Friday, 30 May 2014

Mindful Tips for Leaving Cert Success

He who has a why… can bear almost any how.  ~ Fredrick Nietzsche

Exams are such a stressful time for so many people.  Here are some tips that can be applied to any exam, and are particularly relevant to those preparing to sit the Leaving Cert.

1.     Be mindful of task/exam when anxiety arises.  Remember that the vast majority of people feel anxious going into an exam.  Research by Rich and Woolever found most students have similar levels of anxiety.  Those who focused on their self-doubts and other factors that were not relevant to the current exam did worse than those who could acknowledge their anxiety and refocus on the exam at hand.
2.     Be mindful of your breath as an anchor.  While waiting to turn over your exam paper, this is an ideal opportunity to anchor yourself in your breath and your breathing.  From a mindfulness perspective as long as we are breathing there is more right with us than wrong with us regardless of whatever your mind might be telling you to the contrary.  In times of high anxiety, mindfulness expert Thich Nhat Hanh suggests it can be particularly useful to say the phrases “breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in” as you breath in and “breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out” as you breath out to help maintain your focus on your breathing. 
3.     Be mindful of time.  Time management can be an issue for many students.  Being mindful of time throughout your exam can greatly improve your chances of answering all questions and giving you the best chance of getting the best grade for you.  Psychologically many of us need contextual cues, or reminders, to help us to remember to be mindful of time.  One way to do this is to put a little “T” in a circle, or a figure of a clock in the margins of your answer booklet in light pencil.  This will serve as a prompt to be mindful of your time.
4.     Be mindful of “towards” and “away” moves.  It can be very easy to get caught up in judgments such as “right” or “wrong” and “good” or “bad” both during and/or after exams.  In the recent book The ACT Matrix, I shared that when we get caught up in these judgments we often find it more difficult to get back to the moment, and what matters.  It can be more helpful to acknowledge when we have moved “away” from what is helpful and important to the exam at hand and then channel our time and attention to moving back “towards” where we want to be.  This can really minimise the time we spend beating ourselves up and maximise the time we spend focusing on the exams that are important to us.
5.     Be mindful of your thoughts.  Many of us get hooked by unhelpful thoughts at exam time.  It can be useful to identify the prominent themes that arise for you in an exam, for example “exam failure”, “not enough” or “need to repeat”.  Then when these themes arise in the exam you can simply note “oh, there’s the exam failure/not enough story again” and refocus on your exam or study for your next exam.  Research has shown that this is more helpful than ignoring or getting caught up in the thoughts. 
6.      Be mindful of compassion.  Often we are our own worst critics.  In times of high stress we can find it difficult to see the bigger picture.  It can be useful to connect to what your older, wiser, kinder 21 year old self would say to you to help you during your leaving cert. 
7.     Be mindful of what matters.  It is very tempting to get completely hooked in the points system and what you “have to do”.  Meanwhile you can lose sight of why you are doing the leaving cert in the first place.  Many psychologists, such as Dr. Steve Hayes creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), have found that if we focus on the reason behind why we are doing what we are doing that greatly helps us to make more moves towards what is important and to get more enjoyment as we do this. 

Aisling Curtin is a Counselling Psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), founder of ACT Now Ireland and WTF Psychology Blogger.  You can find out more about her and the workshops she regularly gives in Ireland and internationally at,, find ACT Now Ireland on Facebook or call ACT Now Ireland at 01-4433307.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Ways to Practice Self-Compassion

Most of the shadows in this life are caused by standing in one’s own sunshine.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

v Acknowledge common humanity- we all screw up.  We all make mistakes.  We all let people that we know and love down.  We do it on many occasions.  And so does everyone else.  It can be useful to remind yourself “everyone messes up, I am not on my own” and see if you can connect with a moment where a loved one messed up and treat yourself the same way that you treated them.

v Allowing your heart, values and integrity to be your guide rather than a desire to please or placate others.  When you make choices- check in to see are these choices going to bring you closer towards who and where you want to be?  Or will these choices in fact bring you further away from who and where you want to be?

v “Choose discomfort over resentment”.  I loved this saying when I first heard Dr. Brené Brown make reference to it.  Often we say yes when we really want to say no out of a sense of obligation, or no when we really want to say yes as we are hooked on some reason why we can’t do it.  These choices often give us some relief.  Yet this relief is often short-lived, quickly replaced by resentment, which unfortunately can hang around like a bad smell.

v Importance of seeing and listening deeply.  Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn speaks of the importance of looking and listening deeply.  See if you can go below the surface of the situation/yourself and delve into the heart of what’s going on in situations/yourself.  He proposes that when we look at ourselves, and others, at a shallow level- we see only faults.  Yet, when we look more deeply- we are more likely to witness common humanity and the many strengths we have. 

v Allowing ourselves to be seen and heard deeply by others and ourselves.  It follows that it is not enough to see and hear deeply.  We also must be willing to allow ourselves to be seen and heard deeply.  Many of us, myself included, can hide behind masks.  We can find a false sense of security in only showing certain parts of ourselves for fear of rejection.  Yet, often the parts we expose are of the more shallow level, which is often judged by ourselves, and others, harshly.  And we protect and therefore hide the hidden gems within.

