Prevention is Better than Cure

A few years ago, Steven Hayes, often hailed as the father of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Training (ACT), delivered a TEDx talk titled ‘Mental Brakes to avoid Mental Breaks.’ In this enlightening talk, he compared the human brain to an advanced sports car, and the analogy is truly captivating.

STEVEN HAYES

The human brain is the biological equivalent of an advanced sports car.

Hayes emphasised that just as we wouldn’t let someone hop into a high-speed sports car without understanding where the brakes are, many of us navigate life without knowing how to apply the mental brakes when needed. Some individuals adapt seamlessly, while others accumulate metaphorical “scrapes and dents” along the way. A few even face accidents that could have been mitigated if they knew where and when to apply those mental brakes.

At the core of Hayes’ work is Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which delves into how our brains form connections through language and cognition. His approach can be distilled into four steps:

    1. Learn it in one: Initially grasping a concept or skill.
    2. Derive it in two: Forming associations between different elements.
    3. Put it in networks: Constructing mental networks or frames of behaviour.
    4. That change what you do: Shifting your actions based on these mental frames.

    A simple example of this cognitive process is a child learning about an apple. Over time, they associate the word “apple” with the actual fruit and vice versa. We are unique in our ability to create these mental networks. We can then create networks for these items; when thirsty, somebody mentioning a cool glass of apple juice will make us salivate but if they said Jabuka juice it would not have the same effect – unless we spoke Serbo Croat.

    However, within seconds of being told that Jabuka means Apple in a different language it would have the same effect; that is how fast associations can happen.

    As we continue to develop, we start to understand more and more associations; bigger/smaller, before/after, cause/effect etc. This is wonderful and why we are the preeminent species on the planet however there is a dark side, and we can start to turn this back on ourselves.

    Big / Small

    Before / After

    Cause / Effect

    These are problem-solving responses and may be of benefit in some contexts if they help us to learn and grow and not make the mistakes of the past however many people get caught up in this problem-solving part of the brain when there is no problem to be resolved.

    I should have done better if…

    I would have done better if…

    I could have done better if…

    TAKE FOR INSTANCE A TRAUMATIC EVENT IN A PERSON’S LIFE

    In Steven Hayes’ words

    To make sense of the incident they will often jam on the accelerator of the brain and swerve from side to side.

    His metaphor describes our problem-solving brain going into overdrive to try and make sense of what happened. In this way the events are relived time and time again over and over. The brain does not have a mechanism to delete anything; the closest is cognitive ‘extinction’ but this is not deletion as the brain will learn the same things faster if exposed to the same stimuli. In the same way spending time reliving an event will create stronger connections in the brain making it possible to access those traumatic memories more easily.

    JOHN’S PARALYSIS AT WORK: A CYCLE OF AVOIDANCE AND SHAME

    John, a diligent and conscientious employee, found himself trapped in a cycle of fear and avoidance at his workplace. His journey into this distressing state began with a simple fear of making mistakes. As a project manager in a highly competitive industry, he felt immense pressure to deliver perfect results on tight deadlines.

    John’s Symptoms

    1. Fear of Mistakes: John’s fear of making mistakes stemmed from a deeply ingrained belief that any error on his part would have catastrophic consequences. This fear was not entirely irrational, as his industry demanded precision, but it became paralyzing when taken to extremes. His brain perceived any challenging task as a potential landmine of errors.

    2. Avoidance Behaviour: To cope with this fear, John began to avoid making decisions altogether. He would procrastinate on important tasks, delegate responsibility even when it wasn’t necessary, and continually seek validation from superiors before taking any action. While these avoidance behaviours temporarily alleviated his anxiety, they created a self-perpetuating cycle of inaction.

    3. Consequences and Secrecy: Over time, the consequences of John’s avoidance behaviour started to pile up. Projects fell behind schedule, budgets exceeded their limits, and clients grew frustrated. John was adept at hiding the extent of these issues from his coworkers and supervisors. He felt a sense of shame and guilt for not being able to meet his responsibilities but believed that exposing his failures would be even more shameful.

    Symptoms

     

    4. Recurring Nightmares: As the pressure mounted, John’s mind began to replay past mistakes and near-misses like a broken record. He would lay awake at night, his brain fixated on all the things that could go wrong. The more he dwelled on these fears, the more vividly they played out in his mind, as if he were reliving those moments of uncertainty and anxiety.

    5. Heightened Anxiety: Every time John faced a situation reminiscent of past mistakes or challenges, his anxiety skyrocketed. His brain had learned to associate these situations with intense fear and shame. The thought of taking action became unbearable, and he would often resort to avoidance once again.

    Symptoms

    6. Shame and Self-Recrimination: John’s inner dialogue was merciless. He constantly berated himself for not being competent enough, for letting down his team, and for hiding his failures. He perceived judgment and recriminations from his coworkers, even when they were unaware of the extent of his struggles.

    7. Isolation: John’s growing shame and anxiety led him to isolate himself at work. He withdrew from team meetings, avoided conversations with colleagues, and further concealed his problems. His isolation only deepened his sense of shame and hindered any potential support he might have received.

    THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTIVATION OF PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY

    In John’s case, the cycle of fear, avoidance, and shame had become self-reinforcing. His brain had learned to associate work-related decisions with overwhelming anxiety and self-recrimination. The more he avoided taking action, the stronger these negative associations became, making it increasingly difficult for him to break free from this pattern.

    His situation underscores the importance of cultivation of psychological flexibility to become unstuck and seek out help when needed. In John’s case recognising the stories created by the mind around perfectionism and fear of mistakes could have helped him prevent further distress and regain control over his professional life.

    PEOPLE RETRAUMATISING THEMSELVES

    Rather than resolving anything this can lead to a person retraumatising themselves many times over creating significant suffering.

    As problem-solving does not appear to be the answer, this gives us a clue to which part of the brain we need to retrain in order to reduce suffering. Clues to this are in some spiritual teachings such as Buddhism; the ability to let go of thoughts and feelings without getting too caught up in them.

    Many people in the western world turn to such practices once the challenges in their life have reached a point where they are already suffering. They are looking for a cure to that suffering.

    PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE

    Steven Hayes is telling us that there is a better way

    If we can learn and practice mindfulness and a few techniques within ACT, then we are more likely to be able to deal with whatever life throws at us.

    Like a spring life will stretch and compress us as but ideally, we want to have the psychological flexibility to come back to the same shape after the event is over – rather than be brittle and therefore ‘deformed’ or changed in some way by the event.

    HOW COULD THIS HAVE HELPED JOHN?

    John could have managed his experience by applying the principles of mental health prevention, particularly drawing from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) concepts. Here are some ways John could have approached his situation:

    Mindfulness and Awareness: John could have started with mindfulness practices to become more aware of his thoughts and emotions in the moment. This would help him recognise when his fear of making mistakes was triggering anxiety and avoidance behaviours.

    Diffusion from Thoughts: ACT encourages individuals to “defuse” from their thoughts, which means recognising that thoughts are just mental events and not necessarily reflective of reality. John could practice acknowledging his fear of mistakes without necessarily believing it or acting on it.

    Values Clarification: John might clarify his values related to his work. What does he truly value in his career? Is it producing high-quality work, collaborating with colleagues, or meeting client expectations? By identifying these values, he can use them as a guide for his actions.

    Committed Action: With his values in mind, John could commit to taking small, meaningful actions in his work, even if they involve some degree of risk. For example, he could set a goal to make a key decision in a project and communicate it to his team, despite his fear.

    Acceptance of Imperfection: John could work on accepting that perfection is unattainable and that making mistakes is a natural part of learning and growth. This acceptance could reduce the paralysing fear he feels.

    Progressive Exposure: With the guidance of a therapist or coach, John could engage in progressive exposure therapy. This involves gradually exposing oneself to feared situations or decisions, starting with less anxiety-provoking scenarios and progressing to more challenging ones.

    Self-Compassion: John should practice self-compassion, which involves treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding one would offer to a friend facing similar challenges. This can help counteract the self-recrimination and shame he experiences.

    Seeking Professional Help: John may benefit from therapy with a mental health professional experienced in ACT or cognitive-behavioural therapies. A therapist can provide personalised guidance, strategies, and support tailored to his specific situation.

    Open Communication: John could consider opening up to a trusted colleague or supervisor about his struggles. This might help reduce the isolation he feels and provide an opportunity for understanding and support from his workplace.

    Long-Term Commitment: It’s important for John to recognise that managing his fear of making mistakes and avoidance behaviours may take time and consistent effort. He should commit to the process of change with patience and persistence.

    John could have managed his experience more effectively, reduced the negative impact of his avoidance behaviours, and gradually regained control over his work-related anxiety. The goal is to achieve psychological flexibility and the ability to take meaningful actions in alignment with his values, even in the face of fear.

    THE CHALLENGE

    This lies in convincing people to invest in something that doesn’t provide immediate, easily quantifiable benefits. It’s like an insurance policy – there to protect you, with the cost being a little bit of time and effort.

    Think back to the Y2K bug concerns in the late ’90s. The public perception post-January 1, 2000, was that it was overhyped. However, extensive preventive work ensured that critical systems continued to function. Was it worth the investment? No one can say for sure, but the preventative work was done.

    A TO Z: ANXIOUS TO ZEN (ISH)

     

    At A to Z: Anxious to Zen (ish), we impart these mental brake principles to groups, helping individuals create distance between their conscious thinking minds and the problem-solving narrative which it is being fed.

    Once there is awareness of the narrative there is the opportunity to do something about it, and the likelihood that people will suffer less

    ABOUT ME
    Hey there, I’m Dan. While I’ve mostly called Wales, UK, home, my career has revolved around the world of finance systems, particularly Unit4 ERP.

    My personal journey, marked by acute anxiety, led me to delve into Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT).

    Now, my mission is twofold: to empower individuals with Psychological Flexibility and to assist business owners in supporting their staff.

    By helping employees manage anxiety, improve focus, and build resilience, we not only foster personal growth but also create healthier, more productive work environments that benefit businesses in the long run. Join me on this transformative journey!