ACT Therapy and Trichotillomania

ACT Therapy � TLC Retreat Notes
Credit Sue Price notes – TLC Conference Session

TLC Retreat Session September 2002
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Douglas Woods, Ph.D.

ACT is an acceptance-based, behaviorally oriented therapy.  It was first proposed by Hayes et. al. (1999), but I believe Dr. Woods is the first to study treating ttm with it.

ACCEPTANCE: allowing urges, emotions, thoughts and feelings to occur without attempts to control them.

Acceptance does NOT mean a hopeless acceptance of the fact you have TTM.

Why work on acceptance? He conducted an online study which showed that pullers who are less accepting of private events tend to have stronger urges to pull and more severe pulling. [I found the concept of “private events” confusing at first. From what I can tell, it’s anything that happens inside you that you experience privately. As he said: thoughts, feelings, emotions, urges].

People follow rules not experience. He cited a study where people played a slot machine that was rigged to never pay off for the player. The people who were told that the machine WOULD pay off eventually, played longer than the people who were not told anything. The point is, people follow rules over their experience.

Where this fits in with trich: the rule is, “if you feel bad, get rid of it.” This is what society teaches us. This works well in many situations (if the kids are too noisy, send them outside; if someone is tailgating you, change lanes, etc.).  But this does not work with private events such as feelings. Trying to just get rid of bad feelings, urges, etc. does not work long term. But we keep doing this anyway because that’s the rule we’ve been taught.

ACT breaks down rules by emphasizing experiential exercises over verbal rules. The idea is that the person accepts that while the rule they’ve been taught is “get rid of it”, their experience shows that this has not worked, and then they can learn a willingness to experience those private events. [Side note: the addiction book that I’ve found so helpful makes similar points: that our society teaches us that feeling bad is intolerable, to be avoided, and if you feel bad you must do something to stop feeling bad RIGHT AWAY. This is the kind of thinking that fosters addiction, and changing this way of thinking and being willing to FEEL bad is a major part of combating addiction.]

Steps to Acceptance

1. Creative Hopelessness
Focuses on getting the person to see that attempts to stop, alter or avoid private events such as thoughts, emotions or feelings have been unsuccessful. Pulling is often another way to avoid or control private events. He asked us to think about an uncomfortable private event that we’re dealing with right now. He asked how we tried to deal with it. The common answers people gave were: avoided thinking about it, distracting themselves from it, and denial. We confirmed that none of these things work long term in dealing with the private event. It comes back.

2. Willingness
Focuses on getting the participant to be willing to experience negative or uncomfortable private events. If trying to control private events is the problem, willingness to experience uncomfortable feelings may be a solution.

– Willingness is not the same as “wanting”. He had a “Joe the Bum” metaphor (acknowledging that “bum” is not PC.) Say you are having a party that all your neighbors are invited to, and everyone is having a great time. Then Joe the Bum shows up. You don’t want him there, nobody likes him, he’s dirty, he’s smelly. But if you spend your time trying to physically keep him out, you won’t be enjoying your party. But if you are WILLING to accept that he’s there and not fight it, even though you don’t WANT him there, you can still enjoy your party.

– Willingness is all or nothing

3. Diffusion
He said that even if urges etc. are not originally language-based, they become so because WE are language-based. (There was a lot of clinical stuff he went over making this point.) We need to understand language for what it is, and that words are powerful only because we let them be. This step is about de-literalizing private events. We did two exercises to illustrate this.

First he asked us what we associate with the word “milk”. We said white, cold, frothy, things like that. Then he has us say, out loud,”milkmilkmilkmilkmilkmilkmilk. . .” over and over. (Try it, it’s physically not easy to keep this up!) Picture an entire room of us saying it over and over, and he had us keep it up for what seemed like forever. When he finally stopped us, he said, “I bet you’re not thinking of that white frothy stuff anymore.”

The idea is that “milk” made us think of the white frothy stuff, but only because of what WE associate with that word. By repeating the word over and over, we de-literalized it. It became just a word, the letters m-i-l-k. Similarly, an urge that’s felt as “I need to pull” can be de-literalized by repeating “I need to pull I need to pull I need to pull” until they are just words, not something that must be acted on. Those words don’t have power unless we give it to them.

The second exercise is to imagine you are watching a parade and a band is marching by. Imagine that your thoughts, whatever’s bothering you, are written up on cards that the band members are carrying. And just watch those “thoughts on cards” go past you.  Acknowledge them but separate yourself from them.

4. Understanding the Self
Who are “you?” Who is your “self?”

– Conceptualized Self: who do we say we are? What do we stand for? How do we see ourselves? (we typically think of this as our only self, and defend it)

– Knowing Self: the “self” that is experiencing events as they are occurring

– Observing Self: the “self” that has always been and always will be. He made an analogy to a chessboard: I am the board, not the game that is happening on it. Whatever happens on the board does not have to affect me.

5. Valuing
– You have the ability to choose your behavior. You must choose to move in your valued direction.

– What do you value? What do you want your life to stand for?

– Need to make psychological room for private events while you move your life in the valued direction.
[I think an example of what he means by the last item is: a valued direction for me, is not pulling. By trying to move my life in that valued direction, I will have uncomfortable private events and I need to accept this and be ready for this.

He also said:
-Committed Action Invites Obstacles (disguised as private events)

– The Journey in the Valued Direction involves fear and action. So I take it as, anything I do to move my life in a direction I value(trich-related or not) can bring up private events that will be uncomfortable. He is saying “choose to move in your valued direction” while experiencing these private events.]

**The idea is to combine acceptance techniques with other behavior therapy procedures. A clinical study showed this is effective, based on five different measures of pretreatment and post treatment hair pulling.

For more info, this book is very helpful:

Trichotillomania: An ACT-enhanced Behavior Therapy Approach Therapist Guide (Treatments That Work), March 31, 2008, by Douglas W Woods and Michael P Twohig

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