to notice that I had started struggling with and suppressing the feelings of. It snowballed with me not feeding myself properly and ceasing all exercise, making me feel even worse. I felt a deep lethargy which may have been caused by the depression or the poor eating habits - most likely a bit of both. These lethargic feelings lead me to doing less around the house and made me withdraw from activities in general which left me feeling overwhelmed by my everyday chores and my life felt lonely and lacking in any fun or relaxation. My days became a pattern of desperately waiting for my toddler's bedtime and then spending the evening simply waiting until it was my bedtime. By the time, after a fairly long decline that the death of my Grandmother came about, I was so numbed by depression that I didn't really feel much. This made me feel very guilty - she was a wonderful, kind woman who was a big part of my childhood, how dare I not feel anything? It was only when my depression started to lift a few weeks later that I started to feel the natural grief feelings I had been expecting.

I admit that I had naively thought that I was immune to depression with ACT at my side, but I'm now realising that life just isn't that simple and that I still need to practice more. ACT may not have made me immune to this bout of depression but it has freed me from its clutches for the majority of the time compared to the years of near constant depression I have experienced in the past. I believe the ACT tools helped to keep this depression from reaching the dangerous depths of precious bouts, though I was still surprised by how deep this one went.

The main difference between this depression and previous ones is that I noticed what was happening to me, at least once I had identified that I was depressed. I consciously made the effort to notice the thoughts and feelings I experienced from moment to moment and this may have helped me to start the process of bringing myself out of the depression. I noticed the urge to suppress my feelings with my old avoidance strategy of eating chocolate. Particularly notable was that I was conscious of the fact that this bout of depression was only temporary and that I would come out of the other side eventually. This contrasts with my old way of thinking that things will never change and I'll feel this way forever. I believe that my use of ACT lead to these changes in my experience of depression.

Getting out of this depression took a combination of several factors - accepting where I was, forcing myself to prepare and eat sensible foods, limiting the times I ate comfort foods, taking advantage of any moment the lethargy lifted and facing some of the thoughts and feelings I had been hiding from, not all at once and with kindness towards myself. I also talked to my husband about the thing I was most stuck with, which helped me to untangle the thoughts going through my head. This process took several weeks with some days going better than others. I am now back to normal again and grateful to be feeling better with some extra knowledge about myself.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Avoiding Teaching the Happiness Myth to my Toddler

At lunchtime my toddler laid her head down on the table and told me “I’m sad mummy”. It felt like my heart was breaking in two. I knelt by her chair and offered her a hug. With her arms wrapped around my neck and head slumped on my shoulder she repeated “I'm sad”. I asked her, “what would make you happy again?” All of a sudden I was struck by how I was teaching my daughter to fall into the happiness trap. I was implying that happiness is the normal state of being (happy again), that sadness is a problem that needs to be fixed and that you can be made to feel happy by things external from yourself. While I doubt that my toddler took these depths of meaning from my question I was aware that if I continue to use such language with her as she grows up I could end up inadvertently training her to fall into the happiness trap.

So I made the conscious decision to act differently. I sat her on my lap and told her “everyone feels sad from time to time. It's ok to feel sad. It will pass. I'm here for cuddles if you want them.” While she may not have understood all of that, I felt like I had followed my values by saying those things to her. I would love to teach her psychological flexibility as she grows up and avoiding language which leads to the happiness trap is an important part of that.

So, what happened when I said this to her? “Just want… just want my lunch”. Ok, back to lunch. And you know what? Her sadness did indeed pass all on its own.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Anniversary - 3 years of ACT

Today marks 3 years since my first session of ACT group therapy. Little did I know back then what an effective and frankly life changing therapy it would be for me. Though I found the ACT skills instantly helpful, it has surprised me how their long term use has transformed me. The purpose of ACT is to encourage psychological flexibility and I really do feel that I am far more psychologically flexible than I used to be. I find that I rarely need to consciously use the ACT tools anymore - my mind knows to do it all on its own. I have been off antidepressants for about 2 years and I think that it is unlikely that I will ever need them again. 
I still have some bad days, but they rarely affect me as deeply or hang around for as long as they used to.
I still have moments where I get caught up in struggling and avoidance but it isn't my response every time to every single thing which happens to me. I feel I still have to work on it and I believe that the more I do so, the more positive results I will likely see.
So here's to my 3 year ACT anniversary - may it continue to help me and those I teach for years to come.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Animation - Acceptance of Thoughts and Feelings

First, a little background; I am a 3D animator and by the time I was offered ACT group therapy, I was struggling so much with feelings of self-doubt that I actually found it impossible to sit in front of the computer to do any animation work. During the course of ACT group therapy, we were being asked to set ourselves a small goal each week. In one of the later weeks I said I would make a short animation before the next week's session. I chose to make an animation about one of the ACT concepts which really helped me and though it was really tough going, I managed to overcome my fears and defuse my thoughts to produce the following animation.

It is very rough and unpolished but below you can watch my animation. It is being used in the ACT on Life course in several Recovery College areas and the feedback I've had has always been very positive. Personally, I cringe to show it to others, judging how unpolished it is and what changes need to be made. I would love to take time to do a more slick, fancy one at some point in the future but for now this will do. I feel there is some value to it in this raw, original form because of what it represents in my own journey of recovery. Hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Doing Something Despite Your Thoughts and Feelings

Tomorrow I am going to a workshop in London to learn about Relational Frame Theory, the theory which underpins ACT. It will hopefully help expand my knowledge and understanding of ACT and improve my ability to teach it to others. Going to this workshop is in line with my values of personal development and my value of helping others, but as the day gets closer and closer, more and more uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are surfacing.

I feel guilt about forcing my husband to take a day off work to look after our toddler for me, I feel guilt and grief over the idea of being separated from my toddler for a whole day, I feel anxiety about the journey and the idea of being in such a busy city, I fear that I will be too stupid to understand the content of the workshop, I feel anxious about being around strangers, my mind assures me that I will say or do something awfully foolish or embarrassing, I feel disgruntled by the idea of a 5am start and fear I will feel too tired to concentrate, I fear triggering another gall bladder attack while being far away from the comfort of home. In short, my mind and body are trying everything they can to convince me not to go - to stay in my comfort zone at home.

In the past, these sorts of thoughts and feelings have convinced me not to go to certain events; I've missed birthdays and various social events in an effort to avoid these difficult feelings. I always feel empty and regretful afterwards. The thing is, most things we do, especially things which are really important to us, can bring with them this kind of discomfort. This is the moment in the Life Space demonstration where your life bumps up against these uncomfortable experiences and in order to expand your life space and make your life richer and more fulfilling you must first allow yourself to have these thoughts and feelings rather than shrinking away and avoiding them. If I chose not to go to the workshop tomorrow then my life space would shrink or in terms of the bus metaphor, I would be driving my bus in the direction my passengers dictated. 

With my values to guide me, it matters a little less what I am feeling; I know that this workshop is important to me in several ways and I am willing to allow myself to feel and think these things in order to reach my goal. It is uncomfortable, but I choose to continue driving my bus in the direction of my values despite some rather loud and obnoxious passengers.