Don’t Mind….. Your Mind!! (Using acceptance, mindfulness and value based strategies to improve mental wellbeing)

The pursuit of happiness… One of the primary goals of each one of us in life is the pursuit of happiness. Even the Vedanta has a quote, “Ānanda-mayo ‘bhyāsāt” (Vedānta-sūtra 1.1.12)
In the pursuit of this (often elusive) happiness we often try to suppress, neglect, distract from other so called negative emotions like sadness, anger, fear.  We behave as if happiness is the only valid and positive emotion and it is “the” state that we should always be in and sustain by all means possible.  This often leads to unnecessary struggles and can lead to psychological disturbances like Generalized Anxiety Disorders, Panic Disorders, Depression or Addictions.
The media, especially the advertisement industry, keeps on bombarding us with messages like “buy our product and your life will be happy/complete/fulfilled”. But experience tells us otherwise.
Carl Jung (Swiss psychologist) has said, “The more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity.”
Happiness is a good state to be in but not at the cost of neglecting other emotions. We often put so much effort in this single minded pursuit of happiness that we tend to become psychologically rigid and which in turn leads to psychological ill health.
Think positively… This is often a mantra given by many Gurus, self help books, well meaning peers, friends and family members. But is the human mind really designed to think positively?
The human mind [and especially the part of our brain that controls our thoughts, feelings and emotions, also called as the limbic system (comprised of prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, amygdala…)] is still as evolved as it was when the humans were cave dwellers. We still have the same responses to threats and dangerous situations as our cavemen ancestors – the flight, fight or freeze response. The limbic system is our guard and keeps us constantly aware of possible threats to our well being. Hence it is not possible for us to think positively (we can try to control or change our thoughts, but thoughts are abstract and hence beyond our control).
Controlling thoughts In an attempt to manage our thoughts (and the resultant emotions generated because of the thoughts) we often try to suppress them or control them. Let’s do a small experiential exercise with thought control… (You will need a paper and pencil/pen) Imagine it’s a hot sunny day and now picture in your mind an ice cream cone, cold tasty, milky and drooping with all its deliciousness. Did you picture it? Ok now for the next 3 minutes, you can think anything but do not think about the ice cream, every time you think about the ice cream put a mark on the paper. Please remember, even the thought I should not be thinking about the ice cream is thinking about the ice cream.
What happened? Were you able to avoid thinking of an ice cream cone? Even though you were specifically instructed not to think about an ice cream cone?
This simple experiment shows us that controlling our thoughts does not work.
Control is often the problem… In the external world if you don’t like something you can change it/remove it/ suppress it. Suppose a nail in your table has loosened and is hurting you every time you try to work on the table, the solution is easy; remove it or hammer it in or replace it… problem solved!! We often try to apply the same strategy for our internal problems, (we try to control negative thoughts, feelings and sensations). But research has shown the more we try to control our private experiences, the stronger they become.
So maybe control is not the solution but (often) is the problem.
Role of human language One of the reasons why we have become the dominant species on the planet (in spite of not being the strongest) is our language abilities. We are able to communicate, illustrate, and share our thoughts, feelings, wisdom with each other due to this ability.  But it can prove to be a double edged sword. The same ability that has led to our progress has also led to many problems.
Relational Frame Theory (Hayes et al.) describes how human language is built by “linking”. It postulates that human language typically specifies not just the strength of a link between stimuli, but also the type of relation as well as the dimension along which they are to be related.
So with the help of language we can derive relations, such as, if A = B, and B = C then A = C, but it doesn’t stop there, we can also compare and evaluate A, B and C.
For example, Spinach (A) = Vegetable (B), and Vegetable (B) = rich in Fibre (C), then we can easily conclude Spinach (A) = rich in Fibre (C), and we can also then compare spinach with other vegetables and the presence of fibre in them. This ability to relate, compare, evaluate, imagine, that human’s posses have given us a tremendous edge in regulating and managing our external world and to solve problems because we can imagine and predict future problems (that have never been ) and there solutions. But when we try to use the same strategies for our inner world (Thoughts/Feelings/Emotions) it fails. In fact the same strategy can lead to creating, maintaining various psychological disturbances like anxiety disorders, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive behavior.
Example: In a person suffering from arachnophobia (fear of spiders or other arachnids), just mentioning the word “spider” (or seeing an image of a spider  or imagining a spider) is enough to create same fearful thoughts, feelings and emotions as if an actual spider was present without actually the spider being present. She/he not only has the fear response but is able to imagine all sorts of feared outcomes and worst case scenarios.
Experiential Avoidance and Non acceptance of Ambiguity: Two important factors that make us psychologically rigid and keep us attached to our comfort zones are experiential avoidance and Non acceptance of Ambiguity.
Experiential avoidance: (Hayes, S. C.; Strosahl, K. D.; Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford Press) has been broadly defined as attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences ‑ even when doing so creates harm in the long run. Avoiding an uncomfortable situation makes logical sense, but often we avoid perceived dangerous or supposedly uncomfortable situations, (situations which our mind classifies beforehand as dangerous or uncomfortable). This strategy works in the short term, but in the long term it is absolutely ineffective. Example: an agoraphobic has fears of being in places which they classify as dangerous or uncomfortable, so the strategy they often use is to avoid such places. This strategy gives them short-term relief from their feelings, sensations of anxiety and panic, but in the long run maintains their agoraphobia.
Non acceptance of Ambiguity It is often said that the only certain thing in life is taxes and death.
Change is the basis of life and it is the only constant
We often try to resist changes, as we think “Change is bad”. And we try our best to avoid any changes and we want to be always certain about outcomes. This makes us very rigid and can lead to lots of unnecessary mental agony and control strategies.
Non acceptance of Ambiguity is another major causative factor in anxiety disorders, panic disorders, depression. We all have experienced the following (or at least a version of it), we get all dressed up to meet a dear friend or loved one, we have been looking forward to this meeting for days, we have been planning what to wear, what to say…but at the last moment the friend cancels the meet. We become angry, frustrated, we feel depressed; our self worth takes a hit. And all of this because we wanted things to happen in a particular way, no other outcome was accepted. We wanted to be certain.
Ambiguity and Uncertainty is a part of life and we cannot change it. So a better strategy would be to increase our acceptance of ambiguity. We can learn to distinguish between things in our control and things outside of our control. This awareness can help us to overcome unnecessary struggles.
A beautiful prayer (also used by the Alcoholics Anonymous) says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Mindfulness: One of the contributing factors for Anxiety disorders is to remain focused in the future (anticipation and prediction of future bad outcomes), and depression is often due to focusing cognitively on the past (guilt, regret about past mistakes or occurrences). We seldom are present in the current moment.
Staying focused in the present moment with an open, curious, non-judgmental attitude is called Mindfulness.
Being mindful in every activity is a fantastic way to develop tolerance and acceptance of uncertainty, and can help us approach situations instead of avoiding them.
Mindfulness is an effective tool in developing and nurturing psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is a sign of psychological health.
Value-based Living: Recognizing one’s life values, (not to be confused with goals), can keep one focused on experiencing life fully and without judgement. It can work as a lighthouse in the tormented seas of emotions. It can keep us focused and help to accept all emotions without becoming overly attached to any one of them.
Values, unlike goals, are unending and living a value-based life can really help to make our lives richer and fuller. Satisfaction is a by-product of a life lived and guided by our values.
So the mantra for psychological well being is, “Let your mind say what it wants, but do what your values guide you”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *