How to improve mental health in 2020 - What’s the difference between a top down and a bottom up approach to wellbeing?

By Richard Fryer

Top down performance psychology

If you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed at the moment – you aren’t alone. It’s a difficult time for many of us, but fortunately there are practices we can integrate into our lives to enhance our sense of wellbeing. By learning to use bottom up and top down approaches, and to find the ones that work the best for you, you can maintain and perhaps even improve your mental health into the future.The World Health Organisation describes mental health as a state of well-being that enables a person to realise their full potential. Mental health is a fundamental building block of human performance – not something separate or somehow less important. Yet how many organisations have their wellbeing programs separate from their performance initiatives? In my experience, the answer is ‘most’.

We sometimes neglect the importance of wellbeing while focussing on the day-to-day of “living our lives”. So, how do we nurture more mental health and well-being? There are many different ways proven to help people increase their levels of wellbeing which can be broadly grouped into two types of activity.

The first set are ‘top down’ approaches – thinking and talking techniques. These might include talking with a psychologist, socialising with friends, learning new skills and some types of mindfulness meditation. Talk about your experiences with the people you’re close with, immerse yourself in learning new skills, spend time non-judgementally noticing what thoughts and feelings arise for you. You could spend a moment writing down all the feelings that arise for you. Often our inner thoughts are very tumultuous, and it can be surprising how much we’re feeling at any given moment. By taking a moment to name those thoughts and feelings we can make some space for them. Naming difficult thoughts and feelings won’t make them go away, but it can help us to carry them lightly.

The second set can be called ‘bottom up’ approaches as they work through the body to improve the mind. The body and the mind work together to shape our experiences, by using a bottom up approach we can improve our sense of wellbeing through physical experiences. Bottom up approaches to wellbeing include exercise, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, music and other forms of play. Schedule some time to do things that make your body feel at peace.

You may notice that some activities are a combination of top down and bottom up – for example mindfulness practise that uses breathing as a way to connect with the present moment non-judgmentally.So which mix of approaches is best for me? The answer is likely to be ‘the one that you enjoy doing the most’ – which you’ll discover with expert psychologist help and encouragement! The most important point is that investing time in our mental health is an essential foundation for flourishing in our lives – not something that we should put off because of seemingly more “urgent” work or life priorities.

This is why expert ACT therapist help in building your psychological flexibility can really enhance your life performance outcomes – they have the skills and training to integrate mental health and wellbeing work with valued living improvement work, recognising that everyone needs a bit of everything from time to time.

Richard Fryer is a general and sport and performance psychologist at Brisbane ACT Centre. He works with a broad range of clients, whatever their struggle to help people realise their life performance potential – and live more rich, full and meaningful lives – during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond!

The User’s Guide to Mindfulness, Meditation & Noticing

The User’s Guide to Mindfulness, Meditation & Noticing

Mindfulness, an intentional focusing practice, can have many benefits, amongst them easing up feelings around struggle with anxiety. The psychophysiological exercise practice of intentional focusing activates the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain which is related to thinking and emotion, and this entire process, including such physiological activation appears to help us to deal much more effectively with anxiety.

Mindfulness, also referred to as purposeful focusing practice can also lower blood pressure, improves our sleep partly by a common and pleasant side effect of deep relaxation and undoubtedly lengthens your attention span, as mindfulness IS purposeful attentional focus!

However, practising mindfulness skills can be tricky, for instance by bringing us into contact with unpleasant thoughts and feelings that we may otherwise “push to the back of our minds”, seeking to avoid. Many people think they simply can’t meditate. People often believe that gurus who meditate every day have more willpower, less anxiety or a bottomless depth of tranquility.

These beliefs are often due to common misunderstandings: that mindfulness practice is intended to relax (quite the opposite, it is to allow feelings to simply come, and go, and come again), that meditation CLEARS the mind, in fact we usually notice our mental busyness even more. Intentional focusing is a skill that takes practice like anything else.

Guided vs silent Mindfulness practice

There are many types of mindfulness practice, two of the most popular types are guided and silent. Guided mindfulness involves a guide in person or nowadays often via an app, walking you through the practice of intentional focusing step by step. This can be helpful as it brings us back to the purposeful focus practice, as most of us are often hooked off by our minds in all kinds of directions.

