by Bright Vista Counselling March 2022 | Therapy | Counselling
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) takes a different path to promoting change for clients to earlier forms of therapy. There are six core principles which underpin ACT;  being present,  acceptance,  defusion from thought,  self as context,  values and  committed action. This series of articles will explore the six principles and how they each combine and interact to support people live deeper and connected lives.
This article explores the first of these principles of ACT; being present, with links to the remaining five. Each of these articles will work through the principles in turn, exploring each individually and how the combination of principles overlaps and interconnect and live in a more psychologically flexible way. To be present to ourselves, aware of our experience of life as it is now and to take steps guided by our values and directing our behaviour to doing what is important for the life we want to live now and into the future.
What are the dynamics of being present or not? From ACT perspective, not being present can be characterised as being closed off and disconnected from the experiences of the world, from our physical selves, emotional and psychological selves. Often characterised by an inability to notice, choose and act in ways that connect to our potential for a richer more fulfilled life.
These moments of inattention or not noticing the present often involve trying to avoid unwanted thoughts, emotional upset and uncomfortable body sensations. We seek distraction to this discomfort, we direct our energies and our effort to some activity less painful, some sort of distraction until time passes and we feel better. Using our energies to distract ourselves or avoid discomfort may provide some short-term relief but in the long-term the discomfort returns vying for our attention again and again. This behaviour becomes a cycle, a stuck loop. It is in these stuck loops that we automatically replay our stuck stories from our past with their sticky questions and self-critical judgements. This process of our busy mind hooks our attention, deplete our energies and pulls our lives away from the present and what’s important. Ensuring that we suffer more.
“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence”
Eckhart Tolle (2010, p.61)
Did you know that all of us spend nearly 50% of our time during the day thinking about something other than what we are doing? So, for around half the day we are all spending our time and energy likely drifting into the past, mulling over how a situation was, then drifting into the future considering how that past situation would have been different “if”. Or contemplating that thought that you just happened to think about, one of the 6,000 thoughts that might pop into your head in a day.
So, drifting along in our day is not a problem if we are all doing it and is natural and can be useful, planning for future event or remembering past events. It seems ok. Yes, until it’s not! If our wondering attention leads to worry, adds to our stress or to emotional upset to the extent that it is getting in the way of how we are performing in the present then that’s problematic.
In my practice I introduce you to many processes, tools, skills and strategies. The first is a process called autopilot and the skill of noticing our autopilot. Understanding autopilot through noticing helps neatly illustrates what happens with our thinking if we are paying attention to it or not. We learn though noticing that behaviour is sometimes automatic, and that behaviour moves our lives in directions. Our behaviour can take us away or toward how we want to live our life. We explore together the effects of our behaviour to our psychological, emotional and physical selves. We build and broaden our skills and ability to notice, choose and act differently, more mindfully in the present moment and to take small steps toward the life we want to lead.
It takes practice to come into the present, noticing behaviour, sort our behaviour between away and towards moves and choose differently. Making a different choice is about connecting to our deeply held beliefs our values. Practicing choosing is bolstered by considering, connecting and taking small steps toward the who and what that is important for your life now. It is only with an awareness of where we are (the past, the present or the future) and an ability to come into the present where we can choose. Practicing, choosing mindfully, with awareness about what direction you want your life to go in and taking small steps for doing what would add value for you today. Valued living, choosing and taking small steps are explored in more detail in each of the remaining core principles.
How Being Present Matters
Being present involves being open, aware and engaged. We do this in ACT by; turning up (be here now), open up (to notice what is), and to do what matters (workable actions, choices guided by values).
It is important to remember that the past is fixed, and the future hasn’t happened yet so it is in the present is where behaviour or our choices can happen and make a difference. The present is the only place where we actually do our living and can make changes that are in keeping with who and what’s important to us. Being present means being mindful of and engaged with our life in the present, even if that experience feels uncomfortable. When we are lost in thought, reliving past events, or going through our autopilot steps, it consumes our energies and restricts our capacity to act in our best interests in the present.
In ACT, the idea of being present involves the process of noticing what is occurring right now, in the present moment. The focus in ACT is for each of us to “experience the world more directly so that [our] behaviour is more flexible and thus [our] actions more consistent with the values [we] hold” (Hayes, 2022).
This is not an easy step to take. As explained earlier our thinking and autopilot process and our ability to not notice can make it difficult to be in the present. Our minds have a natural tendency to distract us with a constant stream of thoughts. Often about our remembered (buy not entirely accurately) past, or vision of our perfectly constructed (but imagined) future. These accompanied by our tendency to lose ourselves in activities that eat up our time and energy. All this getting in the way of being in the present moment where we can chose and live the life we want.
However, there is a lot of recent research in wellness and mental health that shows that being present can help individuals who are struggling to deal with their persistent thoughts, difficult emotions and uncomfortable body sensations more effectively. Offering that engaging in skills to mindfully come into the present helps to reduce stress and decrease its impact on our day to day life, and can improve our ability to engage more flexibly with difficult emotions like fear and anger.
Being Present and Mindfulness Practices
In ACT, we encourage people to build up skills for contacting the present moment through a series of mindfulness exercises. Listed below are some of the many tips, tools and strategies that anyone can use to access the present:
1. Noticing my five senses; what can I see, hear, smell, and feel as a physical sensation this very moment?
2. Notice my breathing (for ten breaths); my in-breath, a small pause, followed by my out-breath, then noticing the next breath. Repeat for ten breaths.
Now check in and notice how you feel now.
What is different now that you have breathed?
3. Noticing my autopilot actions; what direction are my actions taking me, away from or towards the life I want to lead?
Choosing 3 things that would add value to you day now.
Take a small step to engaging in each of these 3 things during the rest of your day.
4. At the end of your day find ten minutes to sit quietly and write down the 3 things and what you did that added value in your day.
Noticing how it feels now reviewing what you have done.
If you didn’t achieve all three or any of these things that OK, don’t be hard on yourself (this is a new skill and all new skill need to be practiced). Instead try and notice what got in the way (maybe thinking or your autopilot)
5. Practice making a new plan.
Take a moment to breath, check in with your five senses and come into the present moment.
Now consider what would add value to your day for you today.
Take a few minutes this morning to choose 3 things that you want more of this day (not yesterday’s list).
Practice working these 3 things into your day.
If these techniques are not working for you and you find yourself stuck in autopilot behaviours that are about your past traumas or fear about the future, the processes of ACT counselling may help you move forward in a more flexible way. To find out more about how I can help you with these skills contact me at BradSprigg@BrightVista.net or ring me on 0431212 099.
Engaging in ACT people come to appreciate their attempts at fixing, getting rid of, trying to manage or control thoughts, feeling and bodily sensations are often ineffective. This effort taking a lot of their time and energy for little long-term relief. Learning to recognise the repeating nature of these aspects of their life can free up time and energy to practice doing what really matters for their life now and their future.
Next in the series  acceptance
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