Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): Principles and techniques
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Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
ACT is a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy that encourages psychological flexibility. This approach helps people accept what cannot be changed and commit to action where change is possible.
ACT challenges the notion that pain, stress, and negative thoughts or emotions are inherently bad and should be avoided. Instead, it proposes that trying to avoid or control distressing experiences actually leads to more pain, stress, and negativity. Acceptance, rather than control, is what can lead to committed change.
Acceptance and commitment therapy can be broken down into six principles:
- Cognitive defusion
- Connection to the present
- The Observing Self
- Clarified values
- Commitment to action
Cognitive defusion is the recognition that our thoughts, feelings, and memories are cognitive processes as opposed to truths to be believed. This may seem obvious, but most people do not interpret their thoughts as mere thoughts. Instead, they view them as moral failings, threats, orders, predictions, or objective truths.
Cognitive defusion reminds us that our thoughts are just thoughts. Instead of trusting them as the sole basis of our reality, we can accept them as part of a larger body of information and evidence upon which to make decisions.
Acceptance involves the mindfulness-based practice of observing one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior nonjudgmentally. It allows us to struggle with distressing thoughts, emotional pain, stress, and other unwanted experiences without labeling these experiences as “bad” or “wrong,” which can create even more distress.
With acceptance, you have permission to feel all of your feelings and to react accordingly. An acceptance approach rejects judgment so you can acknowledge and experience your feelings instead.
Cognitive defusion and acceptance are difficult if you are not grounded in the present moment. If you are reliving past experiences or worrying about the future, you are likely to react to present stressors in self-protective ways that may not be in line with your values. Only by connecting to the present moment will you have the power to choose how to act.
Connecting to the present can often overpower any unhelpful or unwanted thoughts or feelings that otherwise may be difficult to defuse or accept. The present is where we experience joy, delight, surprise, beauty, and inspiration. We’ve all had experiences, however fleeting, that were so engrossing that they brought us fully in the living, breathing present: breathtaking views, first kisses, game-winning shots, standing ovations, acceptance letters, job offers, promotions, and more.
But being present shouldn’t be reserved for surprises, milestones, or special occasions. Like any skill, connection to the present moment is something you can practice. Mindfulness offers tools to help people learn and practice living in the present moment.
To connect with the present, you first have to connect with the Observing Self.
The Observing Self is the concept that there are two parts of our consciousness: the part that experiences and the part that observes. We think, and we observe our thoughts. We feel, and we observe our feelings. The Observing Self is the place from which we are able to observe our thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally.
Another way to think about this principle is that your sense of self can be used as context to interpret your experiences. You are your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but you are also more than the sum of those parts. You can bring your sense of self as a tool to help you process your experiences instead of relying on your experiences to build your sense of self.
Values help us determine what is most important to us and how we want to live our lives. They inform the actions we take and the behaviors we choose to engage in. Before you decide what to do, you should first decide how you want to do it.
Keep in mind that values are not the same as goals. You may have dreams for your life, but how do you want to accomplish those dreams? Will you still be satisfied achieving your goals if you cheat, lie, or steal to reach them? Many people would say no, because such actions go against their values.
Now that you have identified your values, you can commit to actions that are in line with those values. Instead of being derailed by overwhelming thoughts or feelings, you have the tools to defuse your thoughts, accept your feelings, stay present, remember your values, and choose your actions and behaviors.
The goal of ACT is to create psychological flexibility, allowing people to accept what they cannot change while still taking committed action to change what is within their control. Here are some ACT techniques that can help you both accept and change your behavior:
- Clarify your values: Spend dedicated time determining what is most important to you and how you want to live your life.
- Identify your triggers: Try to identify the thoughts, feelings, and circumstances that make it difficult for you to make values-based decisions.
- Observe: When you identify your triggers, don’t judge yourself or go right into problem-solving. Instead, observe those thoughts from the place of the Observing Self.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can help you stay in the present moment.
- Remember to have self-compassion: Your behaviors won’t change overnight. These skills take practice. Have compassion for yourself, and offer yourself grace when you make mistakes.
The principles of ACT are similar to other therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In fact, ACT is considered a “third wave” approach that expands upon the original principles of cognitive behavioral therapy. Both therapies offer helpful ways people can engage with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, CBT and ACT are two separate therapies with meaningful differences.
CBT encourages people to evaluate and challenge any unhelpful or unwanted thoughts. ACT moves away from the attempt to eliminate or correct these experiences. Instead, ACT encourages people to live a meaningful and enjoyable life while also accepting the reality that pain is an inevitable aspect of human existence.
To create change, CBT relies on analysis and problem-solving, while ACT relies on observance and acceptance. People who undergo ACT learn to detach themselves from unhelpful thoughts or experiences instead of getting caught up in them or struggling against them.
ACT has been shown to help people struggling with a variety of mental health disorders, including:
ACT can help people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders learn to accept what is outside of their control while also taking committed action where change is possible. Click here to find an ACT counselor near you.
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