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.

Largest Mindfulness Lesson – new World Record at UQ, Brisbane 23.07.19

By Tunteeya Yamaoka

On Tuesday 23.07.19 at the University of Queensland 1417 people participated in the world’s largest ever mindfulness lesson, setting a new Guinness World Record! Renowned mindfulness expert Dr Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap” and many other ACT books led the mindfulness lesson for 30 minutes, and took the audience on a thoroughly interesting journey towards living a more present and engaged life. Brisbane ACT Centre was proud to participate in this exciting event, with director Dr Rob Purssey and practitioner Tunteeya Yamaoka serving as official Witnesses for the Guinness team!

Mindfulness skills not only actively increase your focus and concentration but also help you to set clear life intentions so that you can live more fully, according to your personally chosen values, and being far less caught up in your daily struggles with thoughts and feelings.

At the end of the day what we are all looking for is peace, purpose and fulfilment in our lives. During the lesson Russ Harris helped the audience connect with how living a more “Mindful, purposeful and fulfilled Life” can be undermined by our efforts to avoid or escape from difficult life experiences or “getting rid of” unpleasant thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, living more fully can be enhanced by becoming more present in the moment, engaged with our values, mindfully aware of our inner and outer experiences, and letting go of control.

One simple and effective strategy that Russ taught the audience during the lesson was his  “ACE Process” to build purposeful awareness.

  1. Awareness: Intentionally building gentle, willing awareness of your inner experiences. Noticing and naming our thoughts and feelings and becoming more skilful at describing our emotions.
  1. Centering:  Focussing attention on the breath, as you inhale and exhale, just feeling the air entering and leaving your body, grounding yourself by simply focusing on the physical sensations you experience, gently and mindfully just noticing the breath.
  1. Expanding: Expanding your awareness from your body to what is going on around you. Look around, what can you see? Focussing your attention by using sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to become more mindfully aware of your surroundings.

Life makes a lot of demands on us, and it is easy to be swept away with the tide of busy thoughts and tricky feelings. Practicing mindfulness skills can allow us to stay grounded during challenging life experiences so that we can focus and ACT on what really matters.

Call Brisbane ACT Centre’s experienced team on 07 3193 1072 to explore how mindfulness skills training can help YOU get present in the moment, connect with purpose, and LIVE more fully!

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!

Work Stress and Burnout – Finding a better Work-Life Balance

By Peter Gillogley

I enjoy my work as a psychologist, using ACT psychotherapy skills to help clients struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD along with other common and often highly distressing psychological problems. Yet, some days at the workplace seem full of vitality and purpose, and other days leave me feeling emotionally and physically drained. I know I am not alone.

The other day, I showed up at the workplace with plans to be super productive in helping my clients, by using mindfulness and other ACT psychological flexibility skills, to better handle their thoughts and feelings, and live their lives more fully. I had a manageable number of appointments and a few letters and administrative tasks that needed finishing. However, I spent much of the day struggling with what seemed at the time, unexpected detours and distractions. My mind kept saying that it shouldn’t be like this and there must be something wrong with me if I can’t get organised. Instead of productively focusing on the next most important thing, I found my mind wandering off topic, ruminating and worrying that I couldn’t get everything done.

When things don’t happen in the workplace how I expected, I can find myself investing lots of energy into playing the same events over and over in my mind, but not really making any progress. Worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, can rob me of being really present and tuned into the people around me. It’s all too easy to take my work issues home in my head, and so miss out on precious moments with my family and friends. Unchecked, this pattern of struggling with my thoughts and feelings about work, can leave me feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, detached and questioning my career, and less effective in my professional and personal life. What was work-life balance can turn into the feeling of pressure and being overwhelmed. Being human, the path of burnout can easily take a heavy toll on my physical and mental health.

