Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) teaches mindfulness skills to help individuals live and behave in ways consistent with personal values while developing psychological flexibility. ACT has developed as a behavioral intervention to help people learn strategies to live life more in the present, more focused on important values and goals, and less focused on painful thoughts, feelings and experiences. ACT is not about overcoming pain or fighting emotions; it’s about embracing life and feeling everything it has to offer. It offers a way out of suffering by choosing to live a life based on what matters most.
ACT techniques can be applied to numerous life problems, including anxiety, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), substance abuse, chronic pain, psychosis, eating disorders and weight management.
History of ACT
For decades, researchers in the field of psychology have worked to develop science-based, time-limited interventions for people who wish to overcome mental health conditions. As a result, many people have had significant success in addressing and managing a range of concerns and experience greater well-being as a result. Still, long-term recovery and prevention of relapse remain significant as areas of potential difficulty for those seeking therapy for mental health conditions. Recently, new types of therapies, including ACT, have been developed in the hopes of increasing long-term success in the treatment of mental health conditions.
Understanding the Theory of ACT
ACT theory does not define unwanted emotional experiences as symptoms or problems. It instead works to address the tendency of some to view individuals who seek therapy as damaged or flawed and aims to help people realize the fullness and vitality of life. This fullness includes a wide spectrum of human experience, including the pain inevitably accompanying some situations.
Acceptance of things as they come, without evaluating or attempting to change them, is a skill developed through mindfulness exercises in and out of session. ACT does not attempt to directly change or stop unwanted thoughts or feelings (as cognitive behavioral therapy does) but instead encourages people to develop a new and compassionate relationship with those experiences. This shift can free people from difficulties attempting to control their experiences and help them become more open to actions consistent with their values, by values clarification.
Core Processes of ACT
Psychological flexibility, the main goal of ACT, can be defined simply as “the ability to be present, open up, and do what matters.” This typically comes about through several core processes, outlined below:
- Developing creative hopelessness involves exploring past attempts at solving or getting away from those difficulties bringing an individual to therapy. Through recognition of the workability or lack of workability of these attempts, ACT creates opportunity for individuals to act in a manner more consistent with what is most important to them.
- Accepting one’s emotional experience can be described as the process of learning to experience the range of human emotions with a kind, open, and accepting perspective.
- Choosing valued life directions is the process of defining what is most important in life and clarifying how one wishes to live life.
- Taking action may refer to one’s commitment to make changes and engage in behaviours moving one in the direction of what is most valued.
These processes are overlapping and interconnected, not separate. All of these processes are introduced and developed through direct experiences that are identified and taken part in by the person in therapy over the course of treatment.
Mindfulness and ACT
Mindfulness can be described as maintaining contact with the present moment rather than drifting off into automatic pilot. Mindfulness allows an individual to connect with the observing self, the part that is aware of but separate from the thinking self. Mindfulness techniques often help people increase awareness of each of the five senses as well as of their thoughts and emotions. ACT does not attempt to directly change or stop unwanted thoughts or feelings but instead encourages people to develop a new and compassionate relationship with those experiences.
Mindfulness also increases an individual’s ability to detach from thoughts. Challenges related to painful feelings, urges, or situations are often first reduced and then eventually accepted. Acceptance is the ability to allow internal and external experience to occur instead of fighting or avoiding the experience.
Values Clarification and ACT
Values clarification can help people define what is most important—their values, in other words—and take effective action guided by those values. A mental health professional will generally employ a variety of exercises to help those in therapy identify chosen values. These values often act as a compass in the direction of intentional and effective behavior.
Exploring painful emotions or overthinking an issue may interfere with one’s ability to choose purposeful and values-guided action. Through mindful liberation from this challenge, ACT can help people act more congruently with their values and live in a way that feels natural and fulfilling.
The Australian and New Zealand Association of Contextual Behavioral Science (ANZ ACBS) hosts a variety of ACT resources, available by clicking here.
Kristina Challands is a Brisbane-based psychologist and ACT Practitioner.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D. & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. The Guilford Press.
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