Silent meditation practice however is often done completely solitarily, it is likely what you imagine when thinking of the Dalai Lama or Buddhists meditating. This requires great intention of practice and determination aided in all likelihood by historical and cultural reinforcement! Guided mindfulness practice is therefore often your best bet when beginning your own practice.

Brain dump

Often our minds are busy and full of thoughts. It is simply impossible to “empty the mind”. A practice some find helpful is “dumping” all your thoughts on a page – helping you feel like your mind has at least partially processed these thoughts, possibly allowing a little more mental space. If it’s written down you won’t forget it – it can be dealt with after you’ve finished your practice. A brain dump is an exercise where you write everything that’s running through your brain down, handwriting can often be most helpful. Everything that’s bothering you and needs dealing with, whatever pops up in five or ten minutes of writing. It’s a bit like writing a journal, but more flowing and less constrained. It doesn’t have to make sense, just write. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can give you space to experience mindfulness.

Following Thoughts

An ongoing challenge everyone has with mindfulness practice is maintaining focus and not being swept away in our rivers of thoughts that naturally, continuously flow. No one is really able to focus very easily, it’s normal for many thoughts to wander around in your mind and all of us have great trouble unhooking from them.

A helpful exercise (if you are good at visualizing) is the ACT classic leaves on a stream: Visualize a gently flowing stream with leaves on the surface of the water, and you place your thoughts onto the leaves and allow them to float on by. Let these thoughts come, and stay, and go – and come again. While most thoughts me come and go pretty quickly, sometimes, thoughts hang around for quite a while. Let your thoughts come and stay and go, in their own good time, as they please. The aim of the exercise is to learn how to step back and watch the flow of your thoughts, not to make them go away. It’s okay if the leaves hang around and pile up, or the river stops flowing; just keep watching. The skill we’re learning is how to observe the stream of our thoughts without getting pulled into it, how to watch them come and go without holding onto them. So if a positive or happy thought shows up and you go, ‘Oh, I’m not going to put that one on a leaf; I don’t want it to float away,’ then you’re not truly learning the skill of simply watching your thoughts.

A little goes a long way

Making time for regular mindfulness practice is tricky but even five to ten minutes of meditation has been shown to have demonstrable benefits. Sometimes people may expect to focus perfectly first try, but this is really never the case. Mindfulness practice, while helpful, naturally allows the presence of various difficult thoughts and feelings. If you find yourself noticing a very busy mind, don’t beat yourself up, this is a totally normal experience. When a thought arises, thank it for its presence and let it come, go, and come again. Good on you for giving it a go – doing any amount of any new health practice is an achievement!

Apps to Guide your Journey

ACT Companion – the Happiness Trap app – full features US $10 guided mindfulness, written and experiential exercises – from none other than Russ Harris, author of the best-selling book The Happiness Trap. Simple defusion and acceptance techniques, easy values-clarification and goal-setting tools, powerful ‘observing self’ and self-compassion exercises – you’ll find it all here.

buddhify – “the most convenient, best value and most beautiful meditation app available today. Helping people around the world reduce stress, sleep better & be present in the midst of it all.” Certainly the best looking and easy to use mindfulness app!

Insight Timer

Insight Timer has 19000 free meditations by different guides available. Easy to use and has a wide variety of meditations to choose from. Insight Timer is free & community driven with a rating system to help you find the meditations that best suit your needs.


Headspace is a very popular guided meditation app that tracks how often you meditate and rewards continued use. It has more structure than Insight Timer, and requires a subscription past the free courses. The graphic design is also excellent!  If you prefer a structured, consistent course, this is the app for you.

The Sleep School App helps you practice The Sleep School sleep tools & techniques until you have mastered them for life. The app delivers The Sleep School approach across its 5 core areas in a highly interactive audio-visual format.

Mindfulness is like any skill, it takes practice. It’s normal to find it difficult at the start so don’t beat yourself up. There’s a wealth of research demonstrating benefits for performance, wellbeing and sleep – even a small amount of focusing practice can go a long way. Try the brain dump exercise, letting your thoughts flow freely without judgement and go easy on yourself for your first experiences of mindfulness. There are some great apps available to aid you on your journey.