Fortunately, ACT skills can help. When I notice myself struggling at work, I can use mindfulness to take time to take a step back to cultivate a sense of kind, compassionate curiosity, simply observing my thoughts and feelings. In doing so, I find that I am a little less consumed with my thoughts, and have more energy to focus on what is actually going on around me and focus more effectively on what needs doing next. Increased work productivity leads to less workplace pressure, enabling me to spend more time at home and reclaim a sense of work-life balance. By gently making space for stress, frustrations and irritations, I find I might even get a buzz about getting things done. By being more present in each moment, I can become more connected with those around me. And by connecting with my values and purpose in each moment – in this context “why I became a psychologist” – I am more willing to do what’s needed even in the presence of difficult emotions.

Many of us spend a third or more of our waking hours at the workplace for much of our lives. ACT gives us effective psychological tools and the ability to flexibly shift perspective, enabling us to feel engaged while at work and connected with friends and family when the work day is over. ACT can help you live a more vital working life. You are welcome to make an appointment with me today (Book an Appointment with Peter Gillogley) or one of my fellow ACT therapists at the Brisbane ACT Centre.   

My GP recommended yoga…Now what?!

By Davina Tapper

ACT Aligned Yoga: Committed Action 6 Week Workshop
Saturdays, 9:15am – 10-:30am, 25 August – 29 September 2018
At the Brisbane ACT Centre

When we have been through something that causes us discomfort or pain, whether it’s a stressful work environment, or a serious life change or loss, it’s healthy to find support to get through it. Recovery is an active process and it’s supported both from seeking help from others, and also engaging your own skills and self-care. Everyday more research is showing the multi-faceted benefits of yoga, leading to more GPs and health professionals recommending it. Incorporating a deliberate yoga practice into your weekly routine, can help you practice the tools to increased awareness at other times when life throws “reality” at you. Before you can start gaining the common benefits of yoga like better posture, improved focus, a more relaxed parasympathetic nervous system, reduced muscle tension and increased self-awareness, you need to find out where to start.

As a seasoned yoga student, I’ve moved across countries and then across an ocean and between states, and know all too well the difficulty in finding the right class. I’ve also had the experience of coming to yoga young and supple, and returning stiff and disheartened post traumatic-injury. I often felt yoga was inaccessible, too hard, or even competitive. That starting point with a new class, like any new skill or recovery process, can feel awkward and full of anxiety and questions for many reasons. Why not just do something different? If it feels so hard to get started, is it even worth trying? Will it really add much to my life?

Ideally yoga helps you work on connecting your body and mind to increase both physical and psychological flexibility. When you find the right class, yoga can be a safe place to explore how nutritious movement (and often breath work) can help fuel your brain as well as your body. Before we even start something new, we are already going into it with our beliefs and experiences from the past and expectations for the future. Thinking about what you want and your expectations can be a helpful start to dealing with the anxiety and take action to find a good class.

Once you have an idea of what you are after, ask questions and talk to the teachers. Some great questions include asking about the level of the class and experience required, what type of yoga the class works with (and what that means), and sometimes the class size can be something to consider, especially if you are newer to yoga. Giving yourself the time to understand and explain what you want will usually help you be more confident in finding the right class. If you still have questions, it might be time to ask yourself what’s holding you back or if you are letting your mind give you an excuse. Otherwise, it might just be time to give it a go and see for yourself!

ACT-inspired yoga allows you to provide a deliberate practice in self-compassion, mindfulness, letting go of pain and be OK with uncomfortable feelings through using movement and breath. We have one body, one mind, and countless thoughts. Awaken your body and senses while increasing compassion and vitality through ACT-inspired yoga.

The Sleep Paradox - How Working Harder on Your Sleep Makes it Worse

By Dr. Nga Tran

As a psychiatrist sleep problems are one of the most common issues people come to me for help with.  It may be the primary problem.  More often, it occurs hand in hand with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, major mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or psychosis, grief, major life changes, medical illnesses, pain, or basically any mental health problem.

What do the best sleepers do to get to sleep?  Nothing – they just lie down and off they go.

