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!


FACE COVID – how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy skills can help you to respond effectively to the Covid 19 crisis – with thanks to Dr Russ Harris for the text, and the worldwide ACT community for the wonderful animation and infographic!

‘FACE COVID’ is a set of practical steps you can take to respond to the Corona crisis, using the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Here’s a quick summary of the key steps, and in the linked animation, infographic and e-book you can explore them all in more depth:
F = Focus on what’s in your control

A = Acknowledge your thoughts & feelings

C = Come back into your body

E = Engage in what you’re doing

C = Committed action

O = Opening up

V = Values

I = Identify resources

D = Disinfect & distance
= FACE COVID! Let’s now explore these, one by one...

Focus on what's in your control
Fear, anxiety & worry are normal reactions. You can’t magically control them. Nor can you control the Corona virus or the world economy. But you can control what you do – here & now. So focus on that!

Acknowledge thoughts & feelings
Silently and kindly acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, With curiosity, notice what’s going on in your inner world. You might say to yourself, 'I’m noticing feelings of anxiety' or 'There's my mind worrying' or 'I’m having feelings of loneliness'.

Come back into your body
Find your own way to connect with your physical body, For example: Slowly press your feet hard into the floor, or slowly press your fingertips together, or slowly stretch your arms or neck, or shrug your shoulders, or take some slow breaths.

Engage in what you’re doing
Notice where you are, and refocus your attention on the activity at hand. Notice what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Notice what you are doing, and give your full attention to that activity.

Committed action
Take effective action. Follow official guidelines to protect yourself & others. Ask yourself often ‘What can I do right now - no matter how small it may be - that improves life for myself or others?’

Open up
Make room for all those painful feelings - and be kind to yourself. What kind things would you say to and do for a loved one in this situation? Apply those same kind words and deeds to yourself.

What sort of person do you want to be? How do you want to treat yourself and others? Your values might include love, patience, courage, kindness … or numerous others. Look for ways to live them.

Identify resources
Identify resources for help, assistance, support, and advice. This includes friends, family, neighbours, health professionals, emergency services. Make sure you know the contact phone numbers.

Disinfect & Distance
Disinfect often & physically distance - to care for yourself, your loved ones, and your community.

Please share all these resources – the animation, infographic and more detailed e-book as widely as you may choose. This is a global time of crisis and need for effective action – let us do all we can to FACE COVID – and care for yourself, your loved ones, and your community.

Check out Russ' full ebook on FACE COVID here.

ACT at the time of COVID-19

By Marcela Costanzo

I woke up this morning with the unsettling feeling of finding a new and scary world out there, this is how much change has happened in so little time. It brought home to me what has been emphasized to us ACT practitioners at every training we have ever done: the value of applying skills on ourselves, not only to develop mastery, but also to truly experience the benefits of what we as therapists suggest to our clients.
This morning I had to make a conscious effort to follow that advice closely. The last few weeks have seen a rise in anxiety levels for everyone I know, and I am not an exception to that. Like many people, my mind alternated between disbelief and bleak scenarios; getting caught up in assumptions, rules and judgments that quickly became unhelpful.

Of course, being an ACT therapist, I understood that my anxious mind was trying to be my friend, save me from potential danger and alert me to treacherous situations. After all, that is the duty of the human mind!

And then I grounded myself, putting both feet on the floor and asked myself: ‘What is important for me right now?’ I noticed how my mind tried really hard to pull me out of this exercise. However, I realized I still have some choices and focused on those things I still some control over, like writing a blog for our clients at the Brisbane ACT centre.

I noticed the uncomfortable emotions that showed up: frustration, impatience, fear and anger just to name a few. Readers may be experiencing those emotions as well. It is totally understandable! After all, I would have preferred to be writing about something else right now, and things may get worse before they improve. How can we not feel anxious at this unprecedented time? And yet, remember that you still have some control over your actions.

You can still choose to act kindly and compassionately towards family and friends, colleagues, and fellow shoppers at the supermarket.

