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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Shaw

ACT and Mindfulness Skills

There is a lot of hype about mindfulness in the media and it is a hot topic in psychology as well. Unfortunately, there is some misrepresentation of mindfulness and it is easy to become confused as to what mindfulness is (in psychology) and what the aim of mindfulness is in practice. As one of the foremost evidence-based therapies that utilises mindfulness skills, ACT is often involved or mentioned when discussions of mindfulness arise. While mindfulness is certainly a common component in meditation and several eastern religions, ACT does not involve a religious practice of mindfulness.

Under the ACT model, mindfulness is a mental state of awareness, focus and openness to our immediate personal experience. It facilitates our ability to hold and accept difficult or painful sensations, thoughts, emotions and urges. Consequently, mindfulness is a state that allows us to fully engage in our actions at any time without being blinded or restricted by our personal experience of pain or difficulty. Of course, ACT practitioners may teach mindfulness skills through meditation practices, but this is only one method amongst hundreds to learn mindfulness in ACT.

ACT identifies 3 different categories of mindfulness skills:

Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful or painful thoughts, beliefs and memories.

Acceptance: allowing space for unhelpful or painful sensations, urges, and emotions to be present and allowing them to come and go without struggling to keep them away.

Contact with the Present Moment: making full contact with the present moment, becoming aware to the here and now, with an attitude of openness and curiosity.

Here is a useful metaphor for these three aspects of mindfulness: Imagine that your unhelpful or painful thoughts (e.g., I'm so angry right now!) were a beach ball. Now, just like our thoughts, we can't throw the ball away but we might not like the beach ball that much. So we might try and push it under the water or try to hold it close and put a hole in it. But as we push it under the water, it tends to pop up in our face in an explosion of water. And when we try to pop it, we struggle with our teeth and hands but we get tired and sore and not much happens - it is a thick beach ball. But what would happen if we just let the beach ball float around us in the water? It wouldn't be intruding or exploding or making us tired. We would be able to let go of the beach ball (defusion) and, while it is still visible (acceptance), we could enjoy some time in the water (present moment).

These skills identify an aspect of ourselves that is hard to describe in normal language. It is a part of us that is capable of awareness and directs our attention. ACT calls this the "observing self". We often contrast the "observing self" with the "thinking self" - which is our mind. So, that part of you that is thinking "what is this guy on about?!" would be the "thinking self". The "observing self" is the part of you that is paying attention to that thought or to the boredom/confusion in your body as you read this. Don't worry if you don't get this part - it is difficult to understand and best discussed in person!

What is important is that a strong evidence base has been established for regular use of these mindfulness skills. When these mindfulness skills are practised regularly, painful experiences and unhelpful thoughts have much less impact and influence over our actions. This enables us to invest our time and energy on actions that improve our life, rather than endlessly struggling with our inner experiences that never go away.

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