What do those of us who can’t get to sleep do?  A long list of things including special routines involving baths/warm drinks/music/pyjamas, a variety of over-the-counter or prescription medications, tossing and turning, searching for various pillows/beds, adjusting their fans/air conditioning, sticking to rules about whether to get out of bed or how many hours to aim for, reading books/watching TV, etc. The list can be very long.

Yet sleep is not something one can switch on or off under conscious control.

Could it be that in all our well-meaning efforts to find ways of controlling how much we sleep, we actually create conditions where it is less likely to occur?

Your likelihood of falling asleep depends on two things:

  1. The circadian rhythm – your body’s inbuilt clock which affects the timing of sleep and is co-ordinated with the day-night cycle
  2. Sleep pressure/sleep drive – this is like a timer or counter.  The longer you have been awake, the stronger the desire and need to sleep

However, sleep is not like a tap or switch you can turn on at will.  We need to think of sleep like a guest we’re inviting to a party, and all we can do is create conditions where it is likely to come and stay as long as possible!  Yet we cannot dictate it to come, and the more desperate we are for it to visit, the more it’s likely to stay away.  That is the paradox.  This can be illustrated by this example:  if I  connected to you a sleep detector, held a gun to you and said that I will shoot unless you fall asleep, you can see how this would be impossible for you to achieve.

High arousal or stress is not conducive to sleep.  This explains the phenomenon of nodding off when you give up trying to sleep.  If you have had trouble sleeping, it seems intuitive that you want to work harder to make sure the problem gets solved.  However in trying to fix sleep, we can paradoxically set up a pattern of stress and high arousal around bed time which further exacerbates the problem.

Here are some ways that we can inadvertently make it harder to sleep:

  • Creating certain routines or conditions which we feel must be in place to get to sleep
  • Having mental rules about what type of sleep or how many hours we should get
  • Trying to go to bed early to ensure it occurs
  • Turning down social or meaningful activities to focus on getting sleep
  • Getting angry about not being able to sleep
  • Worrying about the consequences of not being able to sleep – eg “I won’t cope tomorrow”, “I really need to sleep now”, “this is not good for my health”

Here are some suggestions to let go of the battle and change your relationship with sleep (and therefore reduce arousal):

  • Don’t build elaborate routines or set up strict rules
  • Ensure you spend your day and evenings doing what you care about and is meaningful to you
  • Know that there is no “normal” sleep, and let go of expectations of what that should be
  • Learn to be flexible and accept whatever occurs
  • Practise noticing your bodily sensations, breath, sounds or thoughts that are present if you are not asleep, and learn to be with what is there – there are many mindfulness apps that can help teach you this
  • Commit to doing what you can the next day, regardless of how your sleep was the night before
  • Be kind to yourself with yourself when tiredness impacts on what you can do during the day

Here are some general things which can get in the way of sleep to be aware of:

  • Caffeine or other stimulants
  • Strenuous exercise late in the evening
  • Mentally stimulating activities late in the evening
  • Electronic screens of any sort, especially if this involves high arousal activities such as posting on social media, planning or purchasing

Once you take this approach, the natural circadian rhythm and sleep homeostasis can be free to do what they naturally do.  This explains how the good sleepers do it – without trying.

The YOLO Project

Teaching skills for Valued Living at the University of Queensland

In our last post we congratulated Professor Kenneth Pakenham on his recent national award for outstanding contribution to student learning. Dr Pakenham received this award for creating and implementing a program that teaches Acceptance and Commitment Therapy based self-care skills into the UQ undergraduate psychology student program. Learning these ACT skills helped the students handle the pressure of their studies and enables them to teach these skills to others.

Another exciting and innovative program Dr. Pakenham is involved in is the ‘YOLO project’. Short for ‘You Only Live Once’, the project’s name plays upon the idea that you should make your one life count. The driving force being the project is Shelley Viskovich, a UQ School of Psychology researcher. Mrs. Viskovich spent ten years as a practicing therapist before commencing a pHd at UQ. The YOLO project aims to teach UQ students the psychological flexibility skills they need to ‘manage stress and increase wellbeing’. The program involves only four modules of 40 minutes duration each – completed online – allowing for progress to be paused at any time.