v Recognize that our emotions and bodily sensations often hold important messages for us.  It can be useful to slow down and connect beneath the surface level of these feelings to what helpful messages they might be trying to tell us.  For example, this past week I noticed the emotion of overwhelm that was about to tip into resentment and bodily sensations in the forms of sore throat and general lethargy.  When I tuned in I could see clearly that I had overcommitted and spread myself too thin.  I could also see that I wasn’t getting a sense of freedom and joy any more from these activities as I was doing things out of a sense of obligation completely disconnected from the values underlying my actions.  So I needed to make some uncomfortable moves for me, which was lightening my load by pulling back from some things.  Risking the potential to disappoint others in order to be true to my inner core values.
v Acknowledge that on the journey to loving ourselves more, when engaged in fully, we may often love ourselves less temporarily.  Personally when I fully showed up to who I was- warts and all- I found this difficult.  I often found more reasons to reject myself that to accept myself.  To be willing to recognize and acknowledge this- being accepting of my non-acceptance of myself was the first important step.  Wherever you are currently is the perfect place to start putting loving fluid into your tank so you can go that extra mile, or maybe even before you can take that first step in that direction.  

We are each gifted in a unique and important way.  It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own light.  ~Mary Dunbar

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

How do I know when I'm Mindfully Overcoming Thinking Traps?

“No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear...the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away.”  ~ Pema Chödrön

Thought defusion isn’t working for me.  I’m not feeling better.  This is a common barrier that arises when people start to practice and apply thought defusion on a regular basis.  At first, people are simply curious to see what will happen.  They have no expectations.  Overtime though if we become used to having a particular distancing and calming effect of defusion- we can start to expect this.  And we’re none too happy when this doesn’t happen.

I would be lying to you if I said that I didn’t enjoy when I feel some sense of relief when I apply defusion after a period of being extremely hooked by some unhelpful thoughts.  I often have to remind myself, and others, that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is all about living better rather than feeling better.  This can be such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around.  We are in a “feel good” society as the opening quote by Pema Chödrön illustrates so beautifully. 

We have years and years of conditioning that tells us that fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration, guilt and anger are “bad”.  Conversely happiness, surprise and excitement are “good”.  If we look at the nine basic emotions, as Dr. Russ Harris does in his best-selling book The Happiness Trap, we will soon realize that we are hoping to feel one third of our emotions 100% of the time.  A very clear recipe for disaster.  

I would like to share a very common barrier that arises for my clients, group and workshop attendees.  And the best way to overcome this barrier is for me to ask you a question.  If you would like the more entertaining version, which involves me singing unhelpful thoughts to the tune of Happy Birthday, then you can click here.

Here’s the scenario. 
Both Ann and Mary have social anxiety.  They both get hooked by the thought “I might have a panic attack” before they go to any event.  They are both learning to do thought defusion as a way of overcoming their common thinking traps.  They both value relationships and would really like to reconnect with old friends who they have lost contact with as they have been buying into their anxious thoughts and moving further and further away from who and where they want to be.

Ann decides to do defusion by saying the thought “I’ll have a panic attack” into the Talking Tom App and finds it really funny hearing it back.  She starts laughing and immediately feels better.  She decides to stay in and enjoy the feeling of not being anxious.

Mary decides to do defusion by singing her thought “I’ll have a panic attack” along to the tune of Happy Birthday.  Afterwards, she feels really bad.  If anything, she feels worse than she did before she did the defusion.  However, taking the time to do the exercise gave her a chance to reconnect to her values of relationships and connection so she decides to go out to meet her friend even though she still has the thought and continues to feel anxious.

Which person do you think did thought defusion from an ACT perspective?  Which one moved closer towards her values?  This is often easier to see for others than it is for us to see for ourselves. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Mindfully Overcoming Thinking Traps

“We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds.”
~ Pema Chödrön

I recognize that I am wasting my time fighting a battle that I can’t win but how do I stop?  This is a very common question I am asked in my role as Counseling Psychologist.  And a question that I have certainly asked myself, more than once.  In my last post Two Common Thinking Traps, I looked at two common traps that the vast majority of us get caught up in.  Thought fusion is when we get completely hooked by the monsters in our mind.  And that is all that we can see- monsters, only monsters.  Thought suppression is akin to the “yellow jeep” effect- we are trying so hard to not think about something that this becomes the primary focus of our attention.  For a more in depth description of these common traps, please take a look at my previous post Two Common Thinking Traps. 

In this post, we will be looking at ways that you can start to unhook yourself from this never-ending battle with the monsters of your mind.  This isn't about getting rid of your monsters, nor is it about feeling better.  If either of these two strategies worked I’m guessing you wouldn’t be sitting reading this now.  This approach is more around how can you learn to cultivate the skills of mindfulness and compassion towards yourself and your monsters while also being willing to do what it takes to create and live the life you want to live.

The strategies I share here come from an evidence-based therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or Training, (ACT).  I will share three classic defusion strategies that you can try and I have accompanying MP3 audio files to make it easier for you to practice this key skill at home.