You can still spare a compassionate thought for the countless people who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay their rent, and for all of us who have to spend more time at home. In these circumstances, some may be more lonely and others may be experiencing the stress of spending long periods with an abusive family member.

Personally, a commitment I made early this morning is to catch myself every time I say ‘Now I can’t ….’ And replace it by ‘How can I ..? So I would love to invite you to join me in being creative in asking this question. When you face the reality that you can’t socialise with your friends, I would love you to ask yourself: ‘How can I keep in touch with my friends in this time of physical distancing?’ ‘How can I look after an elderly family member in the time of physical distancing?’

I realized this morning how much we all need the psychological flexibility that is the ultimate aim in ACT. Remember that when you feel overwhelmed or close to despair, your ACT practitioner will be there for you and do not hesitate to reach out. We are in the process of starting to deliver psychological services remotely, using the great technology at our disposal. We are confident that ACT will help you in the challenging times of COVID-19!

About the Author

Marcela is a clinical psychologist and ACT clinician who is passionate about using modern cognitive behaviour therapies, in particular Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (i.e. ACT!), to help ease many common human struggles. She has expertise in helping clients with a range of presentations including but not limited to anxiety, depression, life transitions, acute stress, relationship issues, change of careers, adjustment disorders, grief and loss, sleep difficulties, self-esteem, chronic pain, body image (all ages) and substance abuse.

The Ostrich Effect

Have you ever found yourself putting off something important? Something that you knew you needed to do but found reasons to avoid. Maybe you avoided checking your email for fear of what was inside, maybe not checking a debt balance or a bill or maybe you avoided going to the doctor for fear of unpleasant news.

Ostriches are famous for burying their heads in the sand to avoid predators, although this is a fictitious belief – ostriches don’t really do this. Like the apocryphal story of the ostrich, many of us will commonly bury our heads in the sand to avoid unpleasant experiences, even if those experiences are vital to leading a full, rich life.

The ostrich effect is a tendency to ignore important information when we feel overwhelmed, stressed or worried. In particular, people may delay acquiring information, even when doing so may improve their situation. One study even found that investors check their portfolios growth more frequently in a growth market than one that’s receding. It may be easier to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist than to deal with it, especially if we don’t feel like we have the cognitive resources or emotional capacity to be able to cope with the challenge ahead. We may be in a job that doesn’t fulfil or satisfy us, we may feel that we’re in a relationship with the wrong person, we may regret living in the city we move to, or maybe we’re questioning our sexuality or whether we are studying the right degree? Maybe we’re lacking meaning or purpose in our lives but we don’t know what to do so it’s easier to power on and “just get on with it” and pretend that we’re just doing “fine”.

These types of “problems” we have in life are difficult to talk about and finding the right person to have a discussion with can sometimes be challenging. We all fear people’s judgments, and we prefer to show the version of ourselves that is our “best selves” rather than admitting that things aren’t the way we expected.

In our society today, we are taught to think that we have “control” over our lives. When things go “wrong” or when we have “problems” we have a tendency to overestimate how much influence we have over outcomes. People who are self-critical believe that they got themselves into the mess that they are in, and therefore has the responsibility to get themselves out. When we feel like we are the problem it is more likely that we are going to bury our heads in the sand, to save “face” for as long as possible. However, what if we don’t actually have as much control over our lives than we think we do? What if sometimes stuff just happens and what we need to do is talk about it so that we can overcome our challenge?

If we think about it, businesses are run with groups of people, each person has a different task to do, people have meetings to talk about how each member is going on their particular task and each person is able to get help and feedback from other team members if they are struggling with their project. What if we were to have regular meetings with ourselves and the people we have in our lives? To check in and ask “what’s currently working for you?”, “what do you think you need to improve on?” “what are you finding most challenging”, “Is there anything you’re finding difficult to approach right now?”, “are you missing some important information”, “how can we get through this together?”. Checking in with others and getting and receiving feedback about our personal problems with the right people, can open up new doors to feel differently about our situation. Doing this regularly will decrease stress and prevent problems from getting worse.