The YOLO program is hoping to promote mental health and valued living in University of Queensland students and draws upon a wealth of university and other context based ACT research. Early interventions like this one have shown very promising results. Small interventions done early can have very significant cumulative mental health outcomes by helping people learn the skills they need before they need them. Developing resilience and flexibility before the storms of University stressors may hit. Creating programs that act as preventatives also can help with the stigma associated with looking for help.

In just 24 hours of the YOLO program received an extraordinary 2000 student enrolments. A pilot study has shown very positive results for participants across a range of mental health areas, including stress, depression, anxiety, self compassion and life satisfaction. Dr Pakenham and colleagues hope to have the data for a randomised controlled trial available by the end of 2016, to be submitted for peer-reviewed publication early in the New Year.

The YOLO program is a truly exciting application of ACT psychological flexibility clinical psychology skills practice and research to boost UQ students valued living. We hope that it may further strengthen present evidence that mental health skills can be both taught and learned universally, briefly, and online. See here for further details.

How to Become an Emotional Resilience Superhero

Life is full of challenges, some more difficult than others, it’s how we respond to those challenges that matters most. Everyone has the experience of facing a challenge that was just out of their realm of control. Facing tough times like that can make us stronger, but how can you prepare for a crisis in the easier times?

“Emotional resilience” is how readily you can cope with stresses both small and large, and how well you can adapt to difficult circumstances in our life. Resilient people tend to be happier and teaching resilience to children can prevent depression, anxiety and increase grades in school.

Developing resilience helps you keep going when challenges, sudden or expected, make the going get tough. Research shows that natural aptitude is only a part of resilience, and it’s largely a learned skill which you can cultivate to turn yourself into a stress busting super hero.

  1. Get Clear About Your Purpose.

Developing resilience is a personal journey of learning your strengths and working on weaknesses. Everyone’s journey is going to be different but one of the most useful things you can do on that journey is get clear about your motive and your purpose. Without a strong purpose driving you through adversity you’ll quit or crumble. A strong awareness of purpose works like a lighthouse guiding you through the heaviest of storms.

How do you get clear about purpose? Think about who and what you care about day to day, and how you’d like life to be in the future. Ask yourself how you’d like to behave through whatever challenges you face. What’s motivating you? What are the values you want to express right now?

2. Everyday is an Opportunity to Improve.

Practicing awareness deliberately with low to moderate daily stressors will build resilience. Developing skills of being present, emotional flexibility and keeping focus on your values and goals in relatively safe environments helps when the stress level gets dialled up.

View small conflicts and daily trials as opportunities to develop your skills as they come. Be like a scientist running an experiment, and be curious about the results. Pay full respect to the successes – and focus also on the areas that have room for improvement next time – learning opportunities!

3. Thing Big Picture.

Get in the habit of paying attention to the things are going well in your life. Remind yourself of things you’ve enjoyed, that have been worth your while, and take time to be grateful for things you’re fortunate to have, friendship, food, and shelter. Getting in this habit before you’re under a time of stress will help you to maintain a broader awareness within a crisis.

People who view their crises as insurmountable problems are less likely to thrive, whereas framing something as a challenge makes it easier to work through.

5. Let Yourself Feel Things Flexibly.

We’re all capable of feeling a dizzying array of emotions simultaneously, even feelings that are seemingly contradictory. An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy skill is learning to ‘defuse’ from thoughts and feelings and notice other feelings in your rich emotional landscape. Research by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD shows that in a crisis resilient people are able to feel both traditionally positive and negative emotions simultaneously. They allow themselves to feel upset while also being able to celebrate the good things. Contrasting to that less resilient people are in crisis all of their emotions turn negative. When challenges strike let yourself feel a broad range of emotions, not just the negative ones.

For more here’s a great post by the terrific blog Barking up the Wrong Tree that summaries research evidence about life skills which we can use in everyday life. Here’s an article on building resilience by the American Psychology Association that we used in our research for this post.