Our Brisbane ACT Centre psychologists are trained in the latest cognitive behavioural therapies, and are all keen mindfulness skills coaches. If you’d like further coaching or input, get in touch with our friendly staff today.  Remember to be gentle with yourself, mindfulness practice is tricky and you should be proud that you’re trying. Be persistent and it will get easier, but forever challenging – in a good way!

Fear of Heights – Taking the Leap

By Jeremy Villanueva

Having a fear of heights (or anything!) can be terrifying. Regardless of your particular fear or anxiety, we all have similar experiences to some extent. In my life it has been heights in particular.

For example, if I were standing on a tall and narrow walk-bridge, or even just standing inside a tall building, my heart would start to pound, I would breathe faster, my stomach would sink into itself, my fingers would tingle, my body would freeze, and my mind would race and tell me to get the heck out of here. Do any of these experiences sound familiar?

At first I thought my experience was typical, but I realised that not everyone shared the same responses as me! I was told that my feelings would eventually disappear, but they simply didn’t go away. While I still froze with a pounding heart, other people seemed to be just fine standing on balconies, leaning over edges, or just being anywhere on high ground.

To be honest, I didn’t worry about it too much because I was happy to keep clear from heights if it meant that I wouldn’t experience those unwanted feelings in my body.

However, by avoiding heights, I started to miss out on things that I thought would be fun. For example, I enjoy being active and outdoors, but I avoided things like hiking, rock climbing or other high-exposed activities. Even more so, it meant that I missed out on spending fun times with friends or family.

I don’t remember the exact moment, but one day I decided to try to expose myself to heights, if it meant that my feelings would go away. It was a slow process, but eventually I started to go on a few hikes and climbs, but I still had those unwanted feelings. Good grief!

After 10 years of actively trying to get rid of my fear of heights, I realised that perhaps I can’t necessarily get rid of my fear, but just maybe I could learn to be at ease with it. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) skills to help us do just that.

What I started to do is learn to make more room for these unwanted feelings (even though they’re still there), and still do the things that are important to me. ACT skills have taught me how to manage my fear more effectively, so I’m nowhere near as restricted as I once was a short few years ago.

In fact, just last year, I was able to do something on my bucket list that’s caused me anxiety for a while – bungee jumping!

Remember those feelings that I mentioned earlier?

They were still there from the day I booked my bungee jump to the moment I was standing on the edge of that bridge. My heart pounded, I breathed faster, my stomach sunk into itself, my fingers tingled, my body would freeze, and my mind raced and tried to convince me not to jump…

But I still took the leap, and it was amazing! I’ve always wanted to tick bungee jumping off my list, and I didn’t let my fear take that away.

If you have a fear of heights (or anything!) or you want to learn more about ACT, and quickly learn effective ACT skills please feel free to call us on 07 3193 1072.

If you want to take the leap, I’ll be more than happy to help you on your journey.

Jeremy Villanueva

Can learning to mindfully notice our thoughts and feelings help us to live our lives with clearer purpose?

By Georgia Watkins-Allen

I’m an experienced clinical psychologist, but I’m also someone who is naturally impulsive… I’ve spent too much time over the years pulling my foot out of my mouth, or regretting my actions after reacting hastily, rather than responding in a way more true to my personal values. Like many of my clients, I have often felt frustrated and tangled in my inner turmoil instead of being fully present with the people and things around me that I care about. Bogged in my anxieties, my frustrations.

Luckily, a benefit of my clinical work with clients struggling with their anxiety and depression is that I can directly experience and learn a lot from paying close attention to the ways they also get stuck. In doing so I also become a better psychologist – helping my clients flourish, teaching skills to connect more with their values, and more effectively handle their difficult situations.

My children and my friends are quite naturally among the most important things in my life. Spending time with them is truly a treasure. One beautiful Saturday morning I was down by the bay with my kids and a couple of girlfriends from work. It was a rare opportunity for us to be together. I really wanted it to be a special day. But my mind had other ideas! Being with workmates triggered angst about a mutual colleague who had been making our lives at work very difficult. How I fought with my mind! It seemed this person’s name was rising on the wind trying to chase me down. After a bit I began to notice how my worries were ruining my time with these beautiful women and our children.