When it’s an external problem that has guidelines to follow, objectives to meet and outcome to measure, it’s much easier to talk about because the problem is “out there” rather than something “inside” of us. But when it’s an internal problem, personal situations, difficult thoughts and feelings about life, work, relationships and our future, it’s much harder to articulate and express the issue in words, especially when we haven’t taken the time to process what’s going on for ourselves.

People have a tendency to “avoid” problems. Therefore use different types of methods to help them get rid of them. Some methods include:

-Over productivity: taking on too many new projects, excessively cleaning or exercising, having a regimented routine.

-Suppression: pushing difficult thoughts away, pretending that everything is okay.

-Numbing or Withdrawing: drinking more alcohol than usual, taking drugs, over eating, restrictive dieting, sleeping too much or too little.

The first step to change is to identify what avoidance strategy you are using. Once we admit that something is not working out we usually feel much better about ourselves and our situation because most of the time it’s not half as bad as we think it is. When we open up and talk to a trusted friend, colleague or professional a huge weight is lifted off our shoulders because we are actually dealing with the problem instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist. We all have problems, but most of us don’t like to admit or talk about. If we can stop burying our heads in the sand, open up and be honest to ourselves and others then maybe our lives will be filled with less stress, and only then we can truly experience a life filled with meaning and purpose.

It’s very common to ignore information to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings, but by burying our heads in the sand we do ourselves no favours, in fact we only deny ourselves the chance to grow, to be brave, and to be vulnerable with ourselves and others. Talk to those around you about the things you’re avoiding, and do your best to open up and accept that it might be unpleasant, but it’s in service to living your values – and being the kind of person you’d like to be.

3 More of Our Favourite Self Help Psychology Books

How to Learn to Accept Tough Thoughts and Feelings, and be the Person you Want to be

Our last post on 3 of our favourite self help books focused on books that explored popular myths, how those myths can hold us back and where to go from there. This week we’re recommending three books about managing difficult thoughts and feelings.

An important part of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Psychological Flexibility model is learning to recognize that no amount of positive thinking makes difficult thoughts go away, and that often the harder we push against those thoughts the more troublesome they can become. You might notice that ACT therapists rarely even refer to thoughts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and instead, we talk about ‘difficult’ thoughts. That kind of language attempts to loosen us up from the unhelpful idea that we shouldn’t have “bad thoughts”.

These three books are about learning to get better at skillfully handling difficult thoughts and feelings so that we can get on with being our most authentic selves, living in line with our values, noticing when we’re hooked away, forgiving ourselves and gently returning.

1. Anxiety Happens, John P. Forsyth PhDGeorg H. Eifert PhD

A portable small guide to “cultivate calm and radically transform your life”, from the book’s description. Anxiety Happens presents 52 simple strategies to enhance calm and soothe feelings of anxiety. Anxiety Happens explores the underlying causes of anxiety, why pushing anxiety away and avoiding things that make you anxious just doesn’t work, and how to move past anxious thoughts and feelings to live a full, meaningful life.

If you read only one of these three books, Anxiety Happens would be our pick. It’s practical, engaging and results focused. The authors are well known in the ACT community for their clinical and academic work, workshops and trainings. Anxiety Happens can help you to develop willingness, self-compassion, and wisdom.

Available on Amazon, Book Depository and others.

2. Users Guide to the Human Mind, Shawn T. Smith, PsyD.

Users Guide to the Human Mind is a charming and super helpful look into the challenging thoughts and feelings that we all feel, quite a lot of the time!  Shawn’s book is funny, sweet and thought provoking. Coming from an ACT perspective, Users Guide to the Human Mind teaches us simple strategies to consciously observe our thoughts, and learn also to notice by gentle practice that we don’t need to be so governed by them.

From the synopsis:

“The inner workings of the human brain may be a great mystery, but the mind’s true purpose has been verified time and time again: your brain is secretly conspiring against you to make you crazy. How else can we account for the needless fears, dramas, tizzies, and rages that affect us on a minute-by-minute basis?”

