Acceptance and Commitment

Like everyone, I spend a lot of time thinking about the COVID-19 situation and how it is being addressed. There have been times, especially at the beginning, back in March, when I have struggled to accept, let alone commit, to the social isolation, hard science and statistical data saturation and climate of generalised anxiety and fear. The idea of a government being able to mandate in such a way that I could not be with my family was something that I had never thought possible and had only come across in dystopian literature such as Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ or Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale’.

Yesterday I joined a webinar run by The Association of Psychological Therapies (APT), an organisation founded and run by Clinical Psychologist, Dr Will Davis. This was one of a series of free weekly sessions that look at how psychology can be used to support people in the current COVID-19 situation. Yesterday’s focus was on the therapeutic approach, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This is one of a host of therapeutic models and approaches that have are in vogue, joining Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, Mindfulness, Rational Emotive Therapy; there are many more and all, though unique in themselves, share certain principles such as helping complex individuals deal with their cognitions and feelings in relationship to themselves, others and their contexts, and overlap in terms of technique.

ACT’s main aim is the help people, through a clear staged six step process, to develop increased psychological flexibility, which is the ability to be in touch more fully with the present and to behave in a way that is appropriate and congruent with one’s values and core being, which would seem to be particularly pertinent at this time. We certainly need that psychological flexibility but given government’s strategy and huge social control the idea of being true to one’s core values, would appear to be particularly challenging.

Professor Steven C. Hayes from the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, is the founder of the ACT model, prolific author and highly regarded recipient of numerous awards. He is of the view that ACT practitioners are able to integrate their interests in philosophy, evolutionary biology, social change and transformation, stigma and prejudice in their therapy. He is also highly questioning of the tendency to pathologise and medicalise human suffering and has some interesting things to say about ‘evidence-based practice’, quantification of human complexity and off-the-peg mental health categorisation, such as that employed in the DSM-5. For an excellent account of his ideas and work I recommend an on-line piece : https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/acceptance-commitment-therapy-ACT-steven-hayes-interview and here are a few quotes that particularly spoke to me:

“The amount of pain that we’re exposed to now is a magnitude higher than anything we evolved to face…..So we need modern minds for this modern world”

“but it’s not a happy-happy, joy-joy, bliss trip to the beach kind of thing. It’s much more serious and sober. Not serious in the sense that it’s not fun and joyful to be alive and connected, but in the sense that it does justice to the richness of human life.”

“We have a saying: “In your pain you find your values and in your values you find your pain.” When you connect with things that you deeply care about that lift you up, you’ve just connected yourself into places where you can and have been hurt.”

“it” (ACT) “gives us the openness and grounding and consciousness to be able to move our attention in a non-suppressive way towards what we care about. It empowers us to take that leap of faith that we can care, that we can have values and nobody can stop us. “

Certainly I can accept and commit to all of these ideas, and, especially, to Viktor Frankl’s words, which Hayes quotes:

“you can take away all of my external freedoms but you can’t take away my capacity to choose to love and care about others. You just can’t do it.”

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