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Transcript: How Love Turns Pain into Purpose by Steven Hayes

Steven Hayes

The following is the transcript of psychologist Steven Hayes’ TEDx Talk: Psychological flexibility How Love Turns Pain into Purpose at TEDxUniversityofNevada.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Psychological flexibility – How love turns pain into purpose by Steven Hayes at TEDxUniversityofNevada


Life asks us questions. And probably one of the most important questions it asks us is, “What are you going to do about difficult thoughts and feelings?”

If you’re feeling ashamed or anxious, life just asked you a question. If you’re standing here about to give a TED talk and your mind is getting very chattery, what are you going to do about that? Good question.

And the answer to that question and ones like it say a lot about the trajectories of our lives whether or not they’re going to unfold in a positive way that moves towards prosperity, love, freedom, contribution, or downward, into pathology and despair.

And I’m here to make the argument that you have within you a great answer to that question or at least the seed of it. But, you also have this arrogant, storytelling, problem solving, analytic, judgmental mind between your ears that doesn’t have the answer and is constantly tempting you into taking the wrong direction.

My name is Steve Hayes and for the last 30 years, I and my colleagues have been studying a small set of psychological processes — fancy words for things people do — called psychological flexibility. It’s a set of answers to that question.

And in more than a thousand studies, we’ve shown that psychological flexibility predicts: are you going to develop a mental health problem anxiety, depression, trauma? If you have one it predicts, later on will you have two? It predicts how severe they are, how chronic they’ll be.

But, not just that, it predicts all kinds of other things that are important to us even though it’s not psychopathology. Such as, what kind of parent are you going to be? What kind of worker are you going to be? Can you step up to the behavioral challenges of physical disease? Can you stick to your exercise program? Everywhere that human minds go, psychological flexibility is relevant.

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And what I want to do in this talk is to walk you through the science of psychological flexibility, because we’ve learned how to change these processes in several hundred studies using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, but not just ACT, related methods that target flexibility we’ve shown that we can change it and when we change it, those life trajectories that are negative go positive with outcomes in all the areas that I just mentioned and many more.

So, I want to walk you through what the elements of psychological flexibility and what they are. And I’m going to take you back to a moment in my life 34 years ago where I first turned powerfully in their direction. Decades ago.

Thirty-four years ago at 2 in the morning on a brown and gold shag carpet with my body almost literally in this posture, and my mind for sure in this posture. I had for two to three years been spiraling down into the hell of panic disorder. It began in a horrific department meeting where I was forced to watch full professors fight in a way that only wild animals and full professors are capable of.

And all I wanted to do was to beg them to stop, but instead I had my first panic attack, and by the time they called on me, I couldn’t even make a sound come out of my mouth. And in the shock, and the horror, and embarrassment of that first and public panic attack, I did all of the logical, reasonable, sensible, and pathological things your mind tells you to do. I tried to run from anxiety; I tried to fight with anxiety; and I tried to hide from anxiety. I sat next to the door. I watched its coming. I argued my way out of it. I took the tranquilizers and as I did all those things, the panic attacks increased in frequency and in intensity. First at work, but then while traveling, and then in restaurants, and then in movie theaters, and then in elevators, and then on phone calls, and then in the safety of home, and finally even being awakened at two in the morning from a dead sleep already in a panic attack.

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But, this night on that brown and gold shag carpet, this night, as I watched with anxiety waves, my body’s sensations was different. This night was even more horrifying, but it was somehow satisfying, because I wasn’t having a panic attack. I was dying of a heart attack. I had all the evidence for it. I had the weight in the chest. I had the shooting pains down my arm. I was sweating profusely. My heart was racing and skipping beats wildly. And that same spider voice that came up and said, “You’ve got to run. You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to hide from anxiety,” was now telling me, “Make the call. You can’t drive in this condition. You’re dying. Call the emergency room. Call the ambulance. This is not a joke. Make the call.”

And yet, minute after minute went by and I didn’t make the call. And I had a sense of leaving my body and looking back at myself there and I imagined what would happen if I did make that call. Like a series of scenes, little snippets like in a movie trailer, like when you go to the theater for the upcoming film — I could hear the sound of the emergency responders coming up the stairs, the pounding on the thin hollow door, the ride in the ambulance, the tubes and wires, the concerned look on the faces of the nurses as I went into the emergency room, and then finally the last little snippet, the last little scene in this movie trailer, where I suddenly realized what this movie was going to be about.

And I looked at it and I said, “Oh, please, God, not that. Please, please.”

Because that final scene, lying on the gurney in the emergency room, here came a young doctor in my mind’s eye walking entirely too casually. And as he got close to me, I could see there was a smirk on his face, and I knew what was coming.

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He got close and he said, “Dr. Hayes, you’re not having a heart attack,” and then the smirk broadened, “You’re having a panic attack.” And I knew that was true. This was just another level down of hell.

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