The Users Guide to the Human Mind explores these questions with stories, exercises and relevant academic studies to teach cognitive strategies to help us unlearn some of the bad habits our mind has picked up over time.

Available for purchase from Amazon, Book depository and also on Audible!. Also available digitally from Brisbane City Council Library via Borrow box or Overdrive smartphone apps.

3. Stuff That Sucks: Accepting what You Can’t Change and Committing to what You Can, Ben Sedley.

Book Trailer:

Written with young people in mind, Stuff That Sucks is a validating, normalising and compassionate book that encourages readers to accept difficult emotions rather than struggling against them.  Ben has written a terrific book that superbly adapts the ACT model for young people, or those working & living with young people. This is a very special book that helps young people move past difficult thoughts and hone in on their values, and be more of the kind of person that they choose to be, discovering themselves along the way.

An important part of Stuff That Sucks is its strong focus on validating feelings. No one wants to have their feelings minimised, be told that they’ll grow out of them or that it’s just a phase. The author, Ben, has a wealth of background working with children, adolescents and families, and has adapted that experience into this beautiful book.

Stuff That Sucks is fast paced, practical and fun, drawing upon solid scientific evidence to help us all deal more effectively with the kind of thoughts and feelings that often simply suck!

Amazon, Kindle version, FB page

So those are three more of our favourite self books that we regularly recommend to clients. We love good, actionable and evidence based psychology books and all of our therapists read tons of them to stay sharp. Working with a trained professional can be a terrific complement to a good self help book to get the best possible results for you. Get in touch with our friendly team and we can match you up with the therapist that is best suited to help you be your best self. Get in touch Today!

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.

4 Common Myths About Anxiety and Fear

By Dr. Rob Purssey

At Brisbane ACT Centre our expert psychologists, psychiatrists and other therapists use the latest effective mindfulness, values and action oriented strategies to help you better handle anxiety, so as to feel better, and live better, quickly. Many common beliefs about anxiety unfortunately undermine effective approaches – and many such myths are commonly held by health professionals. Let’s take a look at some of these myths, to help untangle them, and therefore help untangle you!  (With gratitude to Professors John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert – see below)

Myth #1: Anxiety Problems Are Biological and Hereditary

“Anxiety runs in my family – it’s due to my genes”. While anxiety often runs in families, that’s more due to learned behaviour than genes. Sure, we inherit some genetic predisposition to anxiety, just like we inherit a tendency to be outgoing, introverted, intelligent, muscular or athletic. But genes are not destiny, in fact at most contribute 30 to 40%. Newest genetic research shows epigenetics turn genes on and off – great news, as there is always room to grow, change and live more freely, whatever your genes.

Myth #2: Intense Anxiety Is Abnormal

Intense anxiety does not equal an anxiety disorder. We all need capacity to feel intense emotions like anxiety and fear for our own survival. Many studies have shown that various behavioral processes impact quality of life more so than anxiety symptom severity – particularly one’s psychological flexibility, which is the ability to flexibly handle difficult thoughts and feelings. Many people experience intense anxiety, even panic attacks, in their daily lives and continue to do what’s important to them. Intensely felt emotions need not be a barrier to the life you want to lead. They can be welcomed in as a vital part of you – and paradoxically, over time, become less central.

Myth #3: Anxiety Is a Sign of Weakness

Anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness, personality defect, poor character, laziness, or lack of motivation. Anyone can get stuck and off track because of emotional or psychological pain. All human beings have pain. Having pain is built into the human condition. You may believe you’re less “strong” than others, as they seem so be doing so much better. This is a grand illusion – fuelled by two sources: firstly our mind’s tendency to make inferences on limited information, bolstered by the “myth of normal happiness”. Secondly the mind’s tendency to compare ourselves with others and find ourselves wanting – a useful habit in tribal prehistoric society, not so helpful today as we compare ourselves instantly with others all over the globe.

