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ACT: A Mental Health Strategy For Overcoming Life's Obstacles

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Sometimes you are just rolling along and -- WHAM! -- you are broadsided by an unexpected obstacle. It might be a physical obstacle, such a being stuck in traffic. Or it might be another kind of obstacle, one that is more "internal," an emotion or a way of thinking that is having a negative impact on you.

No matter the obstacle, there is a simple and practical strategy that can help you move through the obstacle and either get back on track or find a new track all together!

Let's look at the first example. You are heading to an important appointment and suddenly you find yourself stuck in a congested roadway. Traffic is not moving. You begin to notice your anxiety (and maybe your anger) increasing as you realize that you may be late for your appointment. If you stay in that state, your body will tense, you might grip the wheel tighter, you might furrow your brow, your eyes might widen, your heart might increase.

All of these physical symptoms are congruent with a threat state. In neuroscience, this state is described as an AWAY state; your body is preparing to protect you from the threat before you. Interestingly, when you are in a threat state, you experience tunnel vision; you quite literally are limited in your ability to perceive and to think.

Instead of staying in the threat state, you could try this simple strategy, called ACT:

A - Accept your current reality

C - Choose a vision of what you want in this situation

T - Take action to move TOWARD your vision

So... instead of gripping the wheel, furrowing your brow and maybe releasing some unpleasant expletives, you say the following (to yourself, or out loud):

A - I accept that I am stuck in traffic and I might be late for my appointment

C - I want to look for an opportunity to get to my appointment as soon as possible and I want to feel good when I arrive

T - I will:

- Take a deep breath
- Call ahead and indicate that I am stuck in traffic and might be late for the appointment
- Look around to see if I can make eye contact with someone to let me cut in front of them
- Smile at the person with whom I make eye contact
- Prepare for what I will say when I arrive at the appointment, and visualize myself there
- Remind myself that it is most important to arrive safe and feeling good

You might do all or some of these things, or you might choose to do other things such as listen to calming music or recite a mantra that has meaning for you. The idea is, while you are taking action to move TOWARD your vision, you are NOT wasting energy and valuable neural resources focusing on moving AWAY from your obstacle. A positive, toward state provides you will a broadened perspective; you are able to access more internal and external resources to help you in that moment.

Chances are you will get to your appointment sooner. Or, at the very least, you'll arrive much more positive and calm when you do arrive.

Let's look at another example. My beautiful mother has dementia. It sucks. When she first started experiencing symptoms, it was overwhelming. I found myself becoming anxious and sad just at the thought of going to see her. I felt helpless, angry and vulnerable. Then, I felt guilty; here I was thinking of myself when my poor mother was mentally deteriorating.

Then, I decided to ACT. Here is how that went for me:

A - I accept that mom has dementia and it sucks -- for her and for those of us who love her

C - I want to see her as often as I can, and to feel good when I go and when I leave

T - I will:

- Go to visit only after I have had a good night's sleep
- Meditate before I go
- Bring people with me; mom always liked lots of noise
- Make physical contact with mom (hold her hand, rub her back)
- Smile when I arrive and when I leave
- Remind myself that any unpleasantries are not my mom, they are the disease that grips her brain

I decided to ACT in this situation well over five years ago, and I never, ever, not once, hesitate to go and see my mom. I truly and completely look forward to it. I feel good when I arrive and when I leave. Because I am moving TOWARD my vision, I am not stuck in the negativity that arrives when I focus on moving AWAY from the reality of her disease.

So, give it a try the next time you feel stuck! Make sure you address and acknowledge all three elements of ACT. The "I accept" element is very important. Do not leave it out. It simply means that you acknowledge that "it is what it is." It does not mean you like it or that you are happy that it happened; it just means that you accept that it "is."

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