Welcome back to One Good Thing, Stylist’s Sunday series that asks experts in mental health for the one good thing we can all do to boost our wellbeing.
This week we’re chatting with Dr Meg Arroll, a chartered psychologist, scientist and author of the new book Tiny Traumas: When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong, But Nothing Feels Quite Right, about her One Good Thing.
Hi Dr Arroll! What’s the One Good Thing you’d recommend people try?
My One Good Thing is a technique I developed called the AAA approach, which stands for Awareness, Acceptance and Action.
Interesting. And how does that work?
It starts by cultivating a sense of awareness. We tend to operate on autopilot so much of the time, driven by emotions which are often based on past experiences, major life events and ‘tiny t’ traumas – the smaller psychological nicks and scrapes that we acquire over a lifetime but tend to dismiss as not being bad enough to warrant attention.
Just as debris will eventually and insidiously clog your pipes, tiny t traumas have a cumulative effect on our wellbeing over time. Think of them as emotional silt: they’re sludgy, uncomfortable, weigh us down and turn into sediment that shows up as maladaptive behavioural patterns such as high functioning anxiety and sleep difficulties.
However, once we are aware of our own constellation of tiny t traumas and other factors that affect our mental health, it’s possible to develop a profound sense of acceptance. Then, any actions can be tailored to the issues you’re facing, so you can create a psychological tool kit personalised to you.
What makes the AAA approach so special?
This approach has been developed from my decades as researcher and practitioner, so it is based both on sound scientific evidence and what I see every day in my practice and life in general.
Many years ago I started to see a common pattern in my clinic, where people had tried many – and I mean tons – of techniques and methods to improve their mental health. But it was quite chaotic because there was no clear rationale, mainly because we all just desperately want to feel better.
I also began to see that many of us go straight into action and using techniques before the vital psychological groundwork is laid. Therefore, I wanted to structure a method that would work for a range of different situations, but with a simple, practical process.
Amazing! So what kind of benefits can we expect from the AAA approach?
Once we have our own mental health tool kit, we can choose techniques and coping strategies that will help us with both tiny t traumas and major life events – no one gets through life unscathed, but we can use our experiences to best serve us in the future. In this way, the AAA approach strengthens our ‘psychological immune system’ so that we have robust emotional antibodies that can come into force the next time a challenging situation, trigger or threat throws itself in our path.
Far too much of the time we live reactively, and this can cause a great deal of ‘shoulda, woulda, couldas’. By being more intentional in our approach to mental health, we can turn the tables and respond to the world around us, rather than being beholden to our external and internal microworlds.
That all sounds pretty great to us. But are there any common pitfalls of the AAA approach we should try and avoid?
Skipping acceptance is by far the most common pitfall I see, which is understandable as it is usually the most challenging part of the approach. If we’re still in an internal battle, a sense of confusion, guilt or shame shows us that we haven’t truly come to terms with what’s happened in our lives. If this is the case, concentrate on this stage of the process before trying to move on to action.
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How do you incorporate the AAA approach into your life?
If I am starting to push away my emotions or engage in maladaptive behavioural patterns (for me this is overwork and not moving my body around enough, eg exercise goes out the window), I do my best to explore what’s happening with curiosity rather than criticism (awareness).
I then like to use the coaching question, “What would your 80-year-old self think about this?” to help me on the way to acceptance, and finally, I use a gratitude list every single night with my partner as an action from positive psychology.
This is not to say that it’s always easy – but life was never really meant to be easy. However, it can be purposeful and full of countless joyful moments.
And last but by no means least, how has the AAA approach helped you personally?
In every way – whether personally, at work, or with my family and friends. I exited a destructive marriage, accepted that some long-term health conditions would change my family plans forever and actioned a new phase of my life by giving up some draining and unfulfilling areas of my work and selling my house.
I basically pried the pegs out of my former life to allow space for something new and more aligned with my values. However, I’m still very much in this action stage, so I’ll have to keep you posted on the next exciting steps – but these dreams do include stillness, open air and donkeys!
Tiny Traumas: When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong, But Nothing Feels Quite Right by Dr Meg Arroll (Thorsons) is out now
Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.
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