3: ACT therapy for teenagers

ACT therapy, or Acceptance Commitment Therapy, provides valuable skills for everyone. Skills to help you to live a life of meaning despite emotional turmoil and hardship. Dr Louise Hayes has made these skills more widely accessible through her model: DNA-V (© DNA-V, L. Hayes & J. Ciarrochi, www.thrivingadolescent.com). This model is easy to understand, and relatable, for children, teenagers, and adults. In this episode Louise introduces the DNA-V model, and provides an overview of the four core skills.

ACT Therapy for TeenagersLinks and further information:


Hello, we want to help people to thrive. One of the best tools I have found to do that, which can be practiced and applied in our daily life, is ACT, Acceptance Commitment Therapy. I detailed how the various aspects of ACT have helped me in the last episode. If you missed that, it’s at www.personalstrength.com.au/P2. This month, I am very excited to welcome Dr Louise Hayes to explore a developmental model of ACT, the DNA-V model (© DNA-V, L. Hayes & J. Ciarrochi, www.thrivingadolescent.com), in more depth. In this episode, we explore the main components of the DNA-V model, and in the next episode, we will delve deeper into the developmental, social, and evolutionary context around the DNA-V model.

I really love Louise’s work because she takes complex psychological theories, distils them into practical therapeutic approaches and makes them accessible, understandable and relatable. She's a PhD qualified clinical psychologist a senior fellow with the University of Melbourne a peer reviewed ACT trainer and an author. I love learning from Louise because she's fun. Her clinical experience means that she's seen these techniques in action and can provide relatable examples. Her research experience means she can explain what works and why it works. She also has really helpful books for professionals, teens, as well as videos and resources on her website. I’ll ask Louise to give you all the relevant links at the end of this episode. So let's get to the interview.

Interviewer (Nicky Weeks): OK so could you tell us a bit about the DNA-V model?

Louise Hayes: Sure, so DNA is a developmental model of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and even more deeply underneath that, evolutionary science. So it's a way of looking at the way in which humans grow and develop. That's part of our evolutionary adaptation in terms of how we grow and develop and looking at that alongside acceptance and commitment practises.

Interviewer: So, before we go too much further, what does DNA V stand for?

Louise Hayes: DNA-V each of the letters represents a different behaviour that a human can have and so D stands for Discoverer which is just a word we used to describe the behaviours of trial and error. So that's the behaviour if you think about a child of a child learning to stand up and fall down to walk. Or an adolescent using to develop a relationship with someone that they I'm interested in from a relationship perspective. To try and to fail. To ask someone out and get rejected and then to ask someone out again. And for adults it's about trying new things and learning things that we haven’t discovered before and being able to open up to curiosity and exploration. So that's the discoverer piece. And sometimes we are really good at it but sometimes we don't do new things and just do the same thing over again, even if we don't like that same thing.

But the Noticer is a word that we use just to describe a human ability to be aware of what goes on inside your body and what goes on outside you, to use that sensory and awareness of the world, which I think is really an important part of being a human. Sometimes I think we give cognitions too much of the credit and we forget how much of our information comes in through an embodied sense of being. So the noticer is a word just to describe that way of moving around in the world and includes feelings and being aware of yourself and aware of others.

And the Advisor is a word that we use to describe the way in which you give yourself advice. It's the behaviour that saves you from trial and error. So if you think of them as kind of opposites in a way. The discoverer is trial and error, standing up and falling down. The advisor saves you from doing that because you can say “I’m not very good at standing up, I won’t do that again.” And so it is just a word we used to describe how you live your life with language, and when we say language, we mean thinking and memories, and all of those things. And how you live your life, we mean thinking “Can I do this today? No I can't do that. Should I do this? What do I need to have for dinner? Do I need to answer all those emails? What might happen next year? What about what happened to me three years ago?” all of that stuff, which we kind of loosely describe as learning how to navigate your life with cognitions.

Interviewer: So Advisor sort of covers everything to do with language?

Louise Hayes: Yeah and then we use a really simple metaphor… Not everything to do with language actually, language is pretty much everywhere. It actually only covers language that we use to navigate to decide what to do. Because for example in noticing you might need to use language to say I'm angry or it’s a beautiful tree over there. So once you become language able there's no separation from language. So the advisor is particularly the behaviour of predicting and using what you had learned from the past to predict what will happen next. And the way that we describe it for a young person, I often describe it to a young person is something like “You know if you were in a school and you have a principal of the school, they have people that suggest to them what they should do and what they shouldn't do, like advisors. And if you're going to be a good principal or an effective principal, do you do everything all the advisors tell you?”

