Freeing Your Mind to Improve Your Actions

Book aims to help us go beyond mental health to a more meaningful life

Freeing Your Mind to Improve Your Actions
(Jack Frog/Shutterstock)

For millennia, people have understood that they can cultivate themselves. At the most basic level, people can cultivate their physique through exercise, or their knowledge and skillsets through education. At a deeper level, people can cultivate their mind and character in ways that make them stronger in a more profound and essential way.

In modern times, this idea of self-cultivation has largely been lost, but you do find reflections of the idea in some corners, including psychology, especially those areas of psychology that go beyond mental illness and look at cultivating mental wellness.

That's the realm of Steven Hayes's new book, "A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters." The University of Nevada psychology professor penned the book before the pandemic hit. While it hasn’t taken off solely due to the pandemic, our society’s focus on mental health as a result of the prolonged crisis probably hasn’t hurt his sales.

“It was well-timed in a sense that a lot of people have benefitted who are struggling,” Hayes told The Epoch Times.

Our society tends to focus mental health around a condition. For instance, you may hear from psychologists only when depression is on the rise. But people need to have sound mental health in all areas of their life and behave in a way that reflects that, Hayes said.

That's why this is a book that anyone can use, as it doesn’t just focus on mental illness. It’s really about building a life of purpose and having the cognitive flexibility and resilience to deal with anything that comes your way—even if that means dealing with your past.

Adding to Your Mental Toolbox

The book centers on acceptance and commitment therapy, an influential and widely practiced psychological intervention that Hayes developed. It differs from the widely known psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which centers on learning how to better control thoughts and feelings. Acceptance and commitment therapy, on the other hand, helps patients notice, accept, and embrace thoughts and feelings—including those they may not want to experience.

“Thoughts are important, but how you relate to them is more important,” Hayes explained.

Acceptance and commitment therapy works by adding to your existing ways of thinking—not just disputing your existing thoughts. In other words, it uses cognitive flexibility instead of thought replacement.

One of the easiest ways to understand acceptance and commitment therapy is by its well-known acronym, ACT, which can also be understood to stand for a three-step process to put it into action:
  • Accept your thoughts and emotions
  • Choose a valued direction
  • Take action

Accept Your Thoughts and Emotions

ACT falls into the realm of mindfulness with its directive to accept thoughts and emotions.

To get positive results with ACT, you need to be able to feel without wallowing in your feelings, clinging to them, or avoiding them. Not exactly in touch with your emotions? You’ll have to be open to examining them at the least.

This involves being open to your feelings and then having some intention about which thoughts you’re going to put your behavior behind. You have to then allocate your attention in a way that’s flexible, fluid, and voluntary.

If you’re someone who struggles with anxiety, for example, ACT may teach you how to purposefully decline your mind’s invitation to worry.

Acceptance can also mean resolving yourself to what has already passed. We all know the mental tension that builds when we grind on what someone else did to us or lament our own mistakes. Recognizing that these events are unchanged by our current mental anguish helps us realize they are best dealt with through acceptance.

The acceptance part of ACT is primarily about becoming aware of yourself and accepting your thoughts and feelings as they are. This attunement is a prerequisite to making meaningful change. Acceptance lifts a huge mental burden.

Choose a Valued Direction

It’s one thing to free up your mind, so to say, but Hayes takes it a step further by inviting readers to pivot toward what matters.

Values, not just goals, are important for those who have had positive results with ACT. Think about the kind of person you want to be and build your habits around those values instead of your fears or your ego.

A sense of self that’s mindful in general is a huge help, Hayes said.

But if you’re more rigid, wrapped up in your ego, and not into your values, your life may not be as positive. In Hayes’s words, “expect a train wreck.”

Not everyone is aware of what matters to them most when they begin therapy. Hayes suggests a few ways to help you identify what’s important to you—then you can design a life surrounding what counts.

One way to recognize what matters is to take the things that hurt you most and see if they suggest what you care about most. If you are depressed and fearful of your feelings, for example, you probably have a yearning to feel, he said. Hayes knows this firsthand, having dealt with his own social anxiety. Despite having anxiety around others, it was a reflection of how important people were to him, he said.

Values are linked to areas of your life that are important. Another tip to find what matters: Let your mind focus on a vital, engaged moment. Unpacking a memory can lead you to find what matters.

So can assessing who you look up to. If you slow down to pinpoint what the person stands, or stood, for, you may find values that you’d like to better emulate.

Finally, think of yourself as writing the story of your own life. You may not be able to choose what will happen, but you can set the scene and look at what story you’re writing with how you live, Hayes said. Own your authorship and the authority you have to live your life. Once you get a sense of your journey, it can drive you to identify what matters.

Take Action

“ACT is not just about mental health, it’s about behavioral health,” Hayes explained. The therapy involves our behavior and how we respond to everything in our lives, from our relationships and the choices we make, to our jobs and how we solve problems.

Using the skills of ACT has produced measurable positive outcomes in people’s lives, he said, citing extensive research.

When you have a clearer mind and a clear set of values, you are primed to take action to improve your lot in life by changing your actual behavior.

Getting Into the ACT

All of these things mean that people can use ACT to make positive changes in their lives and roll with whatever comes up. That’s why Hayes doesn’t like to define ACT as only helping with mental health conditions—it helps you live a more meaningful life in general.

Ultimately, his book isn’t just about mental health—it’s about living better.

Mental wellness is a 24/7 thing—that’s why it needs our attention, Hayes said.

Mental strength and flexibility is “our life agenda” to learn and acquire. Those are relevant to all areas of our lives—not just when we’re in crisis, he emphasizes.

“I wish people would think about psychology in a broader way,” Hayes said. “I wish the culture would wake up to the idea that behavioral science should be in these conversations about all kinds of problems.”

That’s not because psychologists have all the answers, but because the psychological aspect of our lives is relevant to all aspects of our lives—not just when we’re going through a difficult time or dealing with a mental health diagnosis.

Using ACT can be about overcoming negative thoughts and feelings, and transforming your pain into purpose. Ultimately, though, it’s about building a meaningful life—however that looks for you.
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