Quick Tips for Therapists

There Is No Time Like the Present

Part three of a six-part series on ACT processes

By Steven C. Hayes, PhD

Like all other creatures, humans live in the present. Without training, we are rarely there consciously.

Whenever there is a problem to be solved, we look backward for clues about how things came to be messed up and then forward to see where we’d rather be. The present becomes little more than a kind of ongoing Verizon commercial (“Are we there yet?”): a kind of placeholder that merely allows us to measure the discrepancy between where we are and where we want to be.

Clients come to us in that mode of mind. Attention is reflexively and rigidly focused on the past and future. The now is a mere placeholder. We cannot be in the now consciously until attentional processes are taken back from that problem-solving organ between our ears. To help a client do that, you need to read where they are.

How do you know a client is sometime else? You can sense it by the lack of vitality in the room. Present instances of behavior, feelings, or thoughts are missed. Fixation and/or distractibility are pervasive. The clients fails to notice details of the environment or changes in you (or notices these things compulsively). The past and future dominate as topics of discussion. Attention is not flexible, fluid, and voluntary.

When you see those reads, just stop. Ask your client to take three deep breaths, to feel the table, to smell their clothes, to focus on a sound, or to sense their heart pumping. Anything, provided that it is here and now. If attention wanders, just bring it back.

Take time to come into the present in session and help the client to see that the now is always here. After all, we live in the present. It is just that we are rarely there consciously.

Catching up on the series? Read part one, part two, part four, part five, or part six now.

Steven C. Hayes, PhD, is Nevada Foundation Professor in the department of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. An author of forty-one books and more than 575 scientific articles, he has shown in his research how language and thought leads to human suffering, and has developed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—a powerful therapy method that is useful in a wide variety of areas.

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Quick Tips for Therapists