I grew more and more annoyed with myself, with my mind. I struggled to be present with my girlfriends and kids and enjoy this precious time. Becoming aware, with mindfulness, on purpose more fully in the moment, I spotted the battle. I named the fight with my thoughts, observed the tension in my jaw and muscles. I noticed my frustration as sensations in my body. In doing so I became able to “step back” from the battle. I gently smiled at myself for getting hooked, like a fish struggling on a line. Being with my workmates had simply cued my mind to  “fix the problem” of our difficult colleague.

But this was not the best time to fix a work problem! All of us need a break from such problems at times, to simply BE in our relationships and nurture ourselves. So I thanked my mind for trying to help, gave myself permission to let go of this concern until back at work on Monday. I spoke up, and shared the battle I had been in with my girlfriends. I gently suggested we take a few moments to ground ourselves.  To focus on our senses. To connect with each other on this beautiful day. As mothers and as friends.

So I really noticed the cool sand on my feet. The dappled warmth of the sun as it shone through the leaves on my back. The laughter of our children playing. The fragrance of the pine needles and the salty air. The bickering of seagulls. The soft breeze as it stroked my skin. Once I had compassionately named my struggle and focused on my senses I was more able to gently step aside from the battle and move towards those around me that I value so dearly.

It’s not about trying to change our anxieties, our frustrations, our negative thoughts about what’s happening in our lives. It’s about not fighting it. Not using the harsh strategies of struggle, those of war. The more we fight our thoughts, the more they tend to fight back! By self-compassionately stepping back from the battle to simply notice difficult thoughts drifting in and out of our minds we can return to being here and now. To be with what really matters.

It sure can be tricky, this mindfulness stuff! Training yourself to simply notice challenging thoughts and feelings can take some practice. Like any skill, finding an expert coach can make a huge difference. I’ve certainly noticed that in my own life.

And you really can learn to simply notice what’s happening in your mind and your body and use mindfulness to more skillfully come back to the present. You CAN use these skills to notice what’s happening inside you – and make much better choices. To live a more fulfilled life – more like the person you want to be, instead of being hooked by unhelpful habits.

Can you identify with some of what I’ve experienced? Would you like to spend more time moving towards the people and things you care about, and less time battling with your inner struggles? Take a step toward that life! Call Brisbane ACT Centre on 3193 1072. Find out how I can help you with effective skills to more easily choose to move toward the people and things YOU care about in life, even in the presence of your inner obstacles.

Is perfectionism your friend or foe?

By Tunteeya Yamaoka

Recently I conducted a Facebook Live Seminar with a group called “Empowering Women in Property”. These women identified with being perfectionists and over-achievers, which helped them to accomplish results. However in getting caught up in thoughts about having to achieve impeccable outcomes, they found it difficult to engage in the present moment. Having a perfectionist inner critic, constantly judging their own and others behavior was exhausting.

Most high performing individuals would argue that the reason why they can perform at such a great standard is because they are perfectionists. However, sometimes perfectionism can be draining as nothing ever seems to be good enough. Is there a way to let perfectionism be our friend without letting it control us?

When we can learn to observe when perfectionism is present and notice when it is taking us away from what’s important to us, we are immediately gaining some separation from our thoughts, allowing us to make more choices about how we are going to let perfectionism influence our behavior.

Learning to notice and become mindful of our thoughts allows us to create some flexibility with perfectionism. We can let perfectionism support us when we want to gain results, but we can also let it go when we need to connect with what is important to us, such as our loved ones, our hobbies and our health.

Just like there are times when perfectionism can be our ally when we need to perform, there are times when it can take us away from our values. It is important to bring awareness to our thoughts and notice whether perfectionism is supporting the life we truly want to live, whether it is fulfilling our hearts greatest desires.

If perfectionism is not adding quality to your life, we can learn to change our relationship with it by accepting it as our “personal assistant”. Notice when that personal assistant is being extremely hard on you, notice your reaction to it, is it helpful or unhelpful to struggle with it?

You can simply thank your personal assistant for supporting you, because it wants to help you. It may continue to criticize you throughout the day, but you have a choice to get caught up and argue with it (you know it always wins), or simply acknowledge it and let it be.