Bonus! 6: Enlist the Aid of a Professional.

The psychologists at Brisbane ACT Centre can help you develop these skills and many more – so that you’re ready to face the challenges that crop up in life. If you wanted to run a marathon you’d train before the race so that you could perform at your best, and a good psychologist can help you just the same way. Working with an emotional resilience professional in the good times to help you work on your psychological flexibility skills can make the difficult times ahead a whole lot easier.

How to Reduce Your Work Stress & Burnout Risk Using ACT

By Dr. Rob Purssey

Nursing is often a high stress profession, with difficult hours, systems, patients, colleagues, bureaucracy – you name it! These challenges mean that nurses and other health workers are more susceptible to burnout than other low stress professions, but is there anything we can do to help health workers lower their stress?

One of the key parts of burnout for health workers are the psychological effects of working with difficult clients. In particular “stigmatising attitudes” are particularly difficult for drug abuse counsellors. If we could decrease these psychological effects for health workers we could also decrease their stress, and degrees of burnout.

An interesting study compared the impact of ACT, multicultural, and educational training on professional burnout and stigmatizing attitudes amongst drug abuse counselors.

The ACT intervention significantly reduced stigma at follow-up and burnout at post-intervention and follow-up. In addition, reductions in burnout at follow-up significantly exceeded those attained through multicultural training. Changes in the ACT condition were mediated by changes in the believability of stigmatizing attitudes.

A study with social workers showed, amongst those significantly stressed, ACT significantly decreased levels of stress and burnout, and increased general mental health compared to a waiting list control.

The specific ACT intervention the study used was six 2-hour group sessions. The intervention included information about stress and relevant lifestyle factors (e.g. work-life balance, sleep, and exercise), behavior change strategies, communication and assertiveness skills, and training in ACT techniques for managing stressful thoughts and feelings, values clarification, and mindfulness practice.

To shorten that up, the just 12 total hours of intervention covered:

-information about stress, sleep, exercise

behaviour change strategies in communication and assertiveness

ACT skills defusion, acceptance, values focus and mindfulness

This recent study is very important for our frontline healthcare workers –the intervention resulted in increased mindful awareness and decreased experiential avoidance, as well as decreased perceived stress and burnout. Levels of mindful awareness and perceived stress were sustained at follow-up.

Learning ACT skills can help to significantly reduce stress for frontline health workers, and could be an effective tool to decrease stress for many other proffessions. Learning ACT skills can be easy, get started with our ACT Fundamentals resources page.

Check out the study here.

The Neuroscience of Stress and Mindfulness 

Fortunately, the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience is making it increasingly clear that you can train your brain to support you in taking a mindful approach to stress. With practice, you can achieve a more relaxed and transcendent state of mind that will override the rigid, anxious, autopilot mode that stress creates. Even better, the mental skills needed to make this shift aren’t difficult to master, and they get stronger and stronger with practice.

In this section, we’ll give you a brief lesson in brain anatomy and nervous system physiology so you can better understand how stress affects your brain and body. The brain consists of an elaborate system of neural circuitry that functions, in part, to help you maintain an ongoing balance between your stress and relaxation responses. This balancing act is achieved through continual interactions between two different parts of your nervous system: the reticular activating system and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The Limbic System 

The limbic system is a complex set of brain structures that includes the hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and other nearby areas of the mammalian brain. It is primarily responsible for processing emotional responses to stress. The limbic system is integrated into an even more basic part of the nervous system: the reticular activating system.

The reticular activating system consists of the primitive part of the brain that produces emotional arousal and the well-known fight-or-flight response. This part of the brain evolved early on to offer protection from all kinds of natural threats to survival. Thus, it’s exquisitely sensitive to any kind of threat— including threats we just imagine. So you can merely think of a stress-producing situation at work or school and trigger numerous physical, emotional, and mental stress reactions, even though you aren’t actually in that situation. The branch of the nervous system that supports all of these stress-related changes is called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The name is ironic, because SNS activation makes you anything but sympathetic!

