How does Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) work?
What is ACT?
Is it possible for a therapy to not focus on reducing difficult thoughts and feelings but provide relief for many people anyway? The answer is yes - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based therapy that is scientific yet also places an importance on compassion, acceptance, and living in the present moment. It has been proven to help with depression, workplace stress, anxiety, trauma, OCD, substance use, and more.
The goal of ACT is to allow space for pain while living according to your values so that you can have a rich and meaningful life. Most therapies in the past have focused on challenging difficult thoughts/feelings and changing them from “negative” to “positive”. The ACT theory believes instead in acknowledging these experiences so you can better understand them and make a choice to live according to your values despite their presence. By increasing acceptance of the human suffering that is inevitable, psychological flexibility can also be increased. We as humans experience a full range of emotions including anger, hurt, sadness, anxiety, joy, compassion, and love – ACT tries to approach these emotions without any judgment.
What are the components of ACT?
There are six components that make up ACT:
1. Acceptance: Choosing to make room for your inner thoughts and feelings without trying to change them or push them away.
2. Cognitive defusion: The process of distancing yourself from your inner experiences and seeing thoughts as simply thoughts that come from your mind.
3. Self as context: Learning to observe your thoughts about yourself as separate from your actions.
4. Being present: Being mindful of the moment by moving attention away from thoughts and feelings.
5. Values: Living according to the important qualities in your life that motivate you.
6. Commitment: Choosing to change your behaviour to be more aligned with your values.
What are the benefits of ACT?
Increases psychological flexibility: Psychological flexibility is learning to accept your thoughts only when they are useful. By responding more thoughtfully to your inner experiences you can choose actions that lead to a meaningful life and are helpful to you in the long term.
Improves quality of life: Learning how you relate to your thoughts and feelings helps you to understand them. With consistent practice, ACT techniques can teach you to feel more in control of your life rather than feeling like your thoughts control you.
Is ACT similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)?
CBT has been around since the 1950s and is a well-known therapy. ACT, on the other hand, is considered a “third wave” therapy – therapies that use additional and alternative tools beyond the traditional ones. Both CBT and ACT are behaviour-based therapies, but how they approach inner thoughts is different. With CBT, you learn to identify and challenge destructive thoughts, while ACT states that by increasing acceptance of pain as a fact of life we can live more meaningfully.
What does ACT look like in session?
Here are some examples of techniques that might be used by an ACT therapist:
Naming a thought as it is and creating some distance from it. Ex. Changing “I’m too overwhelmed” to “I’m having the thought that I’m too overwhelmed.”
Learning to develop a relationship with the thoughts/feelings you struggle with rather than pushing them away or fighting them. Ex. Depression or anxiety
Practicing “dropping anchor” to ground yourself when a difficult thought or feeling is present. Ex. Stopping to take a few deep breaths, naming and noticing your thought.
Engaging in mindfulness exercises. Ex. Noticing the sensations while getting ready in the morning (taste of your toothpaste, the smell of your face wash, or the feel of hot water on your body in the shower).
Identifying the values that are important to the kind of person you want to be in life. Ex. Engaged, flexible, curious, kind, respectful, trustworthy.
Choosing how to act in a way that moves towards your values. Ex. Instead of getting into road rage, playing music that you like and practicing patience.
All therapeutic approaches have their benefits, and this depends on the individual and their unique needs. If you have any more questions about ACT, please feel free to reach out!