As you might have guessed, there is not just one pathway of change, but many; each supporting people differently in different contexts. The surprising finding, however, is that one single set of skills proved far more commonly effective than anything else. It was more frequently found than self-esteem; support from friends, family, or your therapist; and even whether or not you have negative, dysfunctional thoughts. The most common pathway of change was your psychological flexibility and mindfulness skills. This small set of processes accounted for nearly 45% of everything we know about why therapy works, using the demanding criterion of a successful mediational analysis. When concepts were added that were very similar to psychological flexibility and mindfulness (e.g., self-compassion, behavioral activation, anxiety sensitivity) it soared to nearly 55% of all the successful mediational findings.
The Three Pillars of Psychological Flexibility
We can now say with certainty that psychological flexibility is the single most commonly founded skill of importance to your mental health and emotional well-being. Whether you suffer from anxiety, depression, addiction, or any other kind of mental distress; psychological flexibility helps you deal with these issues more effectively, and move your life in a meaningful direction.
So what does this skill entail? It’s best to think of it as three skills in one.
Pillar #1 Awareness
The first pillar of psychological flexibility is awareness. This means noticing what happens in the present moment: What thoughts show up? Which feelings? And what other sensations can you notice in your body? It also means noticing these things from a more spiritual part of you – your witness or noticing sense of self.
And all of that from the part of you that connects you in consciousness to others.
Pillar #2 Openness
The second pillar of psychological flexibility is openness. This means allowing difficult thoughts and painful feelings – exactly as they are, without them necessarily having to change in any way or form before you can move ahead toward the kind of life you want to live. This part is counterintuitive and often hard to grasp, because people tend to seek therapy precisely to get rid of their negative thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, the mind does not work this way. Generally, the harder you try to eliminate pain, the more it will control your life. Instead, openness is about dropping the internal fight, allowing thoughts and feelings to be what they are – merely thoughts and feelings – without them needing to control you. Ironically, in that open posture, thoughts and feelings often do change in a more positive direction.
Pillar #3 Valued Engagement
The third and final pillar of psychological flexibility is valued engagement. This means knowing what matters to you, and taking steps in this direction. It involves being in contact with your goals – objectives you want to reach or achieve – and your values – those personal qualities you choose to manifest and be guided by, regardless of a specific outcome. These matters need to be freely chosen, rather than being forced on by others, or mindlessly followed out of custom. But once you have clarity about what matters, you can take action to build sustainable habits that make your life more about what gives it meaning.
And we now know a major part of the answer to the question “why does therapy work?” Very often it works because it establishes greater awareness, openness, and values-based engagement in life.
When you are frustrated at work, you can notice your frustration, allow it to be, and still take steps to complete your assignment. When you are in a fight with your spouse, you can acknowledge the pain, embrace it as a learning opportunity, and build plans to move forward stronger together. Psychological flexibility empowers you to stop fighting yourself, and orient your life in a meaningful direction. It is accessible to you right here and now. And just like any other skill, the more you practice it, the better you will become at it.
The history of science and human development shows that when we have a clear target, we can as a human community learn how to move it. Psychological flexibility and mindfulness are not the only processes of importance in creating mental health but they are the most commonly significant ones.
That gives us all a target for change.
About the author:
Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., is Nevada Foundation Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada Reno and found online: Steven C. Hayes website for free ACT materials, Facebook, Twitter