As I pointed out in earlier posts, emotional distress and its accompanying physiological stress are less the result of events than of the attributions you assign to those events—your thoughts and beliefs about them—and your cognitive fusion with those attributions. The antidote to this suffering is mindfulness practice, which provides you with the skills to be able to de-fuse from your unhealthy thoughts and beliefs.
There is another approach to emotional distress that I have found highly effective, both in my personal life and in my professional practice. It, too, involves mindfulness, but in a different way. I call it Valued-Action Practice, and it is the subject of this post and others that will follow. I credit this practice to the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dr. Steven Hayes, who appears in the photo.
This method addresses the fact that the vast majority of the time, most of us go through the day more focused on what we don’t want than what we do want. When anything at all doesn’t go as we would have liked, we end up thinking about what went wrong, magnifying its importance. Those of us who live with chronic health challenges know this pattern well, and we are usually highly adept at this practice. When we don’t feel well, we focus on not feeling well. When any condition exists that we don’t like, we focus on that condition. In this way, we create even more emotional and physiological stress than our condition or illness itself generates. We also reinforce the neural circuits for negativity, thereby increasing the odds of experiencing more of what we don’t want. This reinforcing of what we don’t value rather than what we do value has another deleterious effect: it distances us from our personal life values. And being out of touch with our values leads to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can be very destructive to our health.
The reason we engage in this counterproductive, paradoxical practice is that, since ancient times, we have mistakenly believed we need to focus on what we don’t want in order to figure out how to keep bad things from happening. We’ve vividly imagined the tiger’s approach in order to help us prepare to ward off an attack. Still, although most people throughout the millennia have focused on what they didn’t want, there has always been a tiny percentage of individuals who were able to keep their attention on those things they held most dear—their personal life values. They have always tended to live with better health and greater well-being.
There is nothing to stop you from learning and employing the brilliant strategy these healthier people have used and weaving it into the fabric of your life. You, too, can develop the skill of focusing on your most deeply held values in every waking moment, and I will address that in future posts.