Interviewer: No, no, you would probably end up doing lots of contradictory things if you did that.

Louise Hayes: That's right, but do you do nothing that the advisors tell you?

Interviewer: No, probably not. You'd probably take bits and pieces on here and there.

Louise Hayes: That's right, so learning to be a human who thinks and works things out and believes things and has rules for themselves and problem solves and makes judgments is like that. Our job is to kind of step out of the thinking and look at it and say “What kind of advice am I getting myself? And how helpful is that?” and we could have called these processes any other behaviour but we called them Advisor, Noticer and Discoverer, and then there's the process of value in vitality. So those four processes, Advisor, Noticer, Discoverer, and Value in vitality, pretty much cover everything that human can do. And then we look at them in different ways we look at them as in how I see myself and how I look at other people.

Interviewer: OK so I'd like to hear a bit more about, you've talked a bit about value and vitality but just rounding that out. I always sort of saw the other three as working towards that component, but what's that relationship?

Louise Hayes: Well that's an interesting thing. I don't necessarily see the other three as working towards Value. We place value as your centre because it includes things that are essentially important to us as humans. Like we need other people, we need to be loved and cared for, we need to have things to do that bring joy, and sometimes we need to have things to do that are challenging and hard for us because that's how we grow. So value and vitality are sort of our centre and the DNA Discoverer, Noticer, and Advisor are behaviours that we can do that can help us get that, but not always, sometimes they just behaviours we do. So I tend not to use language like towards, only because I think these are behaviours that we have and what we want to do is strengthen them as much as we can. It is helpful to use them to build vitality and value but sometimes it's just helpful to build them as well, I think, there is kind of a debate going on about that behaviour.

Interviewer: OK and I believe that, my understanding is it's about how flexible you can be in each of those skills, that's sort of the important piece, right?

Louise Hayes: Yeah that's exactly right Nicole. So flexible in the way the way you give yourself advice for example your Advisor. Flexible means knowing that your thoughts are part of you but not all of you, and thoughts don't define you. And I find thoughts something really interesting because so many young people and adults, but a lot of young people, don't realise that their thoughts can be flexible. That if you think “I need to do this” that you don't really always have to follow that thought. And I find it really interesting particularly if you think about the way we use other awareness, you know the way that we can let you know an itchy foot come and go but we can't let a thought come and go. So I find that really interesting. Or the most interesting is how we can let a dream come and go but we can't let a thought in the daytime come and go. You know we can wake up in the morning and have the strangest of dreams, and be terrified, or be laughing about it, or whatever and let that go, but in the daytime we get stuck on some of that stuff.

Interviewer: Yeah, I think it can be quite liberating to realise that A) not all your thoughts are true, B) you don't have to do what they say, and C) they don't always reflect who you are either. They come and go, and some of them are quite contradictory to others. No one can really define you by your thoughts.

Louise Hayes: That's right and so they're sticky and we don't want to define ourselves by our thoughts either. And I think part of the reason that we do get stuck on them, is that thoughts are a pretty powerful evolutionary device. Our ability to use thinking and cognitions and speaking and whatever you want to call that whole thing and we call it language or verbal behaviour. Our ability to do that is essentially a survival skill. And the reason humans can have cars and houses is because we can communicate ideas in ways that a Chimpanzee can't, for example. And so that has got to be about survival. And that means by its very nature it's going to be focused on where the problems are, what might go wrong, what I should do about it, and to be constantly looking out for danger. If you think about it, way back when humans began developing language, we wouldn't have survived very long if we developed language just for thinking about sunshine and rainbows and unicorns, well we wouldn't have developed language at all. We would not have developed symbolic thinking if it was just to ponder. It has to be that survival. Therefore has to be about negative stuff. We label negative but in fact is just a process.

Interviewer: So from your experience working with young people how does DNA-V help them? What changes do you see?

Louise Hayes: Well, it's easily accessible approach and so what I see is it's easy for them to embrace the idea and to get the concepts that we're trying to learn but most importantly you know the most important thing I think with the work that I do with adolescents, is really it helps them know that they are normal, you know that the critical voice that they've got nagging away at them saying ‘you're an idiot, what did you say that for?’ you know, or the experience, the emotional rollercoaster that they've got going on, or the times that they tried things that didn't work out, they begin to see it’s normal. You know? That's what I really hope for, that they can walk away thinking that this is what it means to be a human, and it's OK, I don't have to hideaway and be a stranger to other people because I've got a thought like ‘I'm not very popular’. It's really difficult to do of course and I have a hope that maybe one day we'll have children who actually learn this very early on so they can really understand that your thoughts and feelings and actions are aligned, that you don't have to be embarrassed by the thing you said when you were 14 and if you are embarrassed you know what to do with it, but it doesn't become you.

