Some simple ACT strategies for managing urges, cravings and triggers
What is ACT?
ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a powerful way to learn how to manage anxiety by accepting your thoughts and feelings and taking control of your life by taking committed action in the present to create a more meaningful, richer life in the future. It has a lot of tools and helpers that you can use right now to help you with any uncomfortable thoughts, memories, worries, feelings or urges, cravings and triggers that may present themselves on your recovery journey, as they invariably do.
ACT uses mindfulness based strategies to help you get present. Getting present is the first and fastest way to take control of your meandering mind. Mindfulness can be described as focused attention on what is happening both internally and externally without trying to change, judge or struggle with whatever is happening for you in that moment. This allows you to take control and make better choices.
Following are some mindfulness based ACT strategies.
Contacting the present moment
Grounding is a mindfulness based exercise which involves grounding yourself in the present moment in order to ride out any emotional storms that come your way.
The purpose of grounding yourself is not to make the storm go away or change how you feel about it but simply to hold you steady until the storm passes on its own.
What to do
When a painful feeling, thought or memory threatens to ‘capsize’ you don’t try to control it or push it away or bury it deep, instead;
- Stop what you are doing.
- Push both feet firmly into the floor
- Clasp both hands firmly together
- Take a deep breath in and let it out fully
- Notice your pain…. and also notice the following
- Notice 5 things in the room
- Notice 3 or 4 things you can hear or smell
- Notice the sensation of your body being supported in your chair or if you are standing, the feeling of standing on something solid. Feel the certainty of the ground beneath your feet holding you up.
- Take another deep breath and remember that even though your pain feels and is real, so are these other things.
Defusion is another form of mindfulness which involves detaching yourself, ‘unhooking’, or creating some space between you and a disturbing, negative, worrying or otherwise unhelpful thought that has been getting in the way of you living the life or being the person you really want to be. There are many ways to practice defusion. Below are some simple strategies that can be done alone or with a therapist or another supportive person.
1 – I’m having the thought that…
One of the simplest ways of recognizing your thoughts for what they are (just words or images, floating in and out of our minds) is to put the phrase, “I’m having the thought that…” right before whatever your unhelpful thought may be. For example, if you are struggling with feeling unwanted or unloved you may have a thought that comes up for you frequently which is, “Nobody cares about me”.
When you have this thought all the time, it can understandably cause you to feel even more unwanted and unloved because you are ‘fused’ with the message of that thought, or to put it another way, you have convinced yourself that the thought is true and believe it 100 per cent. This causes you to feel even worse.
However, if you try changing, “nobody cares about me” to “I’m having the thought that nobody cares about me” – it suddenly takes on a different meaning. You are no longer telling yourself you are uncared for, you are simply recognising that you are having a thought about nobody caring. Notice the difference in how your feel when you put the words, “I’m having the thought that…” before such thoughts.
Naming the story
Often we tend to tell ourselves the same old thing on repeat. Like a broken record in your head, our minds tell us all sorts of things that are often remnants of old conversations, memories and messages that we may heard from parents, teachers or other adults from childhood. Often we find these thoughts are similar in some way and soon enough, you may notice that they tend to be variations on a theme. Often, it’s a variation on the “not good enough” story. Not this enough, not that enough etc. Whatever it is, once you recognise your stories it’s time to practice letting them go if they no longer serve you. Try the following exercise it order to do this, especially when a particularly triggering thought takes hold.
- Listen to your thoughts. What is your mind telling you. (Give yourself some time to do this, a few days or a week at least.)
- What are they? (If it helps, write them down)
- What’s the story? Remember, it’s just a story. It can be true or false, correct or incorrect but is it helpful? Does it help me in any way to keep thinking this way?
If no, practice letting the thought go.
The Worry Later Plan
Take a deep breath and exhale completely before and after this exercise.
- First listen to your thoughts.
- What are they? What are you worrying about? (Write them down if it helps to clarify them.)
- Ask yourself this question; Can I do something about this right now?
- If yes, do it. No matter how small.
- If no, then let it go and worry about it later. (Sometimes you can schedule a time to worry about this particular issue. You can even set an alarm. Often you might find that when worry time comes, the thing you were worrying about may have dissipated.)
Do this anytime you are feeling uncertain, overwhelmed or anxious:
(This was taken from from Russ Harris’, The Happiness Trap)
Now here’s one especially useful, ultra-brief, and very simple mindfulness practice, that you can easily incorporate into your busy daily routine, no matter how pressed for time you are. I call it the mindful S.T.O.P. Here’s how it goes:
S – Slow down (slow down your breathing; or slowly press your feet into the floor; or slowly stretch your arms; or slowly press your fingertips together)
T – Take note (with a sense of curiosity, notice your thoughts & feelings; notice what you can see and hear and touch and taste and smell; notice where you are and what you are doing)
O – Open up (open up and make room for your thoughts & feelings, and allow them to freely flow through you; use any defusion or expansion skill you like)
P – Pursue values (reconnect with your values, and let them guide whatever you do next)
For more on mindful stop you can visit:
We often spend a lot of time struggling with unwanted thoughts, memories, fears or sensations. This often adds to our distress. For example, with anxiety, we might wish that we didn’t feel anxiety, we might tell ourselves, “I shouldn’t feel this way!” – then we might get angry about our anxiety, so before long we have anxiety, anger about our anxiety and soon enough we might start to feel depressed about our anger and our anxiety – so we now have 3 uncomfortable feelings that we are struggling with. Often our emotions become bigger or appear to be unmanageable when we refuse to look at them directly or are afraid to face them. Often, we find when we finally stop to notice and allow ourselves the luxury of experiencing our reality for what it is (instead of fighting with ourselves) we find our emotions aren’t as big and scary as we once thought.
So, what if you were able to just let go of struggling with unwanted thoughts and experiences. What if, when anxiety came up instead of feeling dread or annoyance we just simply noticed it, acknowledged it and took a few deep breaths and carried on with our day? How would that change the way you manage stress and discomfort.
Try these exercises in your day to day life, you can use the “Mindful S.T.O.P” exercise every time you feel yourself beginning to struggle with an unwanted thought or experience. Pretty soon you won’t need to go through the all the steps, you will just be able to Notice, Acknowledge, Accept and Move On!
Finally, remember, the point of power is always in the present moment.