From Patient to Coach

I just read an interesting article about Steven Hayes, who had suffered panic attacks when he was speaking in public. He doesn’t suffer panic attacks anymore. Even more, he became a great psychologist and publisher (300 peer-reviewed articles & 27 books).

Questions: How did he solve his panic attacks? How could he make such a big step, from patient to coach?

When he had these problems, the stable release orientation in psychotherapy was cognitive therapy. However, he didn’t embrace this approach in his struggle with his problems. He rather embraced the opposite of cognitive therapy, and so he may revolution the psychotherapy field. He started from the hypothesis that:

trying to correct negative thoughts can, paradoxically, intensify them, in the same way that a dieter who keeps telling himself “I really don’t want the pizza” ends up obsessing about … pizza.

Then he proposed another way of tackling our negative thoughts – ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). This new theory imply focusing less on switching your bad thoughts to more positive ones, and more on modifying the way we see our negative thoughts and emotions.

As well as cognitive therapy, ACT is a meta-logical approach. This means thoughts of a lower level (“I’m depressed”) may be handled by higher-level thoughts (“I’m having the thought that I’m depressed”).

The big difference is that cognitive therapy tackles bad thoughts, beliefs directly but Acceptance and Commitment Therapy do this indirectly. Whereas cognitive therapists speak about challenging thoughts and developing new beliefs,

Hayes and the others teach mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled in them, approaching them as though they were leaves floating down a stream (“… I want coffee/I should work out/I’m depressed/We need milk …”).

It is more about defusing the power of our negative thoughts rather than changing or replacing them.

Instead of saying “I’m depressed,” it proposes saying “I’m having the thought that I’m depressed.” Hayes isn’t saying people don’t really feel pain (he has felt plenty of it), but he believes we turn pain into suffering when we try to push it away.

Another strong point is that we don’t live at all, if we’re always working on our thoughts. Hayes expressed this idea in “Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life”.