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How I used ACT skills to help my surgery experience

When speaking with clients about some of the mental health skills we run through in sessions, I often emphasise the need that we practice them whenever we can as we’re often faced by many situations which may challenge our sense of equilibrium and carry us off into worry or anxiety throughout the day.

Thinking about this, I thought I’d share something from my life this week which gave me a few different opportunities to put these skills into practice myself.

This week I had a routine operation.

Nothing too serious, (thanks of asking) but not something I was really excited about.

It’s at times like this when all the practice from a mindfully accepting approach comes in handy.

There can be a lot of fear around hospitals, operations and generally being cut open and our minds can run away with us. Will I be OK? Will anything go wrong? Will I die? Dramatic I know, but most of us go there..

Throughout the process of getting to the hospital and preparing fro the op, in order to manage this fear and any doubts that I had, I had the support of some of the skills I use in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) framework to help

First up, I was aware of my minds tendency to shoot off and threat monitor, analysing all the the ways that things that could go wrong. This is a helpful (and sometimes unhelpful!) bit of our brains design to help keep us alive and away from life-threatening or risky situations. Our brain innately wants to help us solve the problem and then direct us to take the actions to make us safe. However mentally assessing the danger and risk or forecasting the future can have the effect of driving up our anxiety levels if we’re unable to take any action.

By using the mindfulness skills from an ACT approach, when these thoughts pop into my head, I was able to acknowledge the thoughts that popped up (I could die), identify the feeling (fear), then reign my attention back to the present moment and what I was doing. I felt I was able to stay calm and connected to the present moment, reading my latest book or chatting to the others on the ward.

This was not distraction as I was acknowledging the fear, not trying to push away, accepting it, not pouring fuel on the panic fire and taking an active decision to reconnect with what was around me.

This approach allowed me to be very present and calm all the way into the theatre, laughing and joking with the excellent surgical about my nice new hairless chest! I even felt calm enough that I said I didn’t think I’d need a big painkiller but the doctor dosed me up anyway and I was off. Funnily enough, that’s when my mindfulness skills ceased to be of so much use! A direct example for me of how using drugs to cope with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is so effective.

Once out, the recovery stage has allowed me another set of opportunities to practice these mindfulness skills this week. Obviously there´s been and bit of pain in my body (shoulder) where the operation took place. I’ve had less movement and have been taken out of lots of my normal routines.

I´m a big fan of routines and stability. However, I also feel that it’s not helpful to be too rigid in our routines and psychological flexibility is one of the key benefits of incorporating a mindful approach to life.

Psychological flexibility can provide us the space to make a different choice rather than the automatic.

I have rested and recovered, listened to my body developing a gentler daily movement routine. There were aches and pains which were uncomfortable, but once again, I acknowledged the frustration that I can’t do what I would like to, but taking committed action towards things in my life that are important to me. Like getting out in the sun for some fresh air when I can and it has been shining.

Obviously, I hope this recovery process is to be pretty quick and I´ll be back to doing other activities soon, but if I can’t, the tools I have, help me develop the ability to appreciate and savour what is available.

Tools from ACT and other mindfulness based therapy approaches, can help us manage the daily difficulties we have in our lives as well as the really big stuff too. We can work out ways to flexibly adapt when things inevitably get in the way and obstruct our path.

When I have these experiences, they always remind me that it’s worth practicing these skills on a daily basis, as when there’s a big life event, as there will be, I´ll be more able to adapt. After all, you can’t perform at your best if you’re unprepared.


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