Interviewer: Yeah, that can be hard to let go of even once you become an adult, the things you say that you wish you didn't say…

Louise Hayes: …and totally the things that you said when you were 14?! If I asked you to do an imagery exercise, you could still, I'm sure, bring up something of extreme embarrassment from that period.

Interviewer: So what sort of practical approaches do you give for getting beyond that, letting go of that?

Louise Hayes: Yeah, learning to be flexible with these four processes and really understanding them and normalising them, and then we give young people little experiments, little things: “try this out and see what happens…”, you know, try out what happens if you imagine going to school and looking at your classmates and seeing a thought bubble above their head and inside each one is their own piece of inner-criticism, and so you can look in the class and imagine everybody's got a thought bubble on their head and one might say ‘I'm not pretty enough’, another one might say ‘I'm not smart enough’, and another one might say ‘I'm not very popular’ and if you just look at the scan all those heads and see all those little thought bubbles, maybe that might help you carry your little thought bubbles too. And so we give people experiences like that. To actually go in the classroom and try it, see what happens. Lots and lots of little ways to experiment with our behaviour, and change things and see what happens. Don't do what I tell you, don't do what the books say, try something and learn from the experience.

Interviewer: I guess also, just as we can remember embarrassing things we said or did at 14, but we can't, I don't think I can remember what any of my friends did that was super embarassing and I would judge them by now, from when they were 14. We don't remember for other people do we? So everyone's got their own self-centric view, and they are not necessarily going to remember.

Louise Hayes: Yeah thinking about ourselves is what we do. And you're right I don't remember anything, either. Barely even remember other people when I was 14. But can remember every minute thing that I engaged in. And some people can't remember their adolescence at all, which is it which is OK, it just depends on the kind of experiences and skills that you have as a human and different ways you use your cognitions, but you're right, you're totally right, we are self-focused and we focus on ourselves and that get’s us stuck too.

Interviewer: Yeah, but remembering that others are doing the same can be helpful for letting go of your embarrassments. Because embarrassment is a social socially constructed thing it's what other people think of you.

Louise Hayes: Yeah what you do with what you think other people think of you.

Interviewer: Yes. Yes exactly. Yeah that's right. OK so I just want to talk bit about resilience. So when I say resilience, I'm meaning returning to healthy functioning after a difficult or upsetting event. Do you think building understanding capabilities in DNA-V could be helpful towards building resilience?

Louise Hayes: Absolutely. And the research the broader research on ACT shows that being able to return to healthy functioning after trauma or after a major life event or after hospitalisation, or after, you know anything that happens that’s significant, is actually very intimately linked to this ability. The ability to be more flexible about it. Some of the best research in ACT is in the areas of chronic pain, so that's helping people to return to life with their pain. When they can't get rid of it, when they're destined to have a life with physical pain, helping them learn how to live their life with the pain, and some great research on how effective it is. And I think that's one of the things that ACT is particularly good at is when you're in a position where there's nothing you can do, such as trauma or loss or chronic pain, there's nothing you could do to change that circumstance ACT is particularly good for helping people.

Interviewer: I guess that that flexibilty in the Noticer for chronic pain the flexibility in the Noticer would become extremely important. I remember one of the first ACT workshops that I went to Russ Harris did the exercise of focusing on something that was painful, or a memory that was painful, but then focusing on the trees or what you can hear or other things around you, and then just noticing that that pain is still there and then noticing other things. I remember that being really liberating because that tendency to get stuck on those feelings…

Louise Hayes: Absolutely, well what you're pointing to Nicole is that ACT is essentially an exposure based therapy and so it really all boils down to this: what we know is that we will tend to avoid things that cause us pain, and that works fine in the physical world, you know, I can avoid walking on hot rocks because they hurt my feet. I can avoid eating food that makes me feel nauseous. I could avoid a whole bunch of things in the physical world and so we take that same principle and we apply it to stuff inside our skin. So if I have something I don't like feeling inside me like sadness I'll try to avoid that. Where if I have thoughts like criticism I'll try to avoid that, and that doesn't work. And what it does, it makes it louder and stronger. And in a nutshell that's what it's really all about is that applying the same rules to things outside us does not work for inside us.