Sympathetic nervous system activation begins when some type of stress is detected that triggers the limbic system. Within a microsecond, the SNS initiates a cascade of changes in the body. Blood flow in the gut is directed instead to large muscle groups, to prepare them for immediate action, as well as areas in the mid-brain. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of your endocrine system works closely with the sympathetic nervous system and releases stress hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, into your bloodstream. These neurochemicals have an immediate impact on blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature. The release of cortisol, in particular, also creates cognitive confusion— which is why people under stress often complain of being confused and having difficulty accurately processing information and making decisions.

Unfortunately, even small daily stresses can stimulate the limbic system and produce powerful stress responses. This is why an awkward interaction with a co-worker or classmate can be as stressful as having a tooth extracted. Chronic SNS arousal, a common result of ongoing daily stress, is also thought to be the underlying cause of most stress-related health illnesses, such as hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

The Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex 

The second part of the brain that plays a key role in our response to stress is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain evolved later than the limbic system and is basically responsible for most of the higher-order functions we normally associate with being human: attention, emotion regulation, planning, abstract reasoning, and complex problem solving. This region of the brain is your friend when it comes to managing your response to stress. It’s closely linked with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), a part of the brain that puts the brakes on all of the physical changes produced by the SNS. When your PNS is activated, your breathing rate and heart rate slow, your blood pressure decreases, and your blood supply is redirected to your brain.

The good news is that, although the effects of SNS activation are immediate and can seem overwhelmingly intense, in reality the PNS is much stronger. The SNS evolved to help us act quickly and effectively in response to a threat and then shut down once the danger has passed. The basic nature of the SNS is to shut down if it receives any type of signal to do so. Therefore, something as simple as taking one or two deep, slow breaths when you’re under stress will immediately activate your PNS and help the SNS shut down. Better yet, applying the mindfulness techniques you’ll learn in this book will help you counter immediate stress reactions and also produce states of relaxation and clarity of thought that are uniquely associated with prolonged activation of the PNS.

Guidelines for Brain Training 

As we’ve mentioned, the brain is a dynamic organ that can be strengthened via mental exercise. So the question isn’t whether the brain can be trained, but how best to train it. As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of new, research-based information on this very topic. We want to share some of the more important findings because they’ll provide guidance in creating your own brain training program and using that program to develop a mindful approach to daily hassles.

Your Undivided Attention Is Essential 

As with creating any new brain habit, practicing mindfulness techniques requires that you pay attention to what you’re doing. Research backs up this commonsense philosophy, with studies showing that the benefits for neural networks and brain structures only occur when people pay close attention while practicing a particular skill (Davidson and Begley 2012). In other words, learning to pay attention, which just happens to be the first skill needed to be in the here and now, is also necessary for any mental training to have an effect on your neural networks and brain structures. So if this approach is to be effective, you can’t be half in the here and now while the other half of you is thinking about what you’ll eat for dinner. You have to be willing to show up and pay close attention to the specific skill you’re trying to master.

Vary What You Practice 

Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies use highly sophisticated brain imaging technology to reveal the strength of electrical activation in certain areas of the brain produced while the subject is performing various mental tasks, such as paying attention, naming or responding to emotions, and observing physical sensations, to name but a few. The basic finding of interest is that the more regions of the brain that are activated by skill training, the stronger the overall effect is on brain efficiency (Davidson and Begley 2012).

For example, the benefits of practicing observing skills (which you’ll learn in chapter 4) increase when you shift back and forth between what you’re aware of externally— like objects, people, smells, or touch—and internally , like thoughts, feelings, or memories. The ability to observe external and internal information is controlled by different structures or neural networks in the brain, so repeatedly shifting focus on purpose strengthens the linkages between these seemingly distinct skills. Therefore, in this book we offer a variety of specific skills to practice; collectively, they’ll give you a greater ability to activate your PNS.

