acceptance and commitment therapy

Book review: Get out of your mind and into your life

We’re reading up on so-called “third wave” therapies for alcohol use disorder, and we wanted to share what we learned about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by reading “Get our of your mind and into your life.”

Relative to some of our recent reading, this was a bit of a tough one to get through. It’s dense material and it’s easy to lose track of the thread sometimes. All in all, we’d say the underlying philosophy seems sound, but some of the details of how they get there feel force-fitted.

The key points the book made were:

  1. Suffering is lessened when you accept psychological pain as a part of life, rather than fighting it or trying to avoid it. It’s quicksand - the more you struggle, the worse your situation gets. The definition of “pain” is quite broad here; it would include everything from pain from a past trauma to social anxiety, and can be triggered by the smallest of things.

  2. Our natural inclination is to try to avoid pain. That’s one of the reasons many people drink too much. You avoid pain by avoiding potentially risky or painful situations, by drinking or using drugs, or by suppressing the memories of painful events and the feelings they bring up in you. But avoiding pain entirely is impossible, and in attempting to do so we limit our lives and we amplify that pain. If you accept pain as a normal and natural part of life, you can learn and grow. And put down the booze.

  3. Accepting pain doesn’t mean you enjoy it. Through meditation, you can learn to separate yourself from your thoughts so you’re able to look at them more calmly and (almost?) objectively. You don’t identify as closely with those painful thoughts

  4. You can become happier if you deliberately choose the values that matter to you and commit to moving in the direction of what you value, despite the pain you might endure. The book talks about how people with physical injuries recuperate faster if they have a greater tolerance for the pain they encounter when improving. It’s a nice analogy for recovery from other kinds of suffering.

We liked the idea that some suffering is impossible to avoid. It’s true! Everyone you know has probably felt down or afraid at some point. What’s worse is, when we DON’T expect some psychological pain as part of life, we get upset or afraid BECAUSE we’re upset or afraid. We think we’re abnormal on top of everything else.

We also like the way the book encourages you to move in the direction of your values while not depending on any particular outcome. In other words, if your goal of becoming a writer doesn’t work out, pursue another way to live according to your value of expressing yourself creatively. It does seem like this more flexible approach to happiness might work better than becoming attached to any specific goal.

But as we said, it was dense reading, and some of the premises seemed a bit thin. For example, we didn’t like as much the idea that somehow, human language is responsible for suffering (yes, that’s part of the theory). The theory is that have a tendency to compare things to one another and relate them, and this is why we can see a beautiful sunset and end up crying (we connect the sunset to endings, and endings are sad, for example). The idea is that animals don’t feel such universal and ever-present suffering, because they lack our ability to relate things to one another.

In the context of quitting or cutting back on drinking, the most helpful ideas seemed to be: 1) when you’re having an urge to drink, observe the urge without identifying with it ( try the exercise “Urge Meditation” to get an idea!) and 2) understand that numbing psychological pain through drinking is at best a short term strategy, and at worst can actually make your suffering worse over time. Learn new strategies to tackle anxious or depressed thoughts in Drinker’s Helper!

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