Words of Warning- please be aware of the “deep end effect” where people choose something too evocative to start off learning a skill and inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot.  And please also be aware of the “yellow jeep effect”, which happens when you do these exercises in an attempt to make the thought go away.  This usually results in you thinking the though even more than you did before.  If you notice you get caught in either of these traps, first give yourself credit for spotting these common traps we all fall into and then come back to the exercise with an air of childlike curiosity.

Here is a link to the two audio files if you would prefer to be guided through audio.

Ways to Overcome Thinking Traps

  1. Put the phrase “I'm having the thought that” before the thought you’re struggling with.  For example, if you’re struggling with the thought “I’m not good enough”, then saying “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough” either out loud or in your minds eye.
  2. You can expand on this by then putting the phrase “I notice I’m having the thought that” before your thought e.g. “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.
  3. And if you really want to go another layer again, thirdly putting the phrase “I’m aware that I’m noticing I’m having the thought that” before your thought e.g. “I’m aware that I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.

Simply notice if you’re any more or less hooked in the struggle against your monsters now after doing this exercise. 

There are some ACT classic exercises that sound a little wacky or zany when you hear them for the first time.  They are grounded in scientific research though and the purpose isn’t to ridicule or demean your thoughts in any way.  Rather the aim is to look at your thoughts from a different perspective.  If you’d like to try this out, here are some strategies you can try.  I would suggest doing these strategies with thoughts that are not overly evocative for you.

  1. Close over your eyes or fix your gaze at the floor.  Bring your favorite cartoon character to mind.  Now imagine the cartoon character saying your thought out loud with all of their usual mannerisms.  Simply notice what that’s like for you.
  2. Use the Talking Tom Smart Phone App and say your thought into the phone and then mindfully listen to Talking Tom repeating your thought back to you in his voice.  Simply become aware of what this feels like for you. 
  3. The last strategy I’ll share with you today is the Happy Birthday strategy.  Take three mindful connected breaths.  Now imagine singing your thought along to the tune of Happy Birthday in your minds eye.  Gently notice what this feels like. 

There are many thought defusion strategies.  There isn’t one particular strategy that works for everyone.  Although, most people will find one that works for them.  I will share more defusion strategies in the future.  Hope you found some of this useful.  In my next post, I will share how you know when defusion works or doesn’t work from an ACT perspective.  There will be an audio in my next post that requires me to sound a little silly.  Just wanted to give you the heads up. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Two Common Thinking Traps

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

I, for one, can get really trapped with my mind, by my mind, and in my mind sometimes.  Even that sentence alone puts my head into a bit of a spin.  When I first came across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) over a decade ago I was somewhat shocked to discover that I seemed to spend the majority of my time in one of these two common thinking traps.  I’d like to share these two common traps with you now.

One of the things we know from psychological research is that we remember relatively little of what we hear and see.  However, we remember consistently more of what we do.  So if this is something you’re truly interested in and you would like to remember so you can apply this in your life- I’d like to invite you to do something to illustrate what I’m talking about.  Put your hands in front of you and imagine that these hands represent a thought that you get hooked by.  Most of us have some version of the “I’m not good enough” thought.  I know that I, personally, have many versions of this thought at various times.  I’m not smart/attractive/slim/reliable/accomplished enough. 

So imagine that your hands represent whatever thought you’d like to work with and gradually start bringing your hands closer and closer to your eyes.  Until your hands, representing this thought, are completely covering your eyes.  Simply notice what this feels like.  Try to look around the room.  Notice what you can and can’t see.  Check in to see if this in any way resembles physically what it feels like for you psychologically when you get completely hooked by your thoughts?  This is the first thinking trap, which is known as “thought fusion”- essentially I look at the world through the lens of this thought. 

What kinds of things are you more or less likely to do when you relate to your thoughts in this way?  Do you move closer towards or further away from who and where you want to be?  The vast majority of us, myself included, end up moving further away from who and where we want to be when we get completely hooked by unhelpful thoughts.  It’s useful to recognize that this is part of being human.  Absolutely every single one of us makes mistakes.  And as Brene Brown would put it- we are all still worthy of connection.

Now let’s take a look at the second thinking trap, which the quote that opens this post alludes to.  Try not to think about a yellow jeep.  Try not to think of you having a yellow jeep.  Try not to think of me having a yellow jeep.  Try not to think of a yellow jeep being the next mode of transport you see.  And just become aware that even if you’re having the thought “I’m doing well, I’m not thinking about the yellow jeep.”  How did you know that?

Okay, so it’s probably not going to have any major impact on our lives whether we think about a yellow jeep.  However, what if the thought was “don’t think you’re depressed/anxious” or “don’t think about your deceased loved one/ex-partner”.  Can you see the potential pitfalls?  We end up getting more and more entrenched in a cycle that we were essentially trying to avoid in the first place. 
Here is a link to an audio file where I summarize the main two thinking traps that we can fall into. 

In my next blog post, Overcoming Thinking Traps, I will give you strategies that have been supported by psychological research to help you to unhook from unhelpful thoughts.