“I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.” – Mother Theresa

Problems great and small can seem overwhelming when they are not mindfully examined and understood.  You can take specific problem-solving actions that will result in problems becoming more manageable.  When problems remain unexamined and arouse intense emotions, it is often quite difficult to overcome them.  Even the most complex problems can become more manageable when broken down into smaller “bite-sized” chunks.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encourages you to take an active approach to dissecting problems.  Rather than becoming fused with your thoughts and emotions or “checking out” through experiential avoidance, choose to take a problem-solving approach.  Think about a current life problem that you are facing as you go through this ACT exercise.

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Exercise

  • Summarize in one or two sentences the nature of the problem or challenge that you are currently facing.
  • Describe in one or two sentences how it affects your life and what it stops you from doing or being.

No matter what type of problem you are currently facing, ACT conceptualizes almost all problems as having certain common characteristics and themes.  In fact, there are often four major elements that contribute to most problems in life.

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy: Elements that Add to Problems

As you read through the four major elements, write down as much as you can about how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors contribute to or worsen the problem that you are currently facing.

(1) Entanglement with thoughts

  • What memories, fears, doubts, or negative feelings do you dwell on or become fused with that are related to the problem?
  • What negative thoughts or negative self-talk do you allow to hold you back or otherwise prevent you from solving the problem?
  • What are the pros and cons of being fused with these negative thoughts or feelings?  How do they serve you?
  • How would your experience with this problem be different if you were not “stuck” on these memories, fears, or doubts?

(2) Life-draining actions

  • What current thoughts, feelings, or behaviors do you engage in that serve to keep you “stuck” or make things worse in the long run?
  • How do these thoughts, feelings, or actions restrict your life or drain your physical, mental, or emotional energy?
  • What impact do these thoughts, feelings, or behaviors have on your work, school, or important relationships?
  • How do these life-draining thoughts, feelings, and actions maintain or worsen the problem?

(3) Struggle with feelings

  • What urges, thoughts, emotions, or sensations do you most struggle with (that are related to this current problem)?
  • What tactics do you typically employ to deal with these experiences?
  • How would you describe your typical experience of struggling with these impulses, thoughts, or feelings?
  • How would your experience with this problem be different if you chose to surrender and let go of this struggle?

(4) Avoiding challenging situations

  • What activities, situations, or people has this problem convinced you to stay away from?
  • What regular activities or relationships have you avoided as a result of your experience with this problem?
  • What events or obligations do you find yourself “putting off” as a result of your entanglement with this problem?
  • What are you really avoiding having to deal with?

Dissecting the problem fully is the first step towards managing it effectively.  In order to overcome obstacles, you must apply mindfulness and thoroughly examine what the problem is trying to tell you.  Problems can be motivating if you choose to look at them that way.  How will your life be less stressful if you stop avoiding issues you would rather not deal with?  Problems in life are inevitable.  It is the manner in which you choose to address them (or not address them) that determines your happiness and success.

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Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: power of the sun by spacepleb/ CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. MK Murzyn on November 16, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Laura, this writing is amazing. I have thought many times how various problems add to the complexity of life situations. However, I could not quite get the thoughts and feelings into words. Thank you for this well thought out writing.

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