As a pioneering psychologist, Prof Steven C. Hayes owes much of what he’s learned about the human mind to his early struggles with panic attacks and anxiety.
In the late 1970s, he was an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in the United States. On one occasion, a faculty discussion had turned into a fiery debate when the young academic tried to make a point. He was unable to speak and, as his heart pounded in his chest, he was convinced he was having a heart attack.
Some 40 years later, Prof Hayes is now recognised as a leading figure in behavioural psychology, having developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) after decades of research that included writing 45 books and 630 research articles to date.
In a nutshell, ACT helps people to stop struggling by suppressing or avoiding difficult experiences and emotions. From there, people commit towards behavioural changes that are in line with their values and the kind of life they want to lead.
The approach has proven effective in helping people deal with problems such as work-related stress, anxiety, depression, psychosis, chronic pain, and substance addiction.
In his latest book, A Liberated Mind: How To Pivot Toward What Matters (reviewed here), Prof Hayes, 71, discusses the development of ACT and talks candidly about his own struggles with anxiety and the lessons he learned in dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions.
The book also offers a wealth of practical guidance that readers can apply to their own challenges, as the author shares helpful insights into why our minds often seem to work against rather than for us.
In an email interview with StarLifestyle, Prof Hayes – who is currently a clinical psychologist and Nevada Foundation professor at the University of Nevada – said that A Liberated Mind was written to help people get to grips with the changes in our modern world.
He added, “It’s very relevant to the challenges that we face today, where on so many metrics our young people are showing signs of distress, and there are disconnections occurring in our society.
“In our families and small groups we’re part of, it’s obvious that we’re going to have to create modern minds for this modern world, in which we’re constantly exposed by the computer that’s in your pocket to pain, to comparison, and to judgement.”
In his book, Prof Hayes describes how many of our struggles stem from our perspective on life, as we treat it as a problem to be solved rather than a process to be lived.
“There’s this mode-of-mind of problem solving that emerges when you’re around age three or four. You begin to be able to compare things mentally without touching or trying. It is really important to say, ‘If I do this, I’ll get that, which is better than that’ to any kind of problem we need to solve.
“But this is a relatively recent thing. Your dog or cat doesn’t do this. The bunnies don’t do it. The deer, the eagles, all of the animals who do quite well on the planet don’t do it – just us.”
The ability to process the past and anticipate the future, thanks to our development of language, has meant that humans have been able to build, plan, and create the amazing advancements, resources and pleasures we know today. But that hasn’t come without a cost.
In our ability to think, recall and anticipate, we often become trapped by what Prof Hayes calls “psychological rigidity”, which refers to our tendency to be bound by rules, expectations and patterns of behaviour – even when they’re not helpful.
In A Liberated Mind, Prof Hayes introduces how we can become “psychologically flexible” in a way that helps free ourselves from unhelpful rigidity and stops us from running away from our suffering.
Talking about the benefits of “pivoting” toward painful experiences, Prof Hayes believes that doing so helps us to learn what we care about because “we only hurt where we care”.
“If you were betrayed in love, you might have a sixth sense that something’s not going right, if you’re open to your feelings. But if you do what most of us do, which is try to close down that sense of pain and vulnerability after we’d been hurt, you’re more likely to get into a relationship with someone who will just hurt you again.
“So being open to our past pains allows us to be open to the sensation systems that are present, and to learn from our history that allows us to bring more wisdom to the present.”
That sounds much easier said than done! What can we do to flip our natural tendency to run?
“I think we have to learn to be open, to be aware and to be actively engaged. Open means that we are able to feel our feelings, notice our sensations, notice our thoughts, without entanglement or needless avoidance,” the professor says.
“Being aware means coming into the present moment and … doing it with a sense of consciousness that allows you to attend in a way that’s flexible, fluid and voluntary to what’s of importance here.”
Prof Hayes suggests that our preference to run from suffering is, on the surface, reasonable and logical; however, referring to his own struggles with anxiety, he found that the more he ran, the more fearful the anxiety became: “There is not a way out of our pain, but there is a way in to being whole and free with our pain.”
“You’re not going to run from your own history because there is no delete button in the human nervous system. So you need to find a way to carry your own history with you in a way that’s kind and empowering.
“That is what panic taught me. It was one of the great blessings in my life that I developed a panic disorder, so that I had an opportunity to learn that early enough that I could take my life in a different direction.”
In A Liberated Mind, Prof Hayes describes the “dictator within” – that inner voice that tells us how to be, how to feel, and how to behave. It’s also happiest when reminding us when we’re not good enough, and pointing out when we’re not getting things right.
When asked what his hopes were for the book, Prof Hayes says, “I hope that people will see themselves in these pages, and will see their deepest yearnings here, and will realise, ‘I can get what I really want, but only if I rein in the dictator within, which has been telling me that the only way I can get what I want is by doing the very things that keep me from getting that, year after year.’”