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Mindfulness in Action

It can be tough to adjust to life with a serious health problem or a rare disease. Dr. Sarah Gulick helps patients enjoy life, even when they can’t control it.

man at the end of a dock on a lake

Dr. Sarah Gulick, a Philadelphia-based neuropsychologist, recently introduced organ transplant recipients to ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Someone who receives a transplant goes through a lot both physically and emotionally.

“One of the benefits of ACT is that individuals are encouraged to create and ultimately live meaningful lives, despite the pain that inevitably comes with life,” Gulick said. “We can still create a beautiful, meaningful life from the situation we have been given.”

The situation for transplant recipients often includes long hospitalizations, isolation and a lot of uncertainty. Patients and their caregivers often experience anxiety and depression. Gulick shared the ACT approach with transplant recipients during a webinar offered by Gift of Life Family House in Philadelphia.

What Is ACT?

In ACT, people use mindfulness techniques in combination with goal setting and skill building designed to help people overcome negative thoughts and change behavior.

Here’s how Gulick describes the approach. In choosing to ACT, we:

  • Accept our thoughts and emotions
  • Choose a valued direction
  • Take action

By increasing our awareness of our thoughts and emotions, we are able to open up to the beliefs we try to avoid, Gulick said.

“It is completely healthy to experience unpleasant thoughts and feelings from time to time, and trying to ignore or avoid them actually creates a larger problem and perpetuates the cycle of avoidance,” she said.

There can be much to confront for a transplant recipient. Financial and emotional distress, fatigue and family dynamics all can contribute to anxiety and depression. Some transplant recipients might feel that no one else can fully understand their experience. Transplant caregivers, too, have similar or higher rates of depression and anxiety when compared to caregivers in general.

“Resilience has been found to be vital for caregivers, and it is necessary that families have access to adequate resources and support,” Gulick said.

Mindfulness Can Lead to Acceptance

"Mindfulness" is a word we hear a lot, but these techniques are useful because they bring focus to the here-and-now and reduce the noise from unpleasant thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness incorporates a degree of acceptance; we are encouraged to fully experience our emotions and acknowledge their presence without dwelling on them or trying to change them.

Being mindful can be as simple as appreciating the warmth and texture of your morning oatmeal and thinking about the health benefits of a good breakfast. It also means acknowledging negative thoughts, but letting them pass by.

“It could be mindful awareness of another person in a conversation rather than focusing on what you would like to say, or focusing your awareness on how your body feels while brushing your teeth, showering, or washing your hands,” she said 

Individuals can incorporate goal setting into their daily lives by reflecting on their core values, Gulick said. What do I want my life to stand for? What kind of a person do I want to be? What kind of relationship do I want to have with others? The answers to these questions will help establish goals.

“For example, if a patient values being a good friend, a daily goal could include calling one friend each day to check in,” she said.