Myth #4: Anxiety Can and Must Be Managed to Live a Vital Life

Of all the myths, this one is the most damaging, and central to the culture of feel-goodism in modern Western culture. This anxiety myth sets up emotional and physical pain as barriers to a life lived well. The message is this: In order to live better, I must first think and feel better. And only once I start thinking and feeling better, my life will improve for the better. This is a trap. Indeed Russ Harris in his excellent ACT self-help book has called it “The Happiness Trap”. The more we strive to get rid of certain feelings, the stronger they often become. The more we try not to think certain thoughts, the stickier they get. Try this one out – whatever you do, over the next 30 seconds, don’t think of a pink elephant!… So how did that go? What if you could simply have that thought, and others? Simply have those uncomfortable feelings, and others? AND step forward into life doing the things you care about?

Where These Myths Can Take You

These myths feed anxiety and can keep you stuck and cut off from the life you want to lead. Like a sticky spider web, when you get caught up in the web, the natural reaction is to struggle – and the more you struggle, the more tangled up you become. You become an anxiety management expert, searching for that magic cure or new solution. The hard truth is you won’t find a cure for anxiety in a pill, an online support group, or even in some solid psychotherapies known for offering “new, better, different” strategies for getting control over your anxious thoughts and feelings.

Whenever your mind tells you otherwise, look at your experience. Have these and other options worked in the long run? Does your experience tell you that they will work if you work harder, longer, or better at them? Do you want to be about dealing with anxiety for the rest of your life? Haven’t you worked hard enough?

By breaking free of these disabling anxiety myths we discover some very good news – you can quickly learn the skills to more effectively handle your worries, anxieties and fears far more effectively, and to live far more freely and fully – and all this within a few sessions. Contact our expert anxiety flexibility experts at Brisbane ACT Centre today.


Much of the above wisdom comes from the masters of ACT for Anxiety – John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert. See their wonderful new book, the 2nd edition of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy here. The first edition of this self-help book was shown in a randomised control trial to greatly benefit those who used it – even without a therapist! And Georg and John’s fantastic 2005 textbook “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner’s Treatment Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Values-Based Behavior Change Strategies” directly helped inspire and shape me into becoming an ACT therapist way back in 2006. All my thanks, Rob Purssey

Managing Anxiety with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness

By Bernadette Devenish

Modern humans have inherited genetics from their ancestors who learned over thousands of years how to survive in a dangerous world. Our modern world hardy resembles the life of our ancestors; however our minds do not know that. Our minds, similar to our ancestors, are still hardwired to keep us safe and threats as a result of modern living e.g. long work hours, deadlines, family and work stress, living close to others, traffic jams, and unrealistic time demands, evoke responses from our mind which are often subconscious and automatic.

These normal responses or flight fight stress responses are designed to pull us back or away from perceived danger to ensure our safety and survival. Take for example our automatic response when we leap away from a stick. Once we realise the object is a stick and not a snake, our mind and body settles and we carry on. Better safe than sorry is our minds approach. If the stick had turned out to be a snake, our minds automatic reaction would have kept us safe. Nothing is lost as far as our mind is concerned, to over-react and leap out of harms way. Our minds will always err on the side of caution and take the ‘better to be safe than sorry’ option in order to keep us safe.

The User’s Guide to the Human Mind – why our brains make us unhappy, anxious, and neurotic and what can we do about it” is written by Shawn Smith (2011) and is a useful self-help resource book that helps us to understand the processes of our mind. Shawn explains in easy to understand language how our minds work and why we are hard wired to react, particularly in times of stress, with behaviours cleverly designed to pull us back and away from perceived threats. We worry and become anxious, stressed, depressed, distracted and full of self-doubt for a reason – to ensure our safety and survival.