Practice Produces Immediate Benefits 

An earlier view of the brain was that it was relatively fixed and hard to rewire, which meant you might need to practice mindfulness for years before seeing any positive benefits. This made it difficult to sell mindfulness to the general public, given that most people are already overscheduled. Newer findings indicate otherwise, and one immediate implication of neuroplasticity is that changes in brain function can occur much more immediately.

One of the more astonishing findings in this respect comes from the cutting-edge work of neuroscientist Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin. In one study, volunteers were taught a brief loving-kindness meditation in an attempt to compare the electrical patterns in their brains to those of experienced meditators. Remarkably, even after only minimal practice, novice meditators exhibited unique brain activity patterns that were nicknamed the “compassion wave” (Lutz et al. 2004). More recent results suggest that both emotional control and compassionate behavior toward the suffering of others are strengthened by even brief compassion meditation training (Lutz et al. 2008; Weng et al. 2013).

Practice Makes Permanent 

Although brain changes can occur quickly, they aren’t necessarily enduring. In the aforementioned study by Richard Davidson’s team (Lutz et al. 2004), novice meditators did show almost immediate changes in brain readings, but their new patterns weren’t as strong as similar patterns in the brains of experienced meditators. This suggests that extended practice does have benefits: the more you practice, the stronger your compassion wave gets. This type of finding is common in the brain training literature. The more you practice a specific mental skill, like paying attention, the more your brain circuitry evolves to support that skill. The increase in specific types of electrical activity among experienced meditators is probably the result of a far more integrated set of neural circuits and the direct result of prolonged daily practice. Again, to update the old saying, practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent!

Throughout this book, we’re going to emphasize that this is a lifestyle issue. You can’t practice “drive-by” mindfulness and expect to benefit over the long haul. Then again, why would you want to? These are health-promoting, positive, prosocial skills that can play a huge role in helping you take a more balanced, compassionate approach to yourself and those you care about. Wouldn’t you like to have even more empathy, love, and compassion than you already do? Wouldn’t that be a good thing for you?

Use It or Lose It 

A related finding is that, as with working out to build muscle, if you don’t keep up your brain training regimen, new skills can begin to atrophy. In the University of Wisconsin studies (Lutz et al. 2004), the brain wave changes observed in novice meditators were astonishing but short-lived. Several weeks after the experiment concluded, a follow-up study was conducted to once again examine the brain wave patterns of the two groups of meditators, novice and experienced. Whereas the experienced meditators continued to exhibit the compassion wave at the same strength as before, novice meditators who had stopped practicing the compassion exercise no longer showed this change in their brain wave patterns. Therefore, ongoing practice of the techniques you learn in this book is important; otherwise you might begin slipping back into a stressed-out, autopilot mode. And this type of short-term neuroplasticity means that you’re always training your brain to do something. If you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you could end up training your brain to stress you out!

Gentle Reminders 

In this chapter, we introduced the idea that daily stress is a huge enemy in the quest to live the way you want to live. If you avoid, ignore, or downplay the importance of daily stresses, they can pile up and have a devastating impact on both your mood and your health. Therefore, we encourage you to take a more mindful approach to daily stress by paying attention to it and embracing it in a nonjudgmental way. This will help you think clearly about what matters to you in your life and then act intentionally, in ways that reflect your principles.

The tenets of neuroscience offer a fresh perspective on how you can train your brain to support a mindful approach to daily stress. You can directly train your brain to reduce the influence of harmful physiological and mental effects of stress while also increasing your ability to induce states of mindful awareness. But brain science isn’t a panacea for problems with becoming present and following through with your mindfulness game plan. You’ll have to commit to practicing new strategies and doing so persistently over time.

In our culture, we’re bombarded by messages to exercise more often as a way to strengthen our bodies and prevent disease. Yet people often twist their faces in distaste when the discussion turns to the virtues of brain training. For most people, the prospect of coming into contact with their mind on a daily basis seems to be much more aversive than engaging in vigorous physical exercise. In the next chapter, we’ll explore why this is. In large part, it happens because the mind doesn’t necessarily want to cooperate!