Interviewer: Yeah, so having that ability to notice all those things but not get stuck on them and not get stuck trying to avoid them either.

Louise Hayes: Yeah that's right so the stuff inside is normal and natural and when we try to move ourselves away from thoughts and feelings that are difficult they will get stronger.

Interviewer: Yeah and I think with digital devices now that's become a very easy way to distract yourself but it's not helpful in the long run.

Louise Hayes: No absolutely and you are right, digital devices save us from having to think too long. We can easily just turn our focus to something. There's always something there at the scroll of the thumb, and that can stop us and say listen that's another form of really another form trying to block out things inside us. Not that your phone is bad or our computers are bad, but it's bad if they are used for the purpose of making yourself not feel.

Interviewer: Yeah absolutely. So I like to have, in these podcasts, something practical that listeners can take away that's going to help them to thrive. So what would be your top tip I guess?

Louise Hayes: My top tip on something that's practical that could help you thrive is to spend part of the day being present. And what I mean by that is to take the smallest amount of time to, if you can do a little tiny mindfulness or small meditation, and I actually mean small. Just take the smallest amount of time, maybe a minute or two, to just pause and notice where you are and be here. And the more we do it the more it seems to happen, it kind of grows. You can begin with just a little bit and then you have more and more and I think being able to be here is really important skill, so that would be my top tip. And while I say that my Advisor is saying ‘well that's not profound enough. You need something more important’. [Laughs].

Interviewer: [Laughs] No, look it's small but I think it's life changing.

Louise Hayes: Well yeah, so the other parts of what I do, which is completely separate to ACT is relating to meditation and things like that and I think those things have changed my experience of the world significantly. So encouraging people to really be present and to slow down, even for small bits of time, I think it's really powerful.

Interviewer: Yeah, that's something that I build into my daily routine there's certain times when I try to remember to be mindful. So they are usually walks I really enjoy walking. So that might be walking to get the kids or walking the kids to school.

Louise Hayes: Yeah, absolutely, because our days are so busy, that we had those small pieces in noticing the world around you and particular the people around you.

Interviewer: Yeah absolutely. So I have learned so much from you today and in a couple of your workshops now and through your books and I just like to help our listeners to learn from you in as many ways as they can as well. So please tell us all about everything that you do.

Louise Hayes: OK so we have a new book called, so when I say we it's my coauthor Joseph Ciarrochi and I, we have a new book called ‘Your life, your way’ which is available everywhere. And that's a book written for young people that they could just pick up and read, not that we necessarily expect them to, but it makes it accessible for professionals and parents and teachers as well as young people. And there's also a couple of websites. So the the main website for DNA is dnav.international, and then there's my website louisehayes.com.au. So that is probably the easiest places, I run workshops and training and speaking and all sorts of things. The thing that I love the most I can't do, which is going to Nepal to run wonderful adventures trips, meditation trips, but there's a whole bunch of things that I do.

Interviewer: Yes, hopefully they'll come back sometime…

Louise Hayes: Maybe, it's OK.

Outro – Interviewer: I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to chat with Louise! This is only half of the interview. In the second half, we explore how the DNA-V model has been tailored to important developmental tasks, and Louise clarifies the self-view and social-view that apply to each of the four processes, Discoverer, Noticer, Advisor, and Vitality or values. I've learned so much from Louise over the years. I'll include a link to Louise’s websites and books in the show notes at www.personalstrength.com.au/p3, and that will have all the links that she mentioned. I've created a resilience course based on the DNA V model that I’ll also link to in the show notes. The online course is aimed at parents and other adults but you can work through the activities with your family and we run in-person resilience workshops for teens at Personal Strength. Those show notes again with all of those links are at www.personalstrength.com.au/p3. Thank you so much for listening. Please tune in next week to learn more about the self-view and social-view aspects of the DNA-V model.


Outro: Personal Strength is in Gordon on Sydney's North Shore. We run workshops and weekly sessions including personal training and group classes for children from four years old, teenagers and adults. We also have a range of E books and online courses available at www.personalstrength.com.au.


Nicky Weeks

Nicole Weeks is a PhD and Masters-qualified Psychologist. She has developed Communicating with Strength, and Resilience workshops to complement Personal Strength’s popular Women’s Self Defence Workshops and short courses. Her vision is that adults, children, and teens who attend the workshops will leave more confident and empowered to stand up for themselves and what matters to them everyday in friendship groups, with family, in school, work, and play.
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