Our busy demanding lives pull us into a state of doing, rushing, and achieving with little time left for just being. Being with ourselves and fully present in this moment is practically impossible when we are constantly pushed for time, and feeling that we can never get everything done. Time for fun and adequate nutrition, exercise, and sleep are often sacrificed in our task saturated and fast paced lives. Living with this constant unrelenting stress day in day out, increases our vulnerability to physical and mental disease. Living at this rapid, constant pace can cause havoc with our peace of mind, health, and general feelings of contentment.  How then can we go with the flow of what has become the norm – busy demanding lives – and achieve a healthy balance toward vital, fulfilling, meaningful, purposeful, and satisfying lives?  More and more studies are showing that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or Training) (ACT) and mindfulness may be the answer, providing a vital link for us to maintain balance and stability while living under the constant pressure, stress, and demands of being a modern day human.

Minds are hardwired to keep us alive and safe, and any good mind that is doing its job would not allow us to move away from what is known and trusted.  Our mind keeps an eye out for us, always problem solving, and constantly churning out thoughts and stories which can trigger unhelpful thinking habits such as black and white and all or nothing thinking, worry, rumination, self-doubt, and procrastination.  The normal human mind is rarely in the present, tending to focus instead on problems, negatives, and things that are going wrong. Because negative experiences are more likely to threaten us than positive, there is an evolutionary reason for this natural tendency of the human mind. Minds focus on negatives, they worry, ruminate, dredge up memories and images from the past, linking these and our past mistakes to the present, predicting what could go wrong in an effort to keep us safe. Living in our busy, ever changing, modern demanding world sets us up for minds that can habitually use unhelpful thinking patterns, pulling our attention away from the here and now, robbing us of the opportunity to live a fully present and vital life.

Welcome to being a human, we all have minds that behave like this.  No human can escape the reality of experiencing pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and emotions, images and memories.  For example, if we feel joy and love then we are connected and attached to others. The risk of being connected to others is losing them which will involve the flip side of love and joy – sadness and grief. These are normal human emotions and we cannot have one without the other.  If we experience feelings of pride and mastery we would also have likely experienced emotions of fear, anxiety and self-doubt to get there. That’s the deal with being a human. We all have minds and they all come hardwired to experience thoughts, feelings, sensations, images and memories.  Some are pleasant, some are not, however, they are all normal human experiences designed to keep us safe.  Are you willing to have all of these normal human experiences?

Our minds can be tricky, frightening us and talking us out of doing things that we really want to do sometimes. Take for example speaking in front of a group of people. If we are not accustomed to speaking publically, our minds will likely throw up thoughts involving self-consciousness and self-doubt along with healthy doses of anxiety experienced in our body in the form of sweating, shaking, dry mouth, and pounding heart. Sound familiar? Your mind is just looking out for you, doing its job to ensure that you do not put yourself out in front of others, running the risk of being negatively evaluated and perhaps found wanting. Our minds cannot speak to us, they have only thoughts and feelings to send us messages and do their job – keep us safe. In the absence of words, minds have the normal human stress responses or fight flight responses to stop us in our tracks, ensuring that we remain quiet and not speak, reducing the threat of us being rejected by the group.  Changing our relationship to one of befriending and joining up with our thoughts and feelings as allies, accepting and allowing them to be just as they are without needing to judge them, push them away or running from and avoid them, stops our minds from pushing us around like this, dictating how we live our lives. Shifting our relationship with these normal human experiences helps us to see that our thoughts are just thoughts, and our feelings are just feelings. Thoughts and feelings cannot hurt us, and we do not have to believe everything that our minds tell us.  We do not have to buy into every thought and feeling that we experience.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training (ACT) and mindfulness help to change our relationship with normal challenging human thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  Promoting awareness of what our mind is up to, ACT and mindfulness skills build our ability to notice when our minds have pulled us away from the present moment.  ACT skills teach us how to notice, observe, and become curious of our internal and external experiences using a non-judgmental beginners mind. Taking this bigger picture perspective of our thoughts and feelings using ACT and mindfulness skills, helps to promote value based responds, breaking the habit of reacting unskilfully to the inevitable challenges of being a human.

Applying the six core principles of ACT to our daily lives has been shown to build psychological flexibility, helping us to adapt to the constant changes in our busy modern world. Mindfulness and ACT skills practiced regularly become habits which foster more helpful, workable, and skilful responses to our moment to moment experiences. Mindfulness and ACT skills build a sense of mastery and stability rather than living mindlessly, stuck in unhelpful thinking patterns.

