Every now and again, you come across a light bulb moment in your life, when your chaotic inner thoughts and hunches are suddenly given a lease of life, and you can confidently reorganise them into a nice acronym. Admittedly, this usually happens in freshers’ week at university when we are high on our newly found independence and the fumes from the anatomy dissection room.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I totally identified with, and connected to, a psychological therapy I read about whilst preparing for a teaching session.
ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) works on the principle that most psychological suffering is caused by experiential avoidance, and strategies are taught to face this suffering head on. In other words, it is therapy based on the well known serenity prayer – to accept what is out of your personal control and commit to action that will improve your life.
The reason this resonates so well with me is because I have increasingly wondered why, as a society, we have become less and less tolerant of any type of physical or mental pain. Admittedly, we are a long way on from the founders of stoicism in Ancient Greek times, but there is much we can learn from them when we reach out for a pill for every ill.
The principles of stoicism are self-control, calm, acceptance of fate and indifference to fame and fortune. It is the acceptance of normal human emotion that modern society has the most trouble with. It’s as if we are trying to cleanse ourselves of the feelings of fear, loneliness and grief and emerge unscathed in this sanitised society.
Health professionals are, in part, to blame for this medicalization of normal emotion, by accepting a culture of medical dependency and legitimising it with sick notes. An ACT therapist would acknowledge the emotion, normalise it and encourage strategies to face the pain in order to move on.
So the next time your patient asks you for a prescription to help get through their redundancy or divorce, ask yourself – ‘How would I feel in this situation?’ The chances are you would feel very similar. Yet the pressures placed upon us by society mean that it is almost impossible to resist the desire to alleviate pain and distress; even if it is non-pathological.
Unfortunately, the truth is that life sucks sometimes and we just have to ‘Accept’ it, face our pain head on and commit to a better life.
Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol