Many of us are absorbed in an endless, self-defeating rat race. The nature of modern society has instilled in us a “winner/loser” mindset, and its systems highly prioritise external rewards and punishments as measures of our personal success and social worth. This oftentimes forces us to shift our perception of self-worth from the satisfying efforts of personal endeavour, to the critical imperative of achieving yardsticks of success defined by the rest of society. When we are constantly striving to win a race while focusing on external factors largely beyond our design or control, we’re surely putting ourselves at a disadvantageous position.
The overwhelming pressure to conform to societal expectations, or to outrun others in the race of life, can make one particularly susceptible to depression if negative emotions are not managed well. As we aim for perfection – as most people would – we need to understand that total perfection is unattainable. The more we believe that we have failed to reach a certain state of “perfection”, the greater the extent to which we experience low self-esteem, self-hatred, and depression. Depression can be extremely debilitating to one’s mental health. Apart from the diminishing enthusiasm for life and self-esteem, depressed individuals may self-isolate and pull away from their social circles, making it all the more difficult for them to get the help they need.
Perhaps one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is to accept who we are. Self-acceptance might just be the antidote to excessive self-resentment and discontentment. It is important that we fight against influences that force us to conform to certain standards rather than to accept ourselves. Presented below are a couple of talk therapy methods that we use to guide you towards achieving that.
What is ACT?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of talk therapy suitable for the treatment of individuals displaying symptoms of depression. As its name suggests, it’s core aims are to help individuals accept whatever is beyond their control, and to commit to actions or habits that will serve to enrich their quality of life. ACT helps us to clarify what is genuinely important to us (i.e our values), and thus assists us to set more meaningful and life-enriching goals. Along the way, it also guides us to practise useful emotion-coping strategies such as mindfulness in order to equip us with skills to handle negative emotions effectively and healthily. While the number of ACT sessions may differ for each individual, the benefits acquired by clients are largely similar:
Learning to be fully present in the “here-and-now”, and to stop obsessive worrying over the past or future
Become aware of what they are avoiding (be it consciously or subconsciously), and to increase self-awareness
Learning to enjoy greater balance and emotional stability, and to be less upset by unpleasant experiences
Learning to observe thoughts such that one does not feel held captive by them, and to develop openness
To develop self-acceptance and self-compassion
Clarifying one’s personal values and taking the appropriate action towards his goals.
You may be wondering, does it really work? The good news is that ACT is considered to be an empirically validated treatment by the American Psychological Association (APA). Through program evaluation data, research has also shown that Veterans who completed ACT treatment phases displayed a significant decrease in depression in addition to improved self-awareness and a better quality of life.
What is DBT?
Apart from ACT, another alternative for the treatment of depression is Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). While originally used for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, DBT has since been adapted to treat other mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A type of cognitive behavioural therapy, DBT aims to help individuals who struggle with emotional-regulation and are exhibiting maladaptive or self-destructing behaviours. It is not an uncommon sight for persons with depression to engage in substance-abuse or self-harm. As such, DBT helps to build on distress tolerance, such that people who struggle with these are able to handle negative life-circumstances better and to avoid falling back on such devastating coping methods.
DBT can be considered a holistic approach to depression treatment. Apart from tackling maladaptive behaviours, it encourages a shift in the clients’ perspective on life, for it equips them with the necessary skills to cope with intense emotions. In short, it empowers you to cope with them with a positive outlook. DBT also recognises that interpersonal effectiveness is key, and hence it strives to help these troubled individuals to reconnect and enhance their relationships with others.
ACT Versus DBT
ACT and DBT are both highly effective methods of treatment for depression. Both forms of psychotherapy allow for individuals to tackle the notion of suffering head-on, and to avoid suppressing undesirable or uncomfortable feelings. Both promote psychological flexibility, and encourage people to behave in a conscious or effective way towards their life-choosing directions. The practice of mindfulness is also a commonality between both therapy methods, and it plays a crucial role in ensuring that persons are well aware of their values, goals and emotions.
However, overlaps between the two are considerably limited too. The main differences between ACT and DBT would be that DBT leans towards a more educative approach while ACT emphasises an experiential one. Perspective wise, DBT adopts a biosocial perspective on behaviour while that of ACT is contextual. Moreover, the underlying philosophy behind each form of therapy also differs. DBT philosophy is dialectical (i.e using logical reasoning and analysis), while the philosophy behind ACT is functional contextualism. With that said, the analysis of clients’ experiences, the use of languages as well as experiential exercises will be different for each type of therapy.
Originating from the Greek word ‘wound’, trauma is used to describe the unwelcome recollection of disturbing experiences – those which can cause one to relive horrifying, spine-chilling moments of a disaster or a tragic event which leaves a deep mark on a person’s life.
Flashbacks can be particularly frightening for people with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a delayed stress reaction, where an individual involuntarily re-experiences the mental and physical responses (i.e emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects) that accompanied the past trauma. Symptoms can be particularly intrusive, presenting themselves in the form of nightmares and emotional distress upon remembering upsetting memories, and even certain physical reactivity after the exposure to traumatic reminders. Additionally, depending on the severity of one’s condition, the negative alterations in mood and behaviours may vary. Alterations may comprise of (non-exhaustive):
Exaggerated self-blame or others for causing the trauma, and a sense of invalidation
Decreased interest in activities
Increased irritability or aggression
Hyper-vigilance, excessive paranoia or heightened startle reaction
Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
Risky or destructive behaviour (can include the development of maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse)
A sense of isolation
Avoiding trauma-related stimuli / reminders of the traumatic event (including places, activities, people, thoughts or feelings that may bring back unwanted memories).
Unlike what most would perceive, PTSD does not solely affect individuals who have been through a tragic event personally. Apart from the direct exposure to a trauma, people can also develop PTSD through the witnessing of the event, or upon learning that a close one was exposed to the trauma. The indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma in the course of professional duties (such as first responders or paramedics) can also make one prone to developing PTSD. With the effects lasting a lifetime for some individuals, PTSD can be debilitating to one’s mental health, robbing one of joy and freedom.
This is where Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) comes in. DBT is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioural treatment that can provide strong empirical support for individuals struggling with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), and others. Intended to help persons with complex issues that place them at high risks of suicide or other self-destructive behaviours, DBT focuses on imparting the knowledge and skills to cope with PTSD and trauma reminders. Moreover, it also aims to assure the generalisation and application of skills learnt to the environment beyond the treatment setting, as well as to ensure that dysfunctional behaviours are not inadvertently reinforced. DBT consists of four stages, with the first two being the standard, essential stages for all clients.
Stage 1: Aiming to Achieve Better Stability and Behavioural Control
It is safe to say that most of the work is done at stage 1, where clients work hand-in-hand with their therapists to target behavioural dyscontrol and to address the chaos within them. When clients first take on DBT, they are often said to be at their lowest point in their lives. As such, stage 1 focuses on achieving control over life-threatening behaviours, therapy-interfering behaviours, as well as other factors that are causing a decline in their quality of life. At the same time, it will serve to increase one’s behavioural skills which can include mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness , emotion regulation, distress tolerance and self-management. In short, this helps the individual to stabilise, and to reduce the frequency of impulsive and emotional outbursts.
However, stage 1 alone is insufficient. Although there are reductions in unwanted behaviours arising from the traumatic experience, these people may not have perfect control over their condition yet, and thus may still feel depressed, and anxious along with other PTSD symptoms.
In this stage, trauma-focused treatment is engaged, and past traumatic experiences are safely explored. Therapists will help clients to emotionally process them by approaching (gradually) the avoided trauma-related memories, as well as to help them continue applying the skills learnt in stage 1. With that said, the main objective of stage 2 is to discourage the client from silencing and burying the emotional pain.
Subsequently, this makes it easier for therapists to assess the severity of the problems, the relationships between the issues faced and to determine the hierarchy of needs based on the client’s goals.
Stage 3: Achieving Ordinary Happiness and Tackling Unhappiness
Upon ensuring that the individual is no longer suffocating under the same weight of fear that they once were, stage 3 aims to maintain progress and reasonable goal-setting. This establishes greater stability and addresses any other remaining problems in living. As the clients’ previous undesirable behaviours may have disrupted other aspects of their lives, stage 3 will also focus on improving relationships, and increasing valued daily activities.
Stage 4: Regaining the Capacity for Sustained Joy
Lastly, some people will choose to engage in stage 4 to find comfort in and to work towards spiritual fulfilment. This mainly helps to tackle any feelings of incompleteness as well as to ensure one’s capability to maintain an ongoing capacity for happiness.
DBT is an efficacious prototypic phase-based treatment of PTSD as it is a support-oriented approach to treatment, helping individuals to identify their own strengths and then building upon them to improve the person’s outlook on their life. By improving one’s ability to cultivate emotional regulation, increasing one’s ability to handle challenging emotions, and coping with conflict properly through interpersonal effectiveness, DBT can help traumatised individuals develop invaluable life skills that will allow them to achieve an overall improved quality of life.
Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2017). Psychology: Core Concepts (8th ed.). Pearson. (Accessed 22/11/2020)
Wagner, A. (2015). Applications of dialectical behaviour therapy to the treatment of trauma-related problems. Portland DBT Institute. https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/Wagner_MC.pdf (Accessed 22/11/2020)