Are you living the life that you want? Are difficult thoughts and feelings getting in the way of a vital, meaningful, fulfilling, and purposeful life? Do you want to know more about mindfulness and ACT skills that could change your life?  You may be eligible for a Federal Government rebate with a Mental Health Care Plan for visits to one of the skilled ACT Therapists working at the Brisbane ACT Centre at 7 Marie St in Milton. Visit the Brisbane ACT Centre website  or phone 07 3193 1072 for more information.


Smith, S. T. (2011). The user’s guide to the human mind. Why our brains make us unhappy anxious, and neurotic and what can we do about it. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Anxiety and Parenting

Courtesy of Dr. Nga Tran. Nga is a consultant psychiatrist working at the Brisbane ACT Centre. Get in touch with our friendly staff to  book an appointment with Dr. Nga.

Being a parent is probably the most important role your life.  It is frequently a time of great joy, love, wonder and gratitude.  From the images you would have seen and books you may have read, it certainly seems like these emotions are the ones that will be most prominent.

However it is also common to feel other emotions that perhaps you may think you are not supposed to feel.

Feeling down, sad, depressed, guilty, overwhelmed or anxious are also very common for parents.

Anxiety is a normal emotion that is vital in protecting us from danger. When we perceive a threat our body reacts with physiological changes including the release of large amounts of adrenaline and an increased heart and breathing rate. These changes prepare the body to fight or take flight from the threat. If you think about how fragile and defenceless a child is, then it makes perfect survival sense for the mother to be constantly on the alert for threats to its wellbeing.

Our brains are still wired like this to detect bears and tigers that may harm our children, or poisons in the environment that may make them ill.  You may feel restless, fidgety and constantly on edge.  Your sleep and appetite may be affected.  You may find yourself constantly thinking ahead to plan and organise to shield off any potential problems.  You may constantly look for the perfect response to every situation.  So many “what if” and potentially catastrophic scenarios run through your mind that you may not be able to make any decisions at all.  You may feel guilty and your mind may tell you that you are not a good mum, that you should know what to do, that everyone else except you can handle the situation.

You may respond to these emotions in a way that makes the problem get bigger rather than smaller, such as withdrawing from your family and friends, stop doing the things that normally give you pleasure, work harder in setting rules and schedules in order to get a sense that you can control the danger.

These strategies work well when there is a tiger outside about to eat your child.  But when the source of danger is diffuse and cannot be eliminated, such as worrying thoughts, these strategies actually teach you that you need to worry harder and exert more routine and control.  And the potential sources of worry are endless, so a vicious cycle is set up.  Reading multiple parenting books and websites can often increase the doubts that perhaps you are not doing things right and that you need to work harder.

This is not because you are in any way abnormal.  This is just how your brain, and most of our brains, work.  For a combination of reasons that may include your usual thinking style, the ways of coping you have observed around you, past experiences, your current situation, responses of others, and the temperament of your child, you have inadvertently found yourself in this vicious cycle.

ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is a modern form of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) that is very effective for anxiety.

ACT helps you to become aware of your anxious thoughts and emotions, not as automatic cues of danger but as events occurring in your mind and body.  In that way you don’t have to automatically react to your thoughts and emotions, but be able to step back from them and see them for what they are.  This frees you up to act in a way that is more in keeping with how you want to be as a parent and as a person.  It allows you to experience your unique child as he or she really is from moment to moment, a concept known as mindfulness.  In this way you can notice all the subtle cues that your child uses to communicate.  This more than any set rules or routine, forms the basis of the sort of interaction and care that will allow you and your child to thrive together.

An added benefit is that you can apply this to all other areas of your life on an ongoing basis.  So ACT is so much more than a treatment for depression or anxiety.  You gain a whole set of skills that help you to live a richer and more vital life, and can dip into this tool box time and time again throughout your life.