Module 1: Pain, Suffering, and Control
Using the Weekly Rating Sheet, please rate how well your life is working.
1. Pain is a fact of life. Every human being experiences pain.
2. We get to choose how we respond to pain. Some choices will make things worse and lead to suffering. Other choices will help us live a better life.
3. It is common and normal to respond to pain by trying to control our thoughts and feelings. We want to cling to the good ones and push the bad ones away.
4. The bad news: Over the long run, trying to control our thoughts and feelings does not often work very well. Our negative thoughts and feelings don’t tend to go away forever. Trying to control them might seem to help in the short term, but eventually it can lead to more suffering and cause other serious consequences.
Please fill in a few lines from “My Coping Strategies.” You can add more between modules if you are willing to look deeper into how these attempted solutions have affected you.
My Coping Strategies
Please list a few of the ways you have been coping with your difficult thoughts and feelings:
Does this strategy work in the short term? Do you feel better?
Does this strategy work in the long term? Do the difficult thoughts and feelings show up again?
Does this strategy have any negative consequences or cause any problems of its own? Does it help you live a better life?
If any of these coping skills are working for you and aren’t causing their own problems, keep using them! If any of them are not working or are creating other problems for you, this toolkit will offer you some alternative skills to try.
5. The good news: There are psychological tools we can learn to use instead of trying to control our thoughts and feelings. These skills can help us live a better life.
Practice New Skills
1. Dropping Anchor
Sometimes when negative thoughts and feelings threaten to overwhelm us, the most effective response we can have is focusing on the present. This is like a ship dropping an anchor in the middle of a storm. It doesn’t stop the storm from happening, but it keeps the ship from getting blown off course.
Here’s how you do it: Let your thoughts and emotions continue to run and at the same time press your feet firmly into the floor. Notice your body sitting in your chair. Pay attention to the air in your lungs as you take a few normal breaths. Look around the room and notice where you are. Notice that you are here working on this exercise and that you are in a safe environment.
Try this for a few minutes now.
2. Introduction to ACT (click here for guided exercise)
The following exercise will help you experience the main concepts of the ACT approach. Sometimes it is easier to understand something if you experience it, rather than have someone try to explain it to you in words. As you read the following exercise, follow along as best you can with the instructions as you read them. Don’t worry if you get distracted or lose focus; this is normal. Just refocus on the exercise as soon as you notice that your mind has wandered.
Please find a comfortable position in your chair; one where you can stay relatively still for about 5 to 10 minutes. I recommend feet flat on the floor with arms on your legs or folded in your lap, but feel free to do whatever is most comfortable for you.
Take a few moments to mentally scan your body from head to toe… Notice if there are any areas of tension such as your jaw or shoulders… If you notice any tension, see if you can let some of that tension go… If not, that’s okay, just notice what’s there.
Take a few moments to connect with your sense of touch… Notice what physical sensations are happening in your hands… See if you can feel where your hands make contact with each other or with your legs… See if you can feel your feet on the ground…
Next, take a few moments to notice what you can hear… There may be several sounds, or just one, or it may be silent. Just notice whatever is there…
When you’re ready, move your attention to your breathing… Watch the breath come in and go out on its own, without you having to control it… See if you can feel your breath in your nose or your belly…
As you breathe, you will notice that thoughts may come into your mind… They may be pleasant thoughts, or unpleasant thoughts, or neutral thoughts… This is what the human mind does, it is a thinking machine… Just see if you can notice the thoughts without getting caught up in them, and then return your attention to your breathing… Each time a thought pops up, notice it and then return your attention to your breath… This will happen over and over and over again, and that’s okay, it means you’re normal… With practice you can get better at noticing your thoughts, rather than getting carried away by them.
As you continue breathing, you will notice that certain feelings or emotions will also show up… Some of these may be pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, or neutral feelings… See if you can notice these feelings the same way you notice your thoughts… There is no need to try and change what’s there, just try to notice what you feel… When you notice a feeling, see if you can locate where it is in your body… Notice what sensations come along with the emotion… There may be heaviness, lightness, warmth, coolness, tingling, or tension… You may find these sensations in your head, shoulders, arms, legs, or abdomen…
Whatever you feel and wherever it happens, just notice what’s going on and see if you can let it be…
And now see if you can return your attention to your breathing… See if you can notice that there is a part of you that’s able to watch your breathing, watch your thoughts, watch your feelings, watch the sensations that happen in your body… There is a part of you that does the thinking and feeling, and a part of you that can notice the thinking and feeling… Take a few moments to experience what it’s like to connect with the part of you that just notices…
And now take a few moments to consider what brought you here today… There is something you care so much about that you took steps to get here… Just reflect for a few moments about what it is that you really, truly care about most in your life… Recognize and appreciate the fact that you made a choice to take action for change… And as the exercise comes to a close, see if you can bring to mind an image of what kind of person you want to be when you are handling your pain effectively… Consider how you’ll be acting toward other people… How you’ll be acting toward yourself…
And when you’re ready, slowly bring your attention back to the room and back to where we are now. If you like, move your fingers and toes around and have a nice stretch.
Between now and the next module, if you are willing…
1. Fill in a few more lines from “My Coping Strategies” to see how effective your past or current coping strategies are.
2. Try the “dropping an anchor” technique anytime negative thoughts and feelings are threatening to overwhelm you. If you practice this, briefly notice or write about how you act after you drop anchor.
3. Commit to practicing the “Introduction to ACT” exercise from today’s module a set number of times and write your commitment down. You can choose to practice once a day, every two days, or just one time between now and the next module. It’s up to you. Just try your best to practice as many times as you commit to. Don’t worry if you don’t reach your target. We’re not aiming for perfection, just for trying our best. Whatever happens, continue to the next module. Sometimes difficult thoughts and feelings interfere in our lives and keep us from doing the things we set out to do. This is normal! And this is exactly what we will be learning about in Module 2.