For help with taming your perfectionistic inner critic and instead accepting it as your “personal assistant” to be thanked and listened to, or politely ignored, get in contact with me by calling Brisbane ACT Centre or email

Tunteeya Yamaoka

Reference: ACT Made Simple: Dr Russ Harris

The Power of Self-Compassion

By Bernadette Devenish

We would never criticise and judge our loved ones or friends as harshly as we do ourselves. Self-compassion is something we can give ourselves when we fail and struggle, when we feel ashamed and disappointed. Self-compassion helps us to become mindful of our humanness. It is not easy to be a human, we all struggle, we all suffer and we all make mistakes at times. As the great R.E.M. song says – ‘Everybody Hurts Sometime’.

All humans experience disappointment, relationship difficulties, frustration, anxiety, rejection, illness, anger, fear, loss, guilt, and self-doubt. Giving as much compassion to ourselves as we would to a friend dealing with similar struggles helps us to lighten up on ourselves, reducing our tendency for perfection and self-imposed high standards. We expect so much of ourselves and our minds beat us up when we fall short of our unrealistic expectations. Giving ourselves compassion allows us to acknowledge with kindness that we are suffering.

Self-compassion brings us closer to others during difficult times, reducing feelings of isolation. Self-compassion and mindfulness help us to observe and notice ourselves and our actions with clarity and honest openness. Comforting ourselves as we struggle with difficult experiences enhances our relationships by helping us to face our faults, making it more likely that we will admit to and repair our mistakes. Self-compassion and mindfulness helps to interrupt patterns of negative automatic emotional reactions.

Awareness that we are suffering in this moment and allowing kindness toward our own suffering helps us to bounce back from inevitable difficult and challenging human experiences.  Self-compassion also helps us to connect with others with the knowledge that we all suffer and we all make mistakes. Paying attention to our moment to moment internal and external experiences without judgment using mindfulness and self-compassion builds our flexibility, adaptability and tolerance to the inevitable challenges of being a human and in relationship with others.

Walk Slowly ~ Danna Faulds…

It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

To learn more about how to bring mindfulness and self-compassion into your life contact the Brisbane ACT Centre in Milton


Chapman. A. (2016). The mind as a powerful storyteller. Retrieved from

Harris. R. (2016) How to develop self-compassion in just about anyone. Retrieved from eBook

Acceptance – Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

By Michelle Carroll-Walden

Can you recall the last time you had a pebble in your shoe?

You knew it was there, but you were too busy to be bothered.

Maybe you were running late for the bus or trying to enjoy the view. But each time you took a step you were reminded of how uncomfortable it was. And not feeling comfortable is not acceptable. So you decided to stop what you were doing and get rid of the offending culprit… that annoying little pebble.

But what if that pebble can’t be so easily tossed?

What if you can’t stop to get it out because you’ll miss the bus? Or worse still, you just can’t find it in your shoe. So you have to put up with it all day, knowing it is there and there is nothing you can do. How uncomfortable. How unbearable.

Sometimes our thoughts or feelings are a lot like that annoying little pebble. They can be painful, irritating, uncomfortable, and even unbearable. We can choose to ignore our thoughts. We can distract ourselves with social media or shopping and it seems ok for a while. But just like the annoying pebble in your shoe, those uncomfortable thoughts or feelings will not go away. And as that pebble starts to dig in, we may even take drastic action to rid ourselves of it. We may avoid friends, family, or activities we enjoy. We may even try to lose ourselves in addictions, such as drinking, drugs or gambling. Despite our best efforts those uncomfortable thoughts or feelings will always remain. But unlike the annoying little pebble they cannot be so easily tossed away. And trying so hard to get rid of them can cost us so much in terms of living! These costs can range from direct health impacts, to huge credit card debts, to pushing away the very people we most love and care about.

So what’s the answer?

It’s about learning to get comfortable with the uncomfortable! It’s about a willingness to let the pebble stay in your shoe.  It’s about not struggling with it so much, or pushing it away so hard. It’s about not allowing our stories, our thoughts, our uncomfortable sensations, to consume us. It’s about becoming aware that they are there but not letting them to take us away from the view – of what really matters most to us in life – the very things which may well bring up those difficult thoughts and feelings.

Of course acceptance isn’t as simple as tossing out a pebble. It’s a tricky skill – but a skill we can quickly learn, and gradually improve upon day by day. And what are the costs of continuing to struggle? What are you missing out on? Who are you pushing away?

Could you be willing to leave the pebble in your shoe and learn to sit with the discomfort, in kindness and self-compassion, if it means you get to enjoy the view?