The following article was written by Russ Harris, an internationally acclaimed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer and author of the best-selling ACT-based self-help book The Happiness Trap.
If you are new to this form of therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) aims to maximise human potential for a rich, full and meaningful life by:
a) Teaching you psychological skills to deal with painful thoughts and feelings effectively – in such a way that they have much less impact and influence over you (these are known as mindfulness skills).
b) Helping you to clarify what is truly important and meaningful to you – i.e your values – then use that knowledge to guide, inspire and motivate you to change your life for the better.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy gets its name from one of its core messages: accept what is out of your personal control, and commit to action that improves and enriches your life. It’s a perfect time right now to use A.C.T. to cope with the Coronavirus crisis and the effect it has on our well-being.
Many of us are dealing with the very real challenges of associated with a global infectious illness, overwhelmed healthcare systems, economic fallout, job loss and financial problems, and major interruptions to virtually all aspects of life. When facing a crisis its normal to feel fear and anxiety. These are natural responses to challenging situations filled with danger and uncertainty. It’s easy to get lost in worrying and ruminating about all sorts of things that are out of our control. However, while it’s completely natural to get worries, it’s not useful or helpful.
The acronym ‘FACE COVID’ offers a set of practical steps for responding effectively to the Corona crisis, using the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
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
F = Focus on what’s in your control
The more we focus on what’s not in our control, the more hopeless or anxious we’re likely to feel. The single most useful thing anyone can do in any type of crisis is to focus on what’s in our control. You can’t control what happens in the future. You can’t control Coronavirus or the world economy or how the leaders of countries are managing. You also can’t magically control your feelings, eliminating all that perfectly natural fear and anxiety.
But you can control what you do – here and now.
The reality is, we have more control over our behaviour, than we do over our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, our number one aim is to take control of our behaviour to respond effectively to this crisis. This involves both dealing with our inner world – all of those difficult thoughts and feelings – and our outer world – all the real problems we are facing.
How do we do this? Well, when a big storm blows up, the boats in the harbour drop anchor – because if they don’t, they’ll get swept out to sea. Dropping anchor doesn’t make the storm go away (anchors can’t control the weather) – but it can hold a boat steady in the harbour, until the storm passes in its own good time. Similarly, in an ongoing crisis, we’re all going to experience ‘emotional storms’: unhelpful thoughts spinning inside our head, and painful feelings whirling around our body. And if we’re swept away by that storm inside us, there’s nothing effective we can do. So the first practical step is to ‘drop anchor’.
A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
This step is extremely important. All you need to do is acknowledge whatever is ‘showing up’ inside you: thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, sensation, urges. Instead of resisting it, observe what’s going on in your inner world. As you do this, often it’s helpful to put this into words, and silently say to yourself something like, ‘I’m noticing anxiety’, or ‘I’m experiencing feelings of depression’, or ‘There’s my mind worrying’ or ‘I’m having thoughts about getting sick’. And while continuing to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings.
C = Come back into your body
Come back into and connect with your physical body. Here are some ideas you could try:
• Slowly pushing your feet hard into the floor.
• Slowly straightening up your back and spine; if sitting, sitting upright and forward in your chair.
• Slowly pressing your fingertips together
• Slowly stretching your arms or neck, shrugging your shoulders.
• Slowly breathing
Note: you are not trying to turn away from, escape, avoid or distract yourself from what is happening in your inner world. The aim is to remain aware of your thoughts and feelings, continue to acknowledge their presence and at the same time, connect with your body, and actively move it. Why? So you can gain as much control as possible over your physical actions, even though you can’t control your feelings. (Remember, F = Focus on what’s in your control)
E = Engage in what you’re doing
Get a sense of where you are and refocus your attention on the activity you are doing. Find your own way of doing this. You could try some or all of the following suggestions, or find your own methods:
• Look around the room and notice 5 things you can see.
• Notice 3 or 4 things you can hear.
• Notice what you can smell or taste or sense in your nose and mouth
• Notice what you are doing
• End the exercise by giving your full attention to the task or activity at hand.
Please don’t skip the A of ACE; it’s so important to keep acknowledging the thoughts and feelings present, especially if they are difficult or uncomfortable. If you skip the A, this exercise will turn into a distraction technique – which it’s not supposed to be.
Now for the COVID part:
C = Committed Action
Committed action means take effective action guided by your core values. This is action you take because it’s truly important to you, even if it brings up difficult thoughts and feelings. Once you have dropped anchor, using the ACE formula, you will have a lot of control over your actions – so this makes it easier to do the things that truly matter.
That includes all those protective measures against Coronavirus (frequent handwashing, social distancing, and so on). But in addition to those fundamentals of effective action, consider: What are simple ways to look after yourself, those you live with, and those you can realistically help? What kind, caring, supportive deeds can you do? Can you say some kind words to someone in distress – in person or via a phone call or text message? Can you help someone out with a task or a chore, or cook a meal, or hold someone’s hand, or play a game with a young child? Can you comfort and soothe someone who is sick? Or in the most serious of cases, nurse them and access whatever medical assistance is available? And if you’re spending a lot more time at home, through self-isolation or forced quarantine, or social distancing, what are the most effective ways to spend that time? You may want to consider physical exercise to stay fit, cooking (as) healthy food (as possible, given restrictions), and doing meaningful activities by yourself or with others.
Repeatedly throughout the day, ask yourself ‘What can I do right now – no matter how small it may be – that improves life for myself or others I live with, or people in my community?’ And whatever the answer is – do it, and engage in it fully.
O = Opening Up
Opening up means making room for difficult feelings and being kind to yourself. Difficult feelings are guaranteed to keep on showing up as this crisis unfolds: fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and many more. We can’t stop them from arising; they’re normal reactions. But we can open up and make room for them: acknowledge they are normal, allow them to be there (even though they hurt), and treat ourselves kindly.
Remember, self-kindness is essential if you want to cope well with this crisis – especially if you are in a caregiver role. If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you’ve heard this message: ‘In event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.’ Well, self-kindness is your own oxygen mask; if you need to look after others, you’ll do it a whole lot better if you’re also taking good care of yourself.
So ask yourself, ‘If someone I loved was going through this experience, feeling what I am feeling – if I wanted to be kind and caring towards them, how would I treat them? How would I behave towards them? What might I say or do?’ Then try treating yourself the same way.
V = Values
Your values might include love, respect, humour, patience, courage, honesty, caring, openness, kindness, or numerous others. Look for ways to ‘sprinkle’ these values into your day. Let them guide and motivate your committed action. Of course, as this crisis unfolds, there will be all sorts of obstacles in your life; goals you can’t achieve, things you can’t do, problems for which there are no simple solutions. But you can still live your values in a myriad of different ways, even in the face of all those challenges. Especially come back to your values of kindness and caring.
Consider: What are kind, caring ways you can treat yourself as you go through this? What are kind words you can say to yourself, kind deeds you can do for yourself? What are kind ways you can treat others who are suffering? What are kind, caring ways of contributing to the wellbeing of your community? What can you say and do that will enable you to look back in years to come and feel proud of your response?
I = Identify Resources
Identify resources for help, assistance, support, and advice. This includes friends, family, neighbours, health professionals, emergency services. And make sure you know the emergency helpline phone numbers, including psychological help if required. Also reach out to your social networks. And if you are able to offer support to others, let them know. You can be a resource for other people, just as they can for you. One very important aspect of this process involves finding a reliable and trustworthy source of information for updates on the crisis and guidelines for responding to it. The World Health Organisation website is the leading source of such information as well as the website of your country’s government health department. Use this information to develop your own resources: action plans to protect yourself and others, and to prepare in advance for quarantine or emergency.
D = Disinfect
This has been said many times, but it’s worth repeating: disinfect your hands regularly and practice as much social distancing as realistically possible, for the greater good of your community. And remember, we’re talking about physical distancing – not cutting off emotionally.
There are still ways to connect with friends and family, it will just have to be virtually for now.
If you need to talk to someone